In the latest episode of Village Voice, Richard Blanco joins Jim and Margery to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, and share his Cuban-American experiences through the lens of poetry.
“That’s my life, every month is National Heritage Month!” Blanco jokes, “but it can’t hurt to take time to pause…” He went on to explain the history of Hispanic Heritage Month. “It started in 1968 with President Johnson… and September, I just learned, is the month of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain…”
Blanco reads a couple of his own poems to honor the occasion.Enjoy them, copied below, as they are read and discussed.
My grandmother was the bookie, set up
at the kitchen table that night, her hair
in curlers, pencil and pad jotting down
two-dollar bets, paying five-to-one
on which Miss would take the crown.
Abuelo put his money on Miss Wyoming—
She’s got great teeth, he pronounced as if
complimenting a horse, not her smile
filling the camera before she wisped away
like a cloud in her creamy chiffon dress.
I dug up enough change from the sofa
and car seats to bet on Miss Wisconsin,
thinking I was as American as she because
I was as blond as she was, and I knew
that’s where all the cheese came from.
That wasn’t all: chocolate was from Miss
Pennsylvania, the capital of Miss Montana
was Helena, Mount Rushmore was in
Miss South Dakota, and I knew how to say
Miss Con-nec-ti-cut, unlike my Tía Gloria
who just pointed at the tv:Esa—that one,
claiming she had her same figure before
leaving Cuba.It’s true . . . I have pictures,
she declared before cramming another
bocadito sandwich into her mouth
Papá refused to bet on any of the Misses
because Americanas all have skinny butts,
he complained.There’s nothing like a a big
culo cubano. Everyone agreed–es verded—
except for me and my little cousin Julito,
who apparently was a breast man at five,
reaching for Miss Alabama’s bosom
on the screen, the leggy multata sashaying
in pumps, swimsuit, seducing Tío Pedro
into picking her as the sure winner.
She’s the one! She looks Cubana, he swore,
and she did, but she cost him five bucks.
¡Conjones! he exploded as confetti rained,
Bret Parks leading Miss Ohio, the new
Miss America, by the hand to the runway.
Gloves up to her elbows, velvet down
to her feet, crying diamonds into her bouquet,
the queen of our country, our land of the free,
amid the purple mountains of her majesty
floating across the stage, our living room,
though no one bet on her, and none of us
–not even me–could answer Mamá
when she asked: ¿Dónde está Ohio?
(Click the Poem Title to watch Richard perform the poem.)
Although Tía Miriam boasted she discovered
at least half-a-dozen uses for peanut butter—
topping for guava shells in syrup,
butter substitute for Cuban toast,
hair conditioner and relaxer—
Mamá never knew what to make
of the monthly five-pound jars
handed out by the immigration department
until my friend, Jeff, mentioned jelly.
There was always pork though,
for every birthday and wedding,
whole ones on Christmas and New Year’s Eves,
even on Thanksgiving Day—pork,
fried, broiled or crispy skin roasted—
as well as cauldrons of black beans,
fried plantain chips and yuca con mojito.
These items required a special visit
to Antonio’s Mercado on the corner of 8th street
where men in guayaberas stood in senate
blaming Kennedy for everything—“Ese hijo de puta!”
the bile of Cuban coffee and cigar residue
filling the creases of their wrinkled lips;
clinging to one another’s lies of lost wealth,
ashamed and empty as hollow trees.
By seven I had grown suspicious—we were still here.
Overheard conversations about returning
had grown wistful and less frequent.
I spoke English; my parents didn’t.
We didn’t live in a two story house
with a maid or a wood panel station wagon
nor vacation camping in Colorado.
None of the girls had hair of gold;
none of my brothers or cousins
were named Greg, Peter, or Marcia;
we were not the Brady Bunch.
None of the black and white characters
on Donna Reed or on Dick Van Dyke Show
were named Guadalupe, Lázaro, or Mercedes.
Patty Duke’s family wasn’t like us either—
they didn’t have pork on Thanksgiving,
they ate turkey with cranberry sauce;
they didn’t have yuca, they had yams
like the dittos of Pilgrims I colored in class.
A week before Thanksgiving
I explained to my abuelita
about the Indians and the Mayflower,
how Lincoln set the slaves free;
I explained to my parents about
the purple mountain’s majesty,
“one if by land, two if by sea”
the cherry tree, the tea party,
the amber waves of grain,
the “masses yearning to be free”
liberty and justice for all, until
finally they agreed:
this Thanksgiving we would have turkey,
as well as pork.
Abuelita prepared the poor fowl
as if committing an act of treason,
faking her enthusiasm for my sake.
Mamà set a frozen pumpkin pie in the oven
and prepared candied yams following instructions
I translated from the marshmallow bag.
The table was arrayed with gladiolus,
the plattered turkey loomed at the center
on plastic silver from Woolworths.
Everyone sat in green velvet chairs
we had upholstered with clear vinyl,
except Tío Carlos and Toti, seated
in the folding chairs from the Salvation Army.
I uttered a bilingual blessing
and the turkey was passed around
like a game of Russian Roulette.
“DRY,” Tío Berto complained, and proceeded
to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings
and cranberry jelly—“esa mierda roja,” he called it.
Faces fell when Mamá presented her ochre pie—
pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.
Tía María made three rounds of Cuban coffee
then Abuelo and Pepe cleared the living room furniture,
put on a Celia Cruz LP and the entire family
began to merengue over the linoleum of our apartment,
sweating rum and coffee until they remembered—
it was 1970 and 46 degrees—
After repositioning the furniture,
an appropriate darkness filled the room.
Tío Berto was the last to leave.
This episode first aired on September 26th, 2022, on Boston Public Radio.
Image by Sydney Rae on @unsplash.com.