Son of Cuban exiles calls reciting poem at embassy opening his ‘easiest yet hardest’ job

Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco stands near a collage paying tribute to his Cuban relatives and heritage.

Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco stands near a collage paying tribute to his Cuban relatives and heritage.  (Curtesy Joyce Tenneson)

It would seem that, for a poet, nothing could top being asked to pen and then recite a poem for a presidential inauguration.

But for Richard Blanco, who got such an honor in 2013, when he read his poem “One Today” at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, Friday will bring an even more special, poignant milestone.

That is when Blanco, the son of Cuban immigrants who fled Fidel Castro’s regime, will be in Havana to read a poem he was asked by the Obama administration to write for the momentous reopening of the U.S. Embassy.

“This is just so core,” Blanco, 47, said in a telephone interview with Fox News Latino. “There is a real personal history. I’m so honored and so humbled and so elated. I’m in la-la land.”

Blanco’s parents were staunchly against Cuba’s communist government, the Castro regime and, like many Cuban exiles, opposed to any expression by the U.S. government of leniency or amiability toward them.

Poetry is about reaching for our common humanity. I had to tread very lightly, much like the inaugural poem. I knew I didn’t want a poem that was politically charged one way or the other. That is what political speeches are for.

- Richard Blanco, who wrote a poem about U.S. and Cuba he will read at U.S. flag-raising in Havana

He was born in Spain and grew up in Miami, which became home to the largest population of Cuban exiles in the world.

Blanco’s childhood Miami was a place where exiles, for well over a decade, spun visions of returning to Cuba. Erstwhile Miami was where many saw the U.S. embargo and the U.S. government’s refusal to engage in any kind of diplomacy with the regime as weapons that eventually would force their homeland to implement democratic reforms.

And as the decades passed with no reform, the Cold War policies were seen as crucial nonetheless — a symbol of the U.S. rejection of the regime.

Now, as Cuba and the United States keep taking steps toward restoring diplomatic relations, Blanco finds himself in the middle of one of the most visible and significant markers of this new era.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Friday, Blanco, who was planning to travel to Havana Thursday afternoon, is scheduled to read his one-page poem at the ceremony outside the re-established U.S. Embassy. Secretary of State John Kerry will formally reopen the embassy at the site of what until this year has been the U.S. Interests Section.

“It was the hardest and easiest poem I have had to write,” said Blanco, who first visited Cuba in 1984 and has been there six times.

“For the inauguration, I wrote three poems in three weeks,” he said.

The White House wanted him to write three poems for the inauguration, and they chose one.

Blanco was the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history—the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role.

He spent two months working on the one for the embassy reopening. He finally stopped working on it about a week ago because, he said, if he kept looking at it he would keep seeing things to change.

It was the easiest poem he has written because, he said, the inspiration to work on it was there, in every pore of his body.

“It’s something I’ve been writing all my life, in a way,” he said, “la búsqueda.” 

La búsqueda (“the quest”) — U.S. and Cuba finding each other, once again. Cubans on the island and those in the diaspora coming together, in new ways, once again.

But it was so incredibly hard – this was something so close to him, something so complex, so emotionally charged for him and for the people who would hear it on Friday, and long afterward.

It had to be, he knew, about relationships. Relationships between the Cuba and the United States. Between Cubans on the island, and those outside. And relationships among the different generations of Cuba.

The enormity of the task bestowed upon him hit hard in June when he was in Cuba – days after he learned that he'd been chosen to write a poem for the historic event – and walked near the building where the U.S. flag will be raised.

"I cried," Blanco said.

The poem, he decided early on, could not go into politics.

He is a poet.

“Poetry is about reaching for our common humanity,” Blanco said. “I had to tread very lightly, much like the inaugural poem. I knew I didn’t want a poem that was politically charged one way or the other. That is what political speeches are for.”

“I didn’t want to disrespect anybody,” he said. “I wanted to honor all our stories.”

And that means the stories of Cuban exiles, the stories of Cubans on the island, the stories of all of them, no matter what their ideology, Blanco said.

“So I ended up taking the idea of the 90 miles between these two countries — everyone always talks about ‘only 90 miles’ are between them,” he said. “It’s 90 miles that often might as well have been 9,000 miles. And all the lives that have been lost in those 90 miles. And then I had to take that invisible Berlin Wall and turn it poetically on its feet, and say that the sea that divides us is also the sea that joins us.”

“I thought of little vignettes that take us [Cubans in Cuba and those outside] on a human to human level — a mother is a mother, a father is a father, we all have our hopes and dreams, our failures and joys and triumphs,” he said.

Blanco’s father is deceased. His mother lives in Miami.

What does she think of Blanco’s role in the flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Havana?

“My mother is hard to read sometimes,” he said, laughing. “What surprised me after the announcement by President Obama in December [is that] I thought there’d be all this discussion” against it.

But his mother just said,“Well, we’ll see.”

“It really struck me, how things have changed,” Blanco said. “My mother has healed, she has found peace. She’s hopeful that change will happen for the good of the Cuban people.”

“She’s a little bit tired, she recognizes that change is inevitable,” Blanco said. “Miami has evolved, the same way that Cuba has evolved. It’s not just Cubans, it’s a pattern of human nature.”

Adopting a different outlook, Blanco said, is not about dismissing the long-time pain and disagreements when it comes to Cuba.

“It’s not about forgetting history, or disrespecting people’s experiences and stories,” he said. “I honor and respect my mother’s stories, and those of my grandparents. They were very real, and very valid."

"But we can’t look at [diplomatic relations] as someone winning and someone losing," Blanco said. "It’s looking at the larger picture. We can’t fight forever. It’s an emotional truce. We’re not going to sit in the same room for another 50 years without talking to each other.”

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.