The Inaugural Poet
RICHARD BLANCO HID HIS NERVES well the morning of inauguration day as he stepped to the podium to read his poem, “One Today,” to a live crowd of hundreds of thousands, with millions more watching on TV. In that moment, no one present was more important than Richard’s own mother, Geysa. “I was very nervous,” he explains. “I had decided that having her right there near me would help me to be calm."
In fact, Geysa’s presence at Richard’s side that day as he made his public debut as a rising literary star was fitting on more levels than one. She has had a tremendous impact on his life—through the sacrifices she and her late husband made for his education, the example she set by overcoming hardship in her own life, and the infusion of her own rich cultural heritage into Richard’s consciousness.
Richard’s parents fled communist Cuba in 1968 for Spain, where Richard was born and the family lived briefly before coming to the United States and settling in Miami. Geysa, who in Cuba had a doctorate in education, went to work as a cashier while her husband cut sugar cane so they could put their children through private school and college. “They paid for every book, every pencil,” Richard remembers. “We even went without air conditioning in the summer to save up the money. They were determined to give us an education, period.” Even after Geysa’s husband passed away when Richard was 20, she continued to work long hours to provide everything she could. Along the way, she had moved up from grocery cashier to bank teller, a job she has held now for 30 years.
Other sacrifices the Blancos made cut even deeper. When they fled Cuba, they left behind everyone and everything they knew. “My heart was divided,” Geysa remembers. But she made sure her son always knew his family’s roots. “I never worried about that, even though he was born after we left, because I knew I would always show him where we came from: the culture, the people, and the language.”
Richard grew up deeply aware of his mother’s melancholy over losing the home, the family, and the friends she left behind. It became a frequent theme in his writing. “I could always feel that sense of sorrow that she has carried in her heart, but at the same time a courage and triumph that she could come out the other end of all this with such incredible resilience,” he says. “The love that she carried is amazing. She is one of my greatest heroes.”
In college, Richard held many interests, but he pursued a degree in engineering rather than writing because it seemed more stable and responsible. “When you grow up in the atmosphere that I did, seeing so much struggle and sacrifice, you have to have a plan B,” he says. He graduated and began a successful engineering career but eventually went back to school at night to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing, though even then, he says, he was doing it “mostly just for fun, just for myself.” A prestigious prize for his first poetry collection, followed by opportunities to teach writing, were the first tangible signs that this could become a viable career.
Then came the call from the White House that he had been chosen to write and read an original poem for the inauguration. Richard says he does not know who submitted his name for consideration, and it’s hard to say who was more surprised by the honor—Richard or Geysa. “I noticed that he was a very talented writer,” she says, “but I still thought it was just a hobby. I certainly never thought a regular mother coming from Cuba was going to be standing and sharing with the President this moment with my son.” She couldn’t have been prouder—of her son and, in a way, herself, knowing that all the suffering and struggles she went through raising her children had somehow contributed to this outstanding turn of events. Undoubtedly, it had instilled in Richard the audacity to reach high to achieve his goals.
Clearest of all was that a mother’s dreams for her son to know and respect his Cuban roots along with his American upbringing had been fulfilled. In fact, in myriad ways the stories of Richard’s life—as the first Hispanic chosen to be the inaugural poet, the youngest, and the first openly gay man—culminated in a poem that emphasizes common humanity throughout cultures and across boundaries with beauty and grace.
GEYSA BLANCO is a Regions associate in Miami.
Full Text of Richard Blanco’s "One Today"
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello| shalom,
buon giorno |howdy |namaste |or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together