Inaugural poet Richard Blanco recounts immigrant roots, growing up 'Brady' at BCC
PITTSFIELD — Richard Blanco is a storyteller that members of Berkshire Community College will remember for a long time.
Blanco, 48, gave an expressive and timely presentation recently titled, "Becoming an American: An Inaugural Poet's Journey," sharing anecdotes and poetry reflective of his own coming of age experience, arriving at age 44 to the stage of Barack Obama's second inauguration.
"It's been an emotional road to the podium," he told an audience of more than 100 people gathered Thursday in BCC's Robert Boland Theatre. "It began with the obsession with the identity of "home" and all that comes into play."
A spokeswoman from the 2013 inaugural committee told the New York Times that Obama picked Blanco to speak at his inauguration because the poet's "deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American."
Blanco's visit to the college was the culmination of a year-long BCC series, "Latino Americans: 500 Years of History," a program funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association.
Karen Carreras-Hubbard, BCC's coordinator of library services, said the college applied for funding for the project to educate students and the community about the diaspora of Latinos living in the Berkshires and the United States and to promote the idea that BCC is an inclusive place for all kinds of people.
"A lot of people think of Latino Americans as belonging to one big culture, but that's not the case at all," said Carreras-Hubbard, who is also a Cuban American.
"The idea of this program was inviting in and bringing together all of the Berkshire population to learn about each others' experiences. And that work doesn't end with the end of this grant," she said.
Carreras-Hubbard noted that many of the college's incoming students are immigrants or English language learners, or first-generation college students, who are trying to make sense of their own place within a higher education system.
And like the masses, Richard Blanco appears a man of many faces, many races, and many places, who also has many things to say about it all.
He is the fifth and youngest poet in U.S. history to read at a presidential inauguration.
He is an American son, conceived by Cuban parents, born and immigrant in Spain, raised in Miami, and currently a resident of Maine. He also is a civil engineer and an author. He is gay.
Growing up in Cuban culture he characterized by the eating of mangos and getting lost in or being humored by English-Spanish translations, Blanco spoke of coming to accept and love the colorful dynamics — the struggles and progress — of an immigrant family after initially perceiving the homogenous "Brady Bunch" lifestyle as the American Dream.
"My mother left her entire life family behind in Cuba ... and we could always sense the sense of longing and loss of that from my mother," he said, noting that she also deeply embraced being a part of the United States.
"Imagine loving a country as if you've lost one," Blanco said.
Those ideals, he said, are what prompted his love for engineering and poetry. As and engineer, he said, "I spent many years asking people to define what is home to them and translating that idea into brick and mortar." And as a poet, he said his practice is about "documenting the emotional representation of home and place."
Near or far, positive or negative, large or small, "you're going to remember that place where life happened," Blanco said.
Students from the Berkshire Community College's Project Link have spent the past semester studying and discussing Blanco's work through the college course preparatory program, while others in the audience heard Blanco's work for the first time. But Blanco's words seemed to resonate well with many.
During the Blanco forum, three Project Link students — Joshua Vanbilliard, Katrina Mullaney and Sara Fofana — and BCC visual and literary "Zine" co-editor, Daniel Raftery, each read poems, inspired by Blanco's work, about their perception of living united and finding common ground in today's society.
Vanbilliard said he relates to Blanco and his work in particular because Vanbilliard, like Blanco, was also raised in Florida and is an aspiring engineer. "I think his message is good for all us, and makes us all feel equal," he said.
Vanbilliard, who this spring will receive his high school diploma equivalency degree, read two poems in front of Blanco and the theater audience during his first public speaking experience.
Like other people who have been told that they couldn't achieve or who were made to feel like they don't belong, Vanbilliard said his semester studying Blanco and other works, with support from teachers, has finally set him, with confidence, on a positive pathway.
"I moved here in search of new experiences and found that it starts here, today," he said. "I finally see a future for me."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
inaugural poets, poems
January 20, 1961: Robert Frost read, "The Gift Outright" at the inaugural of John F. Kennedy.
January 20, 1993: Maya Angelou read, "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inaugural of Bill Clinton.
January 20, 1997: Miller Williams read, "Of History and Hope" at the inaugural of Bill Clinton.
January 20, 2009: Elizabeth Alexander read, "Praise Song for the Day" at the inaugural of Barack Obama.
January 21, 2013: Richard Blanco read, "One Today," at the inaugural of Barack Obama.
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