Richard Blanco on Cuba

Like many first-generation Cuban-Americans, poet Richard Blanco was always haunted by the idea of Cuba: the beloved island his parents fled, and would idealize forever after. But now that the country will once again be open to all, will it ever be able to live up to his dreams?

By the time I was 45 days old, I was a man of the world: I had lived in two cities on two continents and figuratively belonged to three countries—made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States. In 1967, my mother, pregnant with me, left Cuba with one suitcase packed with photographs, her wedding veil, and a jar of dirt from her yard. She said good-bye to a life and a country she thought she’d never see or know again; as did my father, holding my six-year-old brother in his arms and with the equivalent of 50 cents in his pocket. Days after I was born in Madrid, we emigrated again—to Manhattan, and then to Miami, where I was raised among a close-knit community of Cuban exiles.

I belong to a particular wave of Cuban migration—namely, those children of exiles from the 1960s and ’70s who were either born in the U.S. or arrived at an early age. A counterpart to Generation X, I am a member of the so-called Generation Ñ, a bicultural, bilingual negotiator between two real-yet-imagined worlds that came to permeate my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

One world was the 1950s Cuba of my parents, grandparents, and the larger exile community, a romantic, nostalgic view of Cuba that loomed large in my psyche. In family lore, that paraiso was so near and yet so far—there, sugar was sweeter; salt, saltier; the sun, warmer; the sea, bluer. It was a homeland I had never seen but tried to piece together from snippets of conversation at the dinner table about the palm-lined streets of the sugar-mill town where we were from; from my grandmother’s gossip at the beauty salon about her Communist sister; from my grandfather’s complaints that the mangoes in the United States weren’t as sweet as those in Cuba.

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