It’s said that every writer spends his or her entire life working on a single poem or one story. Figuratively, of course, this means that writers are each possessed by a certain obsession. As such, their entire body of work, in one way or another, is generally an attempt to dimension some part of that obsession, ask questions about it, answer them and then ask many new questions.
But — writer or not — I think that’s true of any life; we all have an obsession that permeates and shapes our lives. In my case, my life is my art, and my art is my life — one in the same — and my personal and artistic obsession comes down to a single word, one question: What is home? And all that word calls to mind with respect to family, community, place, culture and national loyalties. A word, a universal question that we all ask ourselves, especially in a country like the United States, home to so many peoples and cultures.
My obsession began long before I was a writer, perhaps before I was even born. Let me explain. As I like to say, tongue-in-cheek: I was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States, meaning that my mother left Cuba in 1967 seven months pregnant with me (my soul is Cuban, I claim); she boarded a flight to Spain with one suitcase, my father and my 6-year-old brother in her arms. Shortly after I was born in Madrid, we emigrated once again to the United States — Manhattan.
In one of the images I share here, to the right, is a memento (un recordatorio) of my birth. It shows that by the time I was 45 days old, I figuratively belonged to three countries and had lived in two world-class cities. Adding to my confusion, for reasons I don’t understand, there are also images of the Eiffel Tower and the Swiss Alps! The photo shown in the memento is my first newborn photo, which is also the photo of my green card — my first ID in the United States. I was a “man of the world” before I could even walk. Before I even learned to say my first word, I was subconsciously asking those questions that would obsess me all my life and work: Where am I from? Where is home? Where do I belong?
Adding to my obsession, in 1972 we moved to a galaxy far, far away: Miami, where I grew up between two imagined worlds. One world was the 1950s and ’60s Cuba of my parents and grandparents — that paradise, that homeland so near and yet so foreign to where we might return any day, according to my parents. A homeland that I had never seen.
The other, less obvious world was America. To paraphrase Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Liz Balmaseda: “We love living in Miami because it’s so close to the United States — and you don’t need a passport.” And indeed, I grew up in a very undiverse community. Everybody was Cuban, from the grocer to the mayor, the gardener to the doctor. Typical of a child, I contextualized America through food, commercials, G-rated versions of our history in textbooks and television shows, especially The Brady Bunch. More than a fiction or fantasy, I truly believed that, just north of the Miami-Dade County line, every house was like the Brady house, and every family was like them. I longed to be a “real” American like Peter Brady (or Marsha Brady, given my burgeoning homosexuality!).
I sense there is a general misconception that children of immigrants and exiles embrace their given culture and heritage since childhood. For me, at least, that wasn’t the case; there was an initial rejection of my cubanidad due to a generational and linguistic divide. Whatever my parents and grandparents liked was immediate grounds for rejection. They listened to salsa, I listened to AC/DC; they spoke Spanish, my brother and I insisted on English. And this is how I spent most of childhood and adolescence until I was mature enough — in my early 20s — to let those questions that had subconsciously lingered in me surface: Where am I from? Where is home? Where do I belong?
That’s when I started writing, and the full onset of my obsession began. Through my poetry, I came out of my Cuban closet and retraced my childhood, going over the fine details of all that I had questioned my whole life. As author Anaïs Nin noted: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” I certainly did.
In that reconnaissance of my culture, I eventually returned to Cuba for the first time. I say “returned” because in my mind it was like returning to everything I felt I had somehow known all my life, from the years of letters from my relatives that my mother would read aloud to me, from the black-and-white photos of cousins that looked like me, from all the family folklore and gossip I had heard. It all came to life the moment I stepped off the plane, as if I had lived on the island all my life. But I hadn’t.
The experience of visiting Cuba filled in many blanks in my life, but only half my life. I soon realized — as we all do when we travel — that I was as American as I was Cuban. And despite any yearnings to return to live in the “homeland,” I might as well been an immigrant from the 19th century who couldn’t physically or psychologically return to the mother county. Since that first trip, I have returned many times to Cuba, and each time I learned a little more about who I am as a Cuban and, ironically, who I am as an American. I look forward to the new relationships on the horizon between Cuba and the United States. Maybe someday it will all merge into a hybrid that suits who I am.
After my visits to Cuba, I said to myself: “Well, let’s finally go and live in America.” I left Miami for my first creative writing professorship, at Central Connecticut State University in Hartford. “Oh boy,” I thought, still clinging to my romanticized version of America epitomized by New England: sleigh rides in the snow singing “Jingle Bells” (“in a one horse hope and say?”); Brady Bunch houses with chimneys exhaling curlicues of smoke; pilgrims in gold-buckled shoes; me and Martha Stewart doing arts and crafts in Westport every week.
What was I thinking? Well, I was still clinging to my romanticized/commercialized sense of the America I “knew,” still wanting to be that “true” American. Of course, that fantasy soon flattened out into reality. Now what? Neither of my two imaginary worlds — Cuba or America — had proven to be true. So I caught the travel bug and decided to explore the world with my same obsession: Where am I from? Where is home? Where do I belong? Was it Venice, Paris or Madrid where I was born? It soon dawned on me what Pascal noted: “The sole cause of a man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” What was that “room” that I had left?
My answer was Miami. I figured it was the only place I belonged — or belonged to me. That city — just like I found myself — was caught between the two imaginary worlds I knew so well; that city understood me. And so I moved back there after nearly 14 years away, expecting that nothing had changed because no one had asked my permission. But it had. Sadly, it was no longer the city where I grew up or the city I left as an adult. Gladly, it had become a beautiful, dynamic city nonetheless, but not the one I had expected. The experience spoke to me of the old adage: You can never come back home. Now what?
Naturally, I moved to Bethel, Maine (insert sarcasm here), at the other end of I-95 — the northern-most state, as far away as I could get from Miami. The move wasn’t made entirely on purpose — there was a practical reason: My husband, Mark, had a great business opportunity there. And I thought: “What the hell — why not?” Secretly, though, I was still wishing for that ever-illusive Brady Bunch house that I hoped I might find there. I didn’t. But in Maine, I settled into a certain peace, believing that all my life I would feel like un desterado — a banished man without land, earth. I had almost accepted that — then the White House called and asked me to write a poem about America for President Obama’s second inauguration.
Wow. Suddenly all those questions about home and place and belonging surfaced again. How could I write a poem for a country that I wasn’t sure I belong to? I wasn’t really American, was I? It wasn’t only a creative challenge, but an emotional, cultural and spiritual one, as well. In retrospect, I understand that the inaugural poem I wrote, “One Today,” was infused with all my longing for, and my obsession with, the idea of home.
While sitting on the platform next to my mother, waiting to be called up to the podium to read my poem to the entire nation, I turned to her and said: “Well, I guess we are finally americanos.” She gave me a gentle smile as if saying, I know, I know. For the first time in my life I knew I had a place at the American table. I had found my place. The greatest gift of the whole experience was to realize that I was home all along — home was in my own backyard, so to speak.
I spoke the first line of the poem, “One sun rose on us today,” and I understood that “us” meant my story, the story of my mother (who grew up in a dirt-floor home in Cuba) and the stories of all the 800,000 people present before me, as well as the millions of lives I was indirectly representing. We were — and always will be — a grand part of the grand American narrative, a narrative that is still being written. America is a work-in-progress — ever changing and fluid — and we need to rework the rhetoric, the conversation, because from its very inception our nation has been about immigration and immigrants, who are not a drain on us, but the essence of who we are and our very survival economically, politically, culturally and — most importantly — spiritually.
Richard Blanco and Michel Martin will head to Miami next week to hear more about how immigration is shaping the American story. Michel will host an event there in partnership with member station WLRN.