Thanksgiving bridges cultures, but it's not always pretty

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Remember Richard Blanco, the poet for President Obama's second inaugural? He's Cuban-American. Blanco came to the US as an infant with his Cuban exile family. Much of his poetry is playful, and he says it often asks questions like 'What is home?' and 'What is belonging?'

Richard Blanco: I was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported into the United States. My mom left 7 months pregnant from Cuba, I was born in Spain, and 45 days later we emigrated to the United States, so my newborn pictures are, actually, my green card photo. And if that wasn't sort of, some kind of fateful, thematic element from my life I'm not sure what was.

Marco Werman: So there's a poem of yours called "América" It's perfect for this time of year and we'd like to read a bit of it. Can you launch us off on this poem, "America?"

Richard Blanco: Sure. 'A week before Thanksgiving I explained it to my abuelita about the Indians and the Mayflower. How Lincoln set the slaves free. I explained to my parents about the purple mountains majesty. One if by land, two if by sea. The cherry tree. The Tea Party. The amber waves of grain. the masses yearning to be free. Liberty and Justice for all, until finally they agreed this Thanksgiving we would have turkey as well as pork.'

Marco Werman: Ok, so let me stop you there because turkey versus pork, this kind of emerges as a theme I hear. Kind of a major smack-down in some of your poems. Is this face-off really a big deal for Cuban-Americans or Latinos on Thanksgiving?

Richard Blanco: Well, yeah, I mean, this is one of those memories in my life that, it's really the child's yearning to sort of have this authentic, sort of American Thanksgiving experience. it's just one of those instances where, you know, there's a, adopted tradition but we don't know quite how to handle it. Like my mother calls it 'San Giving' in 'San Pedro' or 'San Ignacio.' So in Miami, Thanksgiving is a saint's day. So, but it really has deal with those sort of cultural yearnings and negotiations - trying to find that line between the two.

Marco Werman: All right, take us to this verse in "América" that starts with 'Abuelita, prepare the poor foul' because that's kind of the next course in this meal of yours.

Richard Blanco: 'Abuelita prepared the poor fowl as if committing an act of treason, faking her enthusiasm for my sake. Mama set a frozen pumpkin pie in the oven and prepared candied yams following instructions I had to translate from a marshmallow bag. The table was arrayed with gladiorlas, the plattered turkey loomed at the center on plastic silver from Woolworth's. Everyone sat in green velvet chairs we had upholstered with clear vinyl, except Jo Carlos and Toti, seated in the folding chairs from the Salvation Army. I uttered a bilingual blessing, and the turkey was passed around like a game of Russian Roulette. "Dry!" Tio Betto complained, and proceeded to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings and cranberry jelly. 'Esa mierda roja!" as he called it. Faces fell when Mama presented her pumpkin pie. Pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.'

Marco Werman: So, the turkey's too dry, the solution is 'add some pork.'

Richard Blanco: Add some pork fat on there.

Marco Werman: So did your mom every make a turkey she was happy with?

Richard Blanco: I don't think so. Even last Thanksgiving as I was leaving my mom's house, she pulls out a pork roast out of the oven and I asked her 'why do you have that? Why did you make that?' and she said 'Just in case.' But I think it was like she was afraid of messing up the turkey because something that Cubans, it's not really a staple of Cuban food that's for sure.

Marco Werman: So true. Well, if you would, please, Richard, give us the last four lines of "América" describing the final hours of Thanksgiving day in your household.

Richard Blanco: Sure. 'Tia Maria made three rounds of Cuban coffee. Then Abuelo and Pepe cleared the living room furniture, but on an Ocelia Cruz LP, and the entire family began to merengue over the linoleum of our apartment, sweating rum and coffee until they remembered it was 1970 and 46 degrees in América. After re-positioning the furniture, an appropriate darkness filled the room. Tio Berto was the last to leave.'

Marco Werman: Wow, that's beautiful. And refreshingly no mention of tryptophan and naps in front of football on the TV so we'll go out with some merengue from Ocelia Cruz, why not. Richard Blanco, his new book just out, it's entitled "For All of Us, One Today." Richard Blanco, the 2014 inaugural poet, thank you very much for your time, great to speak with you.

Richard Blanco: Thank you.


Werman: Azuca! From Bill Harris studios at WGBH in Boston, I'm Marco Werman. Follow me on twitter @MarcoMerman. We're back tomorrow.