Message 138, “Summer Poetry to Enlighten and Inspire: Richard Blanco and an Immigrant’s Voice”, 8-4-13blanco

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


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Imagine, for a moment, that you are an eight year old boy or girl, growing up like many youth, enjoying cartoons, playing action hero games, idolizing sports figures, attending school and living within a close-knit family and community.  On the surface, life is good.  But, for you and most of your friends, there is a darker life.

You live much of your life in fear.  You fear, more than most kids, standing out in school, being called to the principal’s office or being noticed as you walk, or ride in a car.  You fear getting sick or that someone in your family will get sick because a trip to the doctor or hospital invites the danger of too many questions.  “Who are you?”  “May we see your identification?”  You’ve been taught to avoid the police and firemen – any official in a uniform – even if you are a victim of crime or an emergency.  Your parents darkly warn you that the family could be broken up at any time – some could be taken away forever.

A favorite aunt of yours was stopped a year ago for driving with a broken tail light and you never saw her again.  You heard she was taken to a camp far from home where she was held in a stifling hot tent for many months, forced to wear pink underwear and pink clothing so she and others could be easily identified and, of course, humiliated.  She was often told to strip naked and throw her bedding and clothes into a large pile for burning – while she and others stood in long lines for showers, under the watchful eye of male guards, to ostensibly be cleaned of lice and bedbugs.  Such an event evoked images of long ago showers and even gas chambers, when hate signaled humanity gone mad.

Your aunt never spoke to an attorney and was only once in the presence of a judge, by way of video.  Along with many others, she was convicted of a misdemeanor, similar in severity to a speeding ticket.  She was found guilty of being in the nation without proper documentation and then deported from the land she loved.

For all practical purposes, you could be Jewish and living in Germany during the 1930’s and 40’s.  In truth, you live in America and it’s today – 2013.  You are an American – born here and entitled to all of the rights of any native born girl or boy.  Your parents are hard working, pay taxes and want only what millions of other parents want – to build a life for their children that is better than their own – a life in the case of your parents that is far better than the grinding poverty they experienced before.  But, besides being American, you also happen to be Latino or Asian or African.  You’re the American child of undocumented immigrants.  You live in one of many states in the nation where all of the above actually takes place even as I speak.

I ask you to find some place in your heart and soul that empathizes with and understands that child.  What if that was you?  What if you were born to such parents?  What if these were the circumstances you or your parents and family faced?  How would you feel?  How would you react?

My series this month is one that I have used the past three Augusts.  It’s a series on poetry that both enlightens and inspires.  I’ve chosen this month three poets well known in the world of poetry but who are not widely known outside that small community.  They write, like all poets, of love, life, pain and joy.  As good poets, they speak to a reader’s heart and mind – provoking new ways to think and feel.  The poets I’ve chosen write with layers of complex emotions and ideas that resonate deeply – often in unsettling ways.  Just as most Scriptures are poems that teach and inspire, so too are modern versions of the art – contemporary scriptures that are profound and worthy of spiritual exploration.

Today we’ll consider the poetry of Richard Blanco, a gay Cuban-American immigrant.  Next Sunday, we will look at the poetry of Rita Dove, a product of Miami University, who won the Pulitzer Prize for one of her poetry books.  As an African-American woman she writes of small moments in daily life that resonate across racial and ethnic lines.  In two weeks, we will read a poem by Jim Ferris, an award winning disabled poet who often writes of the pains and joys of his life.

For today, however, we look at Richard Blanco who uses his poetry to humanize the lives of immigrants, gays and lesbians.   His poems offer us a window to peer into these lives and thereby, hopefully, find something in common – something that is universal.

Blanco achieved some fame this past January when he became the first immigrant, the first openly gay man and the youngest person to serve as the poet at a President’s inauguration.  The poem he wrote and read on that day a few months ago, “One Today”, attempted with its simple verse to capture the sweeping nuances of life in America.  As he wrote, dawn’s light moves across our land, illuminating people of many backgrounds, professions, and abilities each living separate, different but ultimately American lives that are a part of who and what we are as a nation – one people, one life.

Blanco was born in Spain but conceived in communist Cuba.  His mother was in transit for only a month when she gave birth to Richard in Spain.  She and he stayed there only a bit longer before they reached her ultimate destination – the U.S.  Both have become naturalized citizens and Richard went on to earn a Civil Engineering degree which he still uses since.

Like many gay men, Blanco is close to his mother and she, like most moms, loves her son unconditionally even as she struggles with a socially conservative Cuban view of homosexuality.  Just after finishing reading his inaugural poem and shaking President Obama’s hand, Blanco turned to his mother and said, “Well mom, I guess we are finally Americans.”  It was a poignant statement for him and for so many whom he represents – not only immigrant sons and daughters but also gays and lesbians.  We’re all a part of the “One Today” of which he spoke.

He writes often of his mother in his poetry and I chose for today a poem that captures many of the feelings he has about her – and thus, many of his feelings about being an immigrant.  From Blanco’s acclaimed book City of a Hundred Fires comes this poem:



She scratches the oranges then smells the peel,

presses an avocado just enough to judge its ripeness,

polishes the Macintoshes searching for bruises.

She selects with hands that have thickened, fingers

that have swollen with history around the white gold

of a wedding ring she now wears as a widow.

Unlike the archived photos of young, slender digits

captive around black and white orange blossoms,

her spotted hands now reaching into the colors.

I see all the folklore of her childhood, the fields,

the fruit she once picked from the very tree,

the wiry roots she pulled out of the very ground.

And now, among the collapsed boxes of yuca,

through crumbling pyramids of golden mangoes,

she moves with the same instinct and skill.

This is how she survives death and her son,

on these humble duties that will never change,

on those habits of living which keep a life a life.

She holds up red grapes to ask me what I think,

and what I think is this, a new poem about her–

the grapes look like dusty rubies in her hands,

what I say is this: they look sweet, very sweet.


Blanco uses his poetry to express his feelings about his life – as a gay man and as a Cuban-American.   “Mother Picking Produce” captures, in the description of an ordinary moment in his mom’s life, many of the challenges of the immigrant – nostalgia for an old life, the hardships once endured, and the bright satisfaction of picking produce to buy, instead of picking produce as a low paid laborer working in the fields.  Blanco’s poem is touching and sad in its way: his mother has lost the flower of her youth, lost the vibrant folklore of her past, lost her husband and, perhaps, lost her dream of a son who is straight and gives her grandchildren.

Despite the underlying emotion of the poem, it also celebrates the quiet dignity in his mom.  She’s a humble woman, without self-pity.  With an eye for picking produce taught to her by generations before who toiled under a hot sun, she picks now at corner fruit stands or large grocery stores.  It’s an immigrant – but also American life – that Blanco describes: his mother’s life of stoic sacrifice, of persistent work, of being uprooted from a native land and planted in a new, of aging, of death and, yes, of a gay son.

Implicit in the poem is Blanco’s assertion of his mom’s humanity and American identity.  She’s the face of all moms in her sacrifice, service and love.  She’s the face of all Americans in their daily tasks – shopping, cooking, working, living.   In Blanco’s simple words detailing a simple task, we cannot help but empathize with and understand this mother – much like I asked us to do in my opening description of an immigrant child.

Such is the beauty of good poetry.  It asks us to consider, on a basic level, words and deeds that seem quite ordinary.  But, on a deeper level, we find in Blanco’s words something extraordinary in their simple gloss.  We find a humble human spirit full of the same dignity each of us possesses.  That reminds us of the natural rights of which I spoke in my messages last month:  all are equal, all are free, all have the right to happiness, all have intrinsic value because nature and nature’s god have seen fit to grant us life.

Through Richard Blanco’s words, his mom is no longer an immigrant woman, no longer a widow, no longer a loving mother of a gay son.  She’s my mom.  She’s yours.  She’s an American.  She’s a human being.  Indeed, in the love and pride that Blanco expresses for his mom, I feel the same for my mother – one who has been there for me all my life, but who is now moving into the twilight of hers.

And that, precisely, is the larger point I hope to make in my message today – and one that underlies Blanco’s poem.  Immigrants are people.  Immigrants are just like us.  Immigrants are not worthy of demeaning labels as “alien”, “illegal”, or worse.  No human should be labeled by such hateful words.  Our call is to understand, to empathize, to feel and to know the lives and experiences of others.  In doing so, we find not superficial differences that underscore our petty bigotry.  We find deeper similarities.  We find ourselves.

If we are, as Jesus and the Golden Rule asks of us, to love our fellow humans in the same way we love ourselves, then we have no choice.  We must love the immigrant.  We must show compassion.  We must honor and esteem them.  In doing so, we love ourselves and our own heritage.

Here in my hand I hold an old and tattered Bible – one that is at least one-hundred and sixty five years old.  It’s simple and small but it belonged to my great, great, great grandfather, Hugh Jones, who inscribed in it the date and place he likely obtained it – Montgomeryshire, North Wales, Great Britain, 1848.  His daughter and my great, great grandmother also inscribed in it her name and place – Lydia Jones, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1870.  Hugh immigrated here.  His daughter was a second generation immigrant daughter.  In my own similar, but unique way, I’m Richard Blanco in my immigrant heritage.  Lydia Jones is my ancestral immigrant mom.  I’m her gay son.

And all of you have your own immigrant family stories….

Whether we are six generations removed from being an immigrant, or ones of more recent status, we’ve found our piece of the American dream.  And, we have also contributed in big or small ways to the success of the nation.  It is an old but true fact that we are a nation of immigrants – unless we are Native-American.  We are a nation of mutts – so called cross breeds of many ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds.  On my mom’s side, I’m mostly English.  On my dad’s side, mostly German.  But, in truth, I’m all-American.

First and second generation immigrants are the fastest growing population group in the U.S.  There are over 36 million second generation immigrants in America – the citizen sons and daughters of first generation immigrants.  By 2050, they will account all of the growth in our working age numbers.  In the very near future, the United States will be a “Majority – Minority” nation  – one where the majority of people are members of a minority group.

But such numbers need not scare us.  Over 90% of second generation immigrants speak English as their primary language.  100% of third generation immigrants do.  The children and grandchildren of immigrants assimilate quickly and successfully.  36% of all second generation immigrants have college degrees – compared with 31% of all adults.  Second generation immigrants are less likely to live in poverty than other adults.  By a huge number, second generation immigrants tell pollsters they value hard work.  Immigrants and their sons and daughters are 27% more likely to start a business than are non-immigrants.  And their businesses succeed.  63% of all immigrant entrepreneurs earn at the top one-third of incomes compared with just 51% of all others.   Immigrants founded 40% of the Fortune 500 largest corporations in the U.S.  Sergey Brin, the founder of Google, is an immigrant.  So too is Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo.  Together, their companies have added millions of jobs and trillions of dollars to the U.S. economy.  The Social Security Administration estimates that the immigration reform law will add over $300 billion to that fund and, overall, immigrants will help reduce the Federal deficit by $685 billion through the payment of their fair share of taxes – if immigration reform is passed.

Immigrants epitomize what is called the “chutzpah” quality.  Those who are willing to risk it all and leave the only land and life they have known, such people have chutzpah – the kind of motivation, persistence, and work ethic that has made America.

Beyond their economic benefit to the nation, we are still called to show kindness and understanding to the immigrant.   That is a spiritual ethic.  Jesus pointedly praised the immigrants of his day – the Samaritans and non-Jews who were despised by the people of Palestine.  He implored his followers to show concern for them as he praised the immigrant attitude of charity over the self-righteous and bigoted sentiments of native born.  Indeed, Jesus and his parents, according the Bible story of his birth, were immigrants in Egypt when they fled the jealous and murderous King Herod.

In the Old Testament, the people of Palestine were reminded to show compassion to immigrants and foreigners.   They too, the Bible says, were once persecuted aliens in a strange land when all of Israel departed the drought devastated land of Palestine for the riches of Egypt.  How could they mistreat the immigrants of their day when their ancient ancestors had suffered as immigrants?

The same question must be asked of any of us.  Persecution of Italians, Hungarians, Germans, the Irish and many others is a historical fact in our nation’s history.  The term “illegal immigrant” was coined in 1892 when Congress passed laws banning all Jews and Eastern Europeans from entering the U.S.  Without a doubt, some of those same persecuted immigrants are a part of our own ancestral family trees.  If we are the products of those who had been mistreated, how can we do the same to the immigrants of today?  It is to our lasting shame – as humans, as spiritual people – if we do so.

My friends, I’ve used a simple poem to frame my discussion about the issue of immigration.  With our minds, we can read Richard Blanco’s spare words about picking bruised mangoes or ripe avocadoes.  But with our hearts, we can also read of an immigrant mom, proud, determined and yet sympathetic.  Great poetry can do that.  It can lead us to empathy and to deep understanding of the condition of others.  Those are spiritual endeavors and ones which we must practice in all aspects of life – in any situation, think about how the other person feels.  In the poem we read today, Richard Blanco makes a simple plea.  His immigrant mom is an Everymom, an All-American mom, and he is her gay, All-American son.

I wish you much peace and joy…