Poet, author, and civil engineer Richard Blanco visited St. Andrew’s on October 25 to meet and work with students and give a talk to the school community on his poetry and his life. Blanco was the inaugural poet at Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2012, and his memoir The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood was one of our all-school reads this past summer. Karen Paredes ’20 was instrumental in bringing Blanco to campus, and introduced his talk in Engelhard Hall with the following remarks:
Until I picked up Richard Blanco’s The Prince of Los Cocuyos, I did not know that a book could make you feel completely at home. The memoir appeared in my life at a time when I felt lost and unsure of myself. I was just beginning my sophomore year and was struggling with the fact that almost no one at boarding school seemed to share my experience as a Hispanic. I had come from New York, a city bustling with cultures that never ran short of a corner bodega and cars driving past with loud Spanish songs blasting from their speakers. To make the transition to Delaware, a very American and rural area, was difficult to say the least. My culture was nowhere to be found. So, I relied on my close friend Aliay [Chavez ’20], the only other Hispanic in my grade that understood what I was going through. Eventually, I learned to code-switch, a term meant to describe changing between two different cultures in order to assimilate. Still, in trying to integrate into a primarily white community, my desire to embrace my identity only increased. So, when Profe [Spanish teacher Dave Miller] decided to recommend a book that focused on a Cuban-American immigrant, I simply could not say no.
Page after page was like reading something out of my own life. I saw myself in Richard Blanco’s desire for his family to be more American in hopes to be more “normal”. At the same time, I also saw myself in his aspiration to embrace his Hispanic roots so that he could feel truly connected to his family. For once, my existential crisis at the ripe age of 15 felt normal because his struggle of being stuck between two cultures was exactly like my own. Even the little details like the mention of the Winn Dixie, a supermarket in Miami, in his book, brought me back to my own time living in that very area. How was it that I related to a stranger so much? The way in which Mr. Blanco articulated his life experiences made me feel comforted right when I needed it. As much as his experiences were similar to mine, he also opened my eyes to things I had never considered. He gave me insight into what it was like to an LGBT member of my community, something I was always somewhat aware of but never took the time to truly understand since it did not pertain to me. His memoir also provided me with an answer to what he would call an “identity crisis”. The question of “Where are you from?”, the focal point of my chapel talk last year, was answered. I did not need to acknowledge just one country, but instead both Colombia and the United States, as my answer because he made me realize that it was the cumulation of both that make me who I am today. His impact on my own life led me to want to share his work with all of you. His way with words and ability to draw you into his work will undoubtedly give you something to relate to. Still, while his experiences are so close to my own, I recognize that they are experiences you may not be entirely familiar with. That exact unfamiliarity is where people are able to learn from one another and provide perspective, just like I was able to get from his work. I hope this is able to do just a little bit of that for all of you. Welcome.
“Richard Blanco spoke with us about many topics, including how writing leads us to engage thoughtfully with the world,” said Dean of Studies Gretchen Hurtt after his visit. “‘Writers taste life twice,’ Blanco said in his talk. He feels that ‘one of the roles of a poet is to be an emotional historian,’ and he sees his work as a way to give back to his family and his country. He spoke about the importance of celebrating and honoring diversity, of connecting as human beings, and also the importance of having ‘cognitive diversity’—or in other words, a wide spectrum of knowledge. As an engineer and poet, he certainly embodies this.”
During the day on Friday, Blanco met with Spanish classes; with Creative Writing and English 1 students to discuss poems they had written; and with Engineering students, where he shared this thought: “You are all creators. The world doesn’t call you creative, but you’re building the Golden Gate Bridge. You’re building a hand that can allow someone to touch their child. You are in creative service to humanity, just in the way poets and artists are.”
“As Richard Blanco moved seamlessly from Casa Latina to poetry to engineering to Spanish classes to a meeting with our LGBTQ students, he was a living embodiment of how we want our students to learn, think, engage, and live in the world around us,” said Dean of Teaching & Learning Elizabeth Roach. “In each iteration, Blanco embraced the moment with our students, honoring their questions, imparting bits of wisdom, and telling stories. Our students—sitting in rapt attention—didn’t want these conversations to end. Throughout the day, Blanco celebrated the life of the mind, active engagement, and the ways in which we can achieve agency in our lives by writing, reflecting, and learning something new every day.”
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