From Westchester to the White House: The ‘poet of the people’ wins National Humanities Medal
Richard Blanco couldn’t have written a better full circle moment.
Ten years ago, the Miami-raised poet stood on stage at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration and read his poem to the entire world. He was the nation’s fifth inaugural poet — following in the footsteps of literary giants Maya Angelou and Robert Frost — and became the first Latino and gay man to do so.
This week, he returns to Washington, D.C., this time with much less pressure. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden will award Blanco and other luminaries with the prestigious National Humanities Medal.
“Sometimes you look at your life and almost feel like it was scripted,” Blanco said over a video call, laughing. “I’ve always thought of myself as the poet of the people, right? That’s what I wanted to be, someone that makes poetry accessible, someone that can share the power of poetry.”
Blanco is a poet, educator, public speaker, civil engineer, Florida International University associate professor and author of several books, including his memoir, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood.” Throughout his literary career, he has been invited to write and read his poetry to reflect on moments in history, like a presidential inauguration, the Pulse nightclub shooting and the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Last year, he became Miami-Dade County’s first poet laureate.
The National Humanities Medal is awarded to individuals or groups that have “deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects,” according to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Up to 12 medals are awarded each year. Previous medal recipients include author James Patterson, chef José Andrés and journalist Joan Didion.
In its announcement, the NEH said Blanco was nominated for “breathing life into the identity and idea of America.” His storytelling “challenges the boundaries of culture, gender, and class while celebrating the promise of our Nation’s highest ideals,” the endowment said in a statement. Alongside Blanco, the latest medal recipients include “The Joy Luck Club” author Amy Tan, musician Elton John and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson.
“The National Humanities Medal recipients have enriched our world through writing that moves and inspires us; scholarship that enlarges our understanding of the past; and through their dedication to educating, informing, and giving voice to communities and histories often overlooked,” said NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe in a statement.
Receiving the medal was a deep honor, Blanco said. He is grateful for a larger platform to promote the arts at a time when Florida’s government has become increasingly hostile toward the humanities in academia and the LGBTQ community.
“This honor couldn’t come at a better time because I hope it gives me an even bigger platform to really push back, not just in Florida, but also [this is] happening all across the country,” Blanco said. “Without the humanities, it just seems like it would be a very, very sad world if our thinking was so one dimensional.”
The proverbial campfire
Blanco didn’t believe the good news at first. He thought it was a setup.
His assistant received an email about the honor, and when they looked it up on the NEH website, they saw a warning about scams. When he read through the names of previous award winners, he said he figured he couldn’t possibly be included in that list. But, he was.
“It just feels so special when I think back on this little working class kid being able to have this honor and also to be able to, as they say, pay it forward,” he said.
The medal aligns with Blanco’s life’s work as an artist, he said. He is passionate about bringing poetry to people, especially youth, who may not have access to it. Though many people may think that poetry is too lofty for them, just about everyone has a favorite poem, he said. As the county’s first poet laureate, he launched Miami’s Favorite Poems Project, which invites residents to share their favorite poetry and stories about their lives.
“It’s also a way of building community around the arts,” he said. “Because when you’re sharing your personal life, your story and your connection to art, it brings us together, right? It’s like this proverbial campfire.”
Blanco’s story is a testament to the importance of the humanities, he said. He never could have imagined where his poetry about the Cuban-American experience would take him.
He was born in Madrid, Spain, to Cuban exile parents who immigrated to the United States just 45 days later. In Miami, he grew up in a working class home in Westchester that prioritized survival, not the arts.
But, he said, growing up bilingual and translating for his Spanish-speaking parents instilled in him an appreciation for language. Deep down, he always knew the power of words. But it wasn’t until he was working as an engineer in his 20s when he picked up a pen to write his first poems.
Blanco never saw his creative pursuits at odds with his engineering career, he said. He took workshops at Miami Dade College and later applied to the MFA program at FIU while continuing to work as an engineer.
“I was an engineer by day, a poet by night,” he said. “As I always say, I realized I was a better engineer because I’m a poet and a better poet because I’m an engineer.”
The ‘poet statesman’
Blanco still finds creative inspiration in Miami. He co-wrote a Miami-inspired play, called “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas ” with Miami-based playwright Vanessa Garcia. His new book “Homeland of My Body” will come out in October. And a TV series based on his memoir about growing up in Miami is currently underway.
But there’s another calling as well.
“This idea of the poet statesman, like José Martí, has always been a space that I’d like to occupy,” Blanco said. “That sense of how poetry can make a difference in our lives in real time.”
In a time of rising attacks on the humanities and the overhaul of higher education in Florida, poetry is more relevant now than ever, Blanco said.
It’s easy for social and political issues to get abstracted and boiled down to buzzwords, he said. But poetry and the arts attach real faces, names and lives to these issues. The arts helps different people find common ground and think about controversial topics in new ways, Blanco said.
Poetry is also a threat to “those that want to limit the narrative” and “stifle real thinking,” he said. He spoke candidly on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ crackdown on Florida colleges and universities.
“The state of affairs in our state right now is just despicable,” he said. “Working at FIU, we are under such duress because of what’s happening in Tallahassee. We basically feel like our jobs are on the line.”
When asked how artists like himself can respond to this political moment, Blanco paused. Maybe the answer to that question can be found in a new arts project, he said.
“When times get difficult, poetry has a lot to offer,” Blanco said. “If the arts teach us anything, it’s empathy.”
This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.