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Analysis of Poem 'America' by Richard Blanco

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco and a Summary of 'America'

'America' is Richard Blanco's free verse poem that focuses on cultural identity, family bonds and Thanksgiving Day. It contains some Spanish words and phrases, reflecting the poet's Cuban blood ties.

  • The poem explores the idea of what it is to be American when you're born elsewhere and raised in a different cultural environment. Food is prominent in the poem, a Thanksgiving Day meal highlighting the importance of a shared heritage.
  • The poem is the story of the Thanksgiving Day meal, recording family reactions of those older members who have Cuban roots, to the specific foods on offer, as seen through the eyes of a speaker who is growing up as an American.

Blanco takes his time introducing the reader to a first-person speaker—the first two stanzas describe uses for peanut butter and pork, and where to purchase the latter—himself as child assimilating to a new American culture.

He is the one translating for the older non-English-speaking family members; he is the one observing the reactions of relatives unused to 'the American way' of celebrating special occasions.

Eventually, he manages to persuade them to eat turkey as well as pork (their old world favourite), having given them a potted history of Thanksgiving Day and other important events and people they might not know of.

The poet explains:

'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 . . . 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.'

An American Dream, A Cuban Soul: Poet Richard Blanco Finds 'Home' : NPR

First published in City of a Hundred Fires (University of Pittsburgh press, 1998) 'America' is a reflective, straightforward poem, part-biographical, part-political, bringing together two cultures in a domestic setting where family ties are all important.

According to Blanco:

'Part of my motivation in writing …. is, in some way, to attempt some sort of healing for my parents,.... If I understood them, if I documented what their lives were about, then their lives wouldn’t have been in vain.'

Poems to change the world | Lesley University

It was this harmonising quality in his work that resulted in an invitation to read his poem 'One Today' at Barack Obama's second inauguration on January 21, 2013. He went on to say that, having read for the President and the nation, he now felt truly at home in the USA.

On poetry generally he suggests:

'Our spoken voices are musical instruments that bring about change in the poems. They are built from a strong emotional center and there are many elements that make for a memorable poem. For me, it’s got to have a soul, where you understand the very marrow of a poet’s feelings, what they have at stake. It makes us realize our experience as a human being and it imprints on us. It paves the way for transformation and transubstantiation that involves our entire body and being.'

'Richard Blanco Pulls Poetic Inspiration from Photographs' (mainemedia.edu)

Born in Madrid in 1968 to a Cuban family, Blanco has said his poetry is 'narrating the triumph of the human spirit'—essentially attempting to answer the universal question of belonging and rooted identity with positivity and bridge-building.

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Read More From Owlcation

'My poetry and I are not exclusively aligned with any one particular group—Latino, Cuban, queer, or "white." Though I embrace and respect each one, I prefer wading in the middle where I can examine and question all sides of all "stories."'

Richard Blanco (poetrysociety.org)

'America' by Richard Blanco

I.
Although Tía Miriam boasted she discovered
at least half a dozen uses for peanut butter—
topping for guava shells in syrup,
butter substitute for Cuban toast,
hair conditioner and relaxer—
Mamá never knew what to make
of the monthly five-pound jars
handed out by the immigration department
until my friend, Jeff, mentioned jelly.

II.
There was always pork though,
for every birthday and wedding,
whole ones on Christmas and New Year’s Eve,
even on Thanksgiving day—pork,
fried, broiled, or crispy skin roasted—
as well as cauldrons of black beans,
fried plantain chips, and yuca con mojito.
These items required a special visit
to Antonio’s Mercado on the corner of Eighth Street
where men in guayaberas stood in senate
blaming Kennedy for everything—“Ese hijo de puta!”
the bile of Cuban coffee and cigar residue
filling the creases of their wrinkled lips;
clinging to one another’s lies of lost wealth,
ashamed and empty as hollow trees.

III.
By seven I had grown suspicious—we were still here.
Overheard conversations about returning
had grown wistful and less frequent.
I spoke English; my parents didn’t.
We didn’t live in a two-story house
with a maid or a wood-panel station wagon
nor vacation camping in Colorado.
None of the girls had hair of gold;
none of my brothers or cousins
were named Greg, Peter, or Marcia;
we were not the Brady Bunch.
None of the black and white characters
on Donna Reed or on the Dick Van Dyke Show
were named Guadalupe, Lázaro, or Mercedes.
Patty Duke’s family wasn’t like us either—
they didn’t have pork on Thanksgiving,
they ate turkey with cranberry sauce;
they didn’t have yuca, they had yams
like the dittos of Pilgrims I colored in class.

IV.
A week before Thanksgiving
I explained to my abuelita
about the Indians and the Mayflower,
how Lincoln set the slaves free;
I explained to my parents about
the purple mountain’s 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.

V.
Abuelita prepared the poor fowl
as if committing an act of treason,
faking her enthusiasm for my sake.
Mamá set a frozen pumpkin pie in the oven
and prepared candied yams following instructions
I translated from the marshmallow bag.
The table was arrayed with gladiolas,
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 Tío 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,” Tío Berto complained, and proceeded
to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings
and cranberry jelly—“esa mierda roja,” he called it.
Faces fell when Mamá presented her ochre pie—
pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.
Tía María made three rounds of Cuban coffee
then Abuelo and Pepe cleared the living room furniture,
put on a Celia 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 repositioning the furniture,
an appropriate darkness filled the room.
Tío Berto was the last to leave.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'America'

'America' is a free verse poem with no regular rhyming lines and a varied metrical rhythm. There are 88 lines split into five stanzas.

First Stanza

Basically the opening stanza is a nine line sentence, paused by two dashes and commas, describing how an aunt Miriam (Tia Miriam) knew of several uses for peanut butter, whilst Mama was baffled by it arriving in big jars courtesy of the state, until the speaker's friend, Jeff, cleared things up by pairing it with jelly. Peanut butter and jelly, the classic American sandwich combo.

Here we have one family member becoming accustomed to an American food, being creative with it, whilst another (older) member didn't cotton on and had to have its uses pointed out by her son's friend.

Second Stanza

Continuing the theme of food and culture, the speaker does acknowledge that pork was always around, as a sort of counterbalance to the new foodstuffs. Pork was eaten at birthdays and other special festival days, even on Thanksgiving, that most American of anniversaries.

Pork was old world food and reinforced strong, deeply rooted Cuban heritage. Alongside pork there were also black beans and meals consisting of yuca (cassava)—all had to be bought from a special market.

The language changes slightly as the speaker focuses in on the negative reaction of Cuban men having a go at the US president, John F. Kennedy presumably. Note the words: blaming . . . lies . . . bile . . . creases . . . ashamed..

It's a direct observation by the speaker but it carries an obvious judgement of a kind: here are Cuban exiles on American soil voicing their opinions, as is their right, but deemed to be telling lies, exposed as hollow.

Third Stanza

The speaker's first person voice looks back to being a child of seven years of age (and not to the clock time of seven)—the family were still in the USA, despite all the talk of returning home.

It becomes quite clear as the stanza progresses that the speaker's family is different, they're not typically American in any way. The speaker found this out when watching t.v. and listening to classic US shows, when being taught at school.

Fourth Stanza

Thanksgiving Day looms. The speaker has to explain to his granny about American history, how it was founded by the Mayflower immigrants, who were helped by the native Indians (First Nation people).

Abraham Lincoln and the slave trade is mentioned, as are words from the famous song 'America the Beautiful' (Katherine Lee Bates and Samuel A. Ward, 1911 version). Soon a breakthrough is reached: the family accept that turkey can be eaten, along with pork, at Thanksgiving.

Fifth Stanza

Everything is set for the iconic meal. Even Granny helps with the turkey, albeit reluctantly, and mother bakes a pumpkin pie. But there's an undercurrent of suspicion as the older members sit down to eat.

What is this American stuff they have to endure? The turkey meat is dry, the pie not right—yet the old home tradition prevails once the meal is ended and the floor space cleared for dancing (merengue) which brings Cuban culture back.

They may have been poor, reflected in the vinyl on the chairs and the Salvation Army furniture; they may have eaten strange, foreign food, but they knew how to dance to Celia Cruz.

Spanish Words and Phrases in 'America'

First Stanza

Tia Miriam - Aunt Miriam

Mama - Mum, Mother

Second Stanza

yuca con mojito - cassava in garlic sauce with pork

Mercado - market

guayaberas - summer shirt worn outside trousers/pants

Ese hijo de puta - that son of a bitch

Third Stanza

yuca - cassava, a root vegetable/tuber from South America

Fourth Stanza

abuelita - granny

Fifth Stanza

Tio Berto - Uncle Bert

ese mierda rojo - that red shit

Abuelo - grandad

merengue - dance of Afro-Cuban influence, national dance of Dominican Republic

Sources

© 2022 Andrew Spacey

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