Election Year

- 1968-

The last ghostly patch of snow slips away—

with it—winter’s peaceful abandon melts 
into a memory, and you remember the mire 
of muck just outside your kitchen window 
is the garden you’ve struggled and promised 
to keep. Jeans dyed black by years of dirt, 
you step into the ache of your boots again, 
clear dead spoils, trowel the soil for new life. 

The sun shifts on the horizon, lights up 
the dewed spider webs like chandeliers. 
Clouds begin sailing in, cargoed with rain 
loud enough to rouse the flowers into 
a race for color: the rouged tulips clash 
with the noble lilies flaunting their petals 
at the brazen puffs of allium, the mauve 
tongues of the iris gossip sweet-nothings 
into the wind, trembling frail petunias. 

Mornings over coffee, news of the world, 
you catch the magic act of hummingbirds— 
appearing, disappearing—the eye tricked 
into seeing how the garden flowers thrive 
in shared soil, drink from the same rainfall, 
governed by one sun, yet grow divided 
in their beds where they’ve laid for years. 
In the ruts between bands of color, ragweed 
poke their dastard heads, dandelions cough 
their poison seeds, and thistles like daggers 
draw their spiny leaves and take hold.

The garden loses ground, calls you to duty 
again: with worn gloves molded by the toll 
of your toil, and armed with sheers, you tear 
into the weeds, snip head-bowed blooms, 
prop their struggling stems. Butterfly wings 
wink at you, hinting it’s all a ruse, as you rest 
on your deck proud of your calloused palms 
and pained knees, trusting all you’ve done 
is true enough to keep the garden abloom.

But overnight, a vine you’ve never battled 
creeps out of the dark furrows, scales 
the long necks of the sunflowers, chokes 
every black-eyed Susan, and coils around 
the peonies, beheading them all. You snap 
apart its greedy tendrils, cast your hands 
back into the dirt, pull at its ruthless roots. 
Still, it returns with equal fury and claim: 
the red poppies scream, the blue asters 
gasp for air, strangled in its vile clasp 
that lives by killing everything it touches.

The sun’s eye closes behind mountains, but 
you lose sleep tonight, uncertain if the garden 
is meant to inevitably survive or die, or if 
it matters—one way or the other—with or 
without you. Maybe it’s not just the garden 
you worry about, but something we call hope 
pitted against despair, something we can only 
speak of by speaking to ourselves about flowers, 
weeds, and hummingbirds; spiders, vines, and 
a garden tended under a constitution of stars 
we must believe in, splayed across our sky.

More by Richard Blanco

El Florida Room

Not a study or a den, but El Florida 
as my mother called it, a pretty name
for the room with the prettiest view 
of the lipstick-red hibiscus puckered up
against the windows, the tepid breeze 
laden with the brown-sugar scent 
of loquats drifting in from the yard.

Not a sunroom, but where the sun 
both rose and set, all day the shadows 
of banana trees fan-dancing across
the floor, and if it rained, it rained
the loudest, like marbles plunking 
across the roof under constant threat 
of coconuts ready to fall from the sky.

Not a sitting room, but El Florida where 
I sat alone for hours with butterflies
frozen on the polyester curtains
and faces of Lladró figurines: sad angels,
clowns, and princesses with eyes glazed 
blue and gray, gazing from behind
the glass doors of the wall cabinet.

Not a TV room, but where I watched
Creature Feature as a boy, clinging 
to my brother, safe from vampires
in the same sofa where I fell in love 
with Clint Eastwood and my Abuelo 
watching westerns, or pitying women
crying in telenovelas with my Abuela.

Not a family room, but the room where
my father twirled his hair while listening
to 8-tracks of Elvis, and read Nietzsche 
and Kant a few months before he died, 
where my mother learned to dance alone
as she swept, and I learned Salsa pressed 
against my Tía Julia's enormous breasts.

At the edge of the city, in the company 
of crickets, beside the empty clothesline, 
telephone wires and the moon, tonight
my life is an old friend sitting with me  
not in the living room, but in the light
of El Florida, as quiet and necessary 
as any star shining above it.

América

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 Eves,
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 8th 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 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.
Mamà 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 gladiolus,
the plattered turkey loomed at the center
on plastic silver from Woolworths.
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.

Translation for Mamá

What I’ve written for you, I have always written
in English, my language of silent vowel endings
never translated into your language of silent h’s.
               Lo que he escrito para ti, siempre lo he escrito
               en inglés, en mi lengua llena de vocales mudas
               nunca traducidas a tu idioma de haches mudas.
I’ve transcribed all your old letters into poems
that reconcile your exile from Cuba, but always
in English. I’ve given you back the guajiro roads
you left behind, stretched them into sentences
punctuated with palms, but only in English.
               He transcrito todas tus cartas viejas en poemas
               que reconcilian tu exilio de Cuba, pero siempre
               en inglés. Te he devuelto los caminos guajiros
               que dejastes atrás, transformados en oraciones
               puntuadas por palmas, pero solamente en inglés.
I have recreated the pueblecito you had to forget,
forced your green mountains up again, grown
valleys of sugarcane, stars for you in English.
               He reconstruido el pueblecito que tuvistes que olvidar,
               he levantado de nuevo tus montañas verdes, cultivado
               la caña, las estrellas de tus valles, para ti, en inglés.
In English I have told you how I love you cutting
gladiolas, crushing ajo, setting cups of dulce de leche
on the counter to cool, or hanging up the laundry
at night under our suburban moon. In English,
               En inglés te he dicho cómo te amo cuando cortas
               gladiolas, machacas ajo, enfrías tacitas de dulce de leche
               encima del mostrador, o cuando tiendes la ropa
               de noche bajo nuestra luna en suburbia. En inglés
I have imagined you surviving by transforming
yards of taffeta into dresses you never wear,
keeping Papá’s photo hinged in your mirror,
and leaving the porch light on, all night long.
               He imaginado como sobrevives transformando
               yardas de tafetán en vestidos que nunca estrenas,
               la foto de papá que guardas en el espejo de tu cómoda,
               la luz del portal que dejas encendida, toda la noche.
               Te he captado en inglés en la mesa de la cocina
               esperando que cuele el café, que hierva la leche
               y que tu vida acostumbre a tu vida. En inglés
               has aprendido a adorer tus pérdidas igual que yo.
I have captured you in English at the kitchen table
waiting for the café to brew, the milk to froth,
and your life to adjust to your life. In English
you’ve learned to adore your losses the way I do.