Mother Country

Richard Blanco - 1968-
To love a country as if you’ve lost one: 1968,
my mother leaves Cuba for America, a scene
I imagine as if standing in her place—one foot
inside a plane destined for a country she knew
only as a name, a color on a map, or glossy photos
from drugstore magazines, her other foot anchored
to the platform of her patria, her hand clutched
around one suitcase, taking only what she needs
most: hand-colored photographs of her family,
her wedding veil, the doorknob of her house,
a jar of dirt from her backyard, goodbye letters
she won’t open for years. The sorrowful drone
of engines, one last, deep breath of familiar air
she’ll take with her, one last glimpse at all
she’d ever known: the palm trees wave goodbye
as she steps onto the plane, the mountains shrink
from her eyes as she lifts off into another life.

To love a country as if you’ve lost one: I hear her
—once upon a time—reading picture books
over my shoulder at bedtime, both of us learning
English, sounding out words as strange as the talking
animals and fair-haired princesses in their pages.
I taste her first attempts at macaroni-n-cheese
(but with chorizo and peppers), and her shame
over Thanksgiving turkeys always dry, but countered
by her perfect pork pernil and garlic yuca. I smell
the rain of those mornings huddled as one under
one umbrella waiting for the bus to her ten-hour days
at the cash register. At night, the zzz-zzz of her sewing
her own blouses, quinceañera dresses for her nieces
still in Cuba, guessing at their sizes, and the gowns
she’d sell to neighbors to save for a rusty white sedan—
no hubcaps, no air-conditioning, sweating all the way
through our first vacation to Florida theme parks.

To love a country as if you’ve lost one: as if
it were you on a plane departing from America
forever, clouds closing like curtains on your country,
the last scene in which you’re a madman scribbling
the names of your favorite flowers, trees, and birds
you’d never see again, your address and phone number
you’d never use again, the color of your father’s eyes,
your mother’s hair, terrified you could forget these.
To love a country as if I was my mother last spring
hobbling, insisting I help her climb all the way up
to the U.S. Capitol, as if she were here before you today
instead of me, explaining her tears, cheeks pink
as the cherry blossoms coloring the air that day when
she stopped, turned to me, and said: You know, mijo,
it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where
you choose to die—that’s your country.

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.

Looking for The Gulf Motel

Marco Island, Florida

There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .

The Gulf Motel with mermaid lampposts 
and ship's wheel in the lobby should still be 
rising out of the sand like a cake decoration. 
My brother and I should still be pretending 
we don't know our parents, embarrassing us 
as they roll the luggage cart past the front desk 
loaded with our scruffy suitcases, two-dozen 
loaves of Cuban bread, brown bags bulging 
with enough mangos to last the entire week, 
our espresso pot, the pressure cooker—and 
a pork roast reeking garlic through the lobby. 
All because we can't afford to eat out, not even 
on vacation, only two hours from our home 
in Miami, but far enough away to be thrilled 
by whiter sands on the west coast of Florida, 
where I should still be for the first time watching 
the sun set instead of rise over the ocean.

There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .

My mother should still be in the kitchenette 
of The Gulf Motel, her daisy sandals from Kmart 
squeaking across the linoleum, still gorgeous 
in her teal swimsuit and amber earrings 
stirring a pot of arroz-con-pollo, adding sprinkles 
of onion powder and dollops of tomato sauce. 
My father should still be in a terrycloth jacket 
smoking, clinking a glass of amber whiskey 
in the sunset at the Gulf Motel, watching us 
dive into the pool, two boys he'll never see 
grow into men who will be proud of him.

There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .

My brother and I should still be playing Parcheesi, 
my father should still be alive, slow dancing 
with my mother on the sliding-glass balcony 
of The Gulf Motel. No music, only the waves 
keeping time, a song only their minds hear 
ten-thousand nights back to their life in Cuba. 
My mother's face should still be resting against 
his bare chest like the moon resting on the sea, 
the stars should still be turning around them.

There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .

My brother should still be thirteen, sneaking 
rum in the bathroom, sculpting naked women 
from sand. I should still be eight years old 
dazzled by seashells and how many seconds 
I hold my breath underwater—but I'm not. 
I am thirty-eight, driving up Collier Boulevard, 
looking for The Gulf Motel, for everything 
that should still be, but isn't. I want to blame 
the condos, their shadows for ruining the beach 
and my past, I want to chase the snowbirds away 
with their tacky mansions and yachts, I want 
to turn the golf courses back into mangroves, 
I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was 
and pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.

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.