We live in an age of tragic anniversaries.
This week marks the one year anniversary of the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly at the hands of men closely aligned with the Saudi government. Later this month, we will be remembering the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in which a man with an AR-15 killed 11 people while shouting anti-Semitic slurs. For many current and former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and their loved ones, Valentine’s Day will forever be cursed.
I could go on, but you get my point.
As incidents of unspeakable violence continue to tumble into our newsfeeds with numbing regularity, the “first rough draft of history” is quickly becoming the permanent record of what we have allowed our world to become.
But seen another way, the impulse to remember is also an urgent need to never forget.
Poet and storyteller Richard Blanco wants us to never forget one of the deadliest hate crimes against Hispanic Americans and immigrants in modern memory, the mass shooting in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, at the hands of a white supremacist gunman determined to destroy as many lives as possible.
But Blanco has seized the convergence of the two-month anniversary of the shooting and Hispanic Heritage Month to make sure we also remember the humanity of the people the gunman targeted.
His response of choice is an original poem, “The U.S. of Us”, commissioned by and published in both Spanish and English as an opinion piece across the USA TODAY network.
“In the wake of the violence of El Paso shooting, I felt an urgency to take a hard look at our place as Hispanics in the United States,” Blanco said in a statement. “I wanted to honor the victims and survivors of that tragedy, but I also wanted to celebrate our incredible contributions and historical connections to our nation, as an antidote for the fear and isolation we are feeling and fighting right now.”
Blanco knows a few things about contributions.
He is the fifth presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history, and also the youngest, the first Latino, gay person, and immigrant in the role. (And in a delightful bit of intersectional magic, he’s also a civil engineer.)
The poem is a result of a chance encounter between Blanco and USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, proof that we all should put ourselves in position to bump into poets as often as possible.
“After the El Paso shooting, we [in the newsroom] were talking about the profound fear and sorrow in the Latino community. The uncertainty. The worry over being a target for hate. How could we capture that?” Carroll tells RaceAhead in an email.
“I had met Richard at an event and was impressed by his passion and his talent. He was the first Latino presidential inaugural poet. His work centers on identity and culture and dreams and the human spirit. Could his poetry help make connections our reporting could not? I reached out and asked him: Would you be willing to write a poem that captures the complex feelings of Latinos in the United States? His immediate answer was ‘yes.’ The result is the poem we are publishing on our opinion pages today.”
Blanco makes good use of his 11, unsparing stanzas.
“O say, can you see us by the dawn of our ancestors’ light still breathing through the cities we forged from the wind of our wills, drenched in the rain of our dusty sweat, and christened for the faith gleaming in our saints’ starry eyes: San Francisco, San Antonio, San Diego?
O say, when will you have enough faith in us to meet the gleam of our eyes in your own, when will you see us as one in this one country we all so proudly hail, and tear down the ramparts that divide us from you, instead of raising new walls?”
He also asks when we will do better.
“When will you stop drowning us, trafficking us like cattle in trucks, corralling us in kitchen alleys and musty motel rooms, scarring our children’s faces behind the striped shadows of iron bars, rebranding our skin as rapists and murderers lurking behind you? When will our immigrant toil and struggling dreams not be your ploy for profit? When will you praise us as assets and allies?
We will not live our worthy lives in fear and shame.”
You can find the entire poem here.
Blanco is the author of five poetry collections, including “How to Love a Country” (2019) which explores the many sociopolitical issues of our nation, past and present. Learn more about him here.