For poet Richard Blanco, the El Paso massacre became a catalyst to write
Latino and Latina voices from across America tell us in their own words what it is to live in fear. Arizona Republic
The pen is mightier than the assault rifle.
After a racist shot and killed 22 innocents at a Walmart in El Paso this August, poet Richard Blanco responded as he knows best: words over bullets. Catalyst. Anger. Emotion. Honor. Pride.
"Catalyst is the perfect word," said Blanco, explaining the spark that launched the journey from idea to publication of an exclusive poem that he created for USA TODAY. The shooting and the June drownings of Salvadoran immigrants Óscar Alberto Martínez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who died while trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas, moved Blanco.
"This is a great time to speak up," he said. "Poetry has an emotional appeal."
Blanco is one of the pre-emiment poets in the United States, author of five poetry collections, chosen by President Barack Obama to read at his 2012 inauguration. He is the youngest, first Hispanic and gay person to earn that honor.
Today we publish, in English and Spanish, "the U.S. of Us" - Blanco's original poem, inspired by the Star-Spangled Banner. It ends: "O say let there be proof that star-spangled banner still waves for us, too. Let the land of the free count us in, too. Let the home of the brave remain our home, too."
As the child of Cuban exiles, Blanco said his parents reinforced the values of faith, family and education. He and his brother grew up in Westchester, a predominantly Spanish-speaking, middle-class neighborhood, west of Miami, built on the American Dream
Blanco graduated as a civil engineer, which he said paid the bills, but he longed to write, and poetry became his oxygen. "The U.S. of us" is poignant, Blanco said, because of what the national anthem stands for.
"We do believe in these ideals. We do believe in the promises of America," he said. "I still get teary-eyed when I hear 'home of the free, land of the brave.'"
Poet Richard Blanco was Barack Obama's inaugural poet in 2012, and now, in the wake of the El Paso shooting, he has an anthem for America. USA TODAY
Blanco said he created the poem for USA TODAY at the ask from USA TODAY Editor-in-Chief Nicole Carroll. She met Blanco at an Aspen Ides Festival dinner, an annual gathering where leaders from industry, education, media, science, arts and culture gather.
That night, Carroll had spoken about her decision to publish the photos of the father and daughter who drowned, made on the need to document and explain the perils and desperation of those fleeing violence and poverty in their own countries.
"I was so moved by Nicole's moment," Blanco said. "I dedicated the poem I read that night to her."
Both agreed to do something very special and the poem is also pegged to Hispanic Heritage month.
After the El Paso massacre, El Paso editor Tim Archuleta wrote an open letter to President Donald Trump, which ran on the front page of the newspaper and led its website - and drew attention to the fears of Latinos and their demand for respect.
The poem takes on a similar yet unique approach, and will run on many opinion pages and section fronts across our newsrooms.
"USA TODAY is America's newsroom," Blanco said. "It's a wonderful opportunity to share this message to a broad audience across the country."
On Saturday, Blanco recorded the poem from the den of his childhood home. After sharing much Cuban coffee, Blanco created a makeshift lectern from two footstools and a Cuisinart box and read the poem three times for our video journalists.
As he always does before a reading, Blanco quietly mediated on The Prayer of St. Francis, holding the worn piece of paper, which has become a constant travel companion.
Eyes closed at times, his right hand waved like an orchestra conductor and his voice clear, Blanco read aloud each line, with cadence, pause and for effect.
“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 afterwards.
"I want to honor the victims and survivors of that tragedy, but I also want 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.”