By: Yayonah Bangura | Published October 22, 2015
Right before Gilda Del Risco and her family boarded a plane to leave Cuba for the United States for the first time, her brother was denied entry. Her family had no choice but to go on without him as they ventured into a new world.
As a result of Del Risco’s brother having the Cuban military age, the only way he was to be allowed entry was if their parents became U.S. citizens. So knowing little- to-no English, Del Risco wrote letters to senators, asking them to grant her parents citizenship faster and help reunite their family.
Although it worked, Del Risco had no idea that it would take 10 years before she saw her brother again. Nothing brought her more joy than anxiously waiting at the airport and watching her toddler nephew run in through the terminal doors, followed by her brother and his wife.
Years later while driving to church, Del Risco looked into the sky and saw a flock of birds flying, while one was left behind. Seeing it as a sign of God, she was instantly reminded of her brother, and wrote a poem.
It was this poem that she recited at a poetry reading on social justice and immigration hosted by the Human Rights Institute (HRI) and the We Are You Project on Oct. 8. The event took place in the HRI’s art gallery, featuring poets like Alan Britt, Bina Sarkar Ellias, Mike Foldes and George Nelson Preston, along with Kean students and professors.
The poems ranged from experiences of happiness, loss, acceptance, struggles with identity, personal feelings about being multicultural in America and the pressures to assimilate to Eurocentric ways of living.
Del Risco, now a professor at Kean and Executive Director of Kean’s School of Curriculum and Teaching, recited her poem with the very nephew she met at the airport on that eventful day.
“Fly, fly little bird,” she recited in Spanish, as her nephew followed with an English translation. She related her urges for the bird she saw being left behind to fly as she wanted her own brother to fly and try his hardest to reconnect with his family.
Del Risco also spoke of the stories her foreign students would share with her about their struggles to assimilate in America and conform to Eurocentric standards.
Whether it was by changing a name from Miguel to Michael, to wanting to have blue eyes and blonde hair, the pressures to “pick a side” when being multicultural took a toll on the way some students saw themselves, and she tried to help them create a balance.
“I feel great. I’ve spent more years here than in Cuba, I love this country,” Del Risco said when asked about how she felt being Cuban-American today. “But of course, I’m Cuban and I will never deny that. I’m a real Cuban-American,” she said with a laugh.
Kean students Helena Jones and Shawn Lawson performed poems as well. Jones recited a powerful piece called “Insomnia,” a poem about her inability to sleep after hearing about the tragic death of Sandra Bland in police custody.
“Writing really just helps me deal with my emotions,” said Jones. “I just have to get it down. It’s the only way I can deal with a situation rationally. It’s tied with social justice issues specifically about Black people.”
Lawson’s poem, called “Boarding Pass,” centered on the concept of freedom and how many people are sold the fantasy of immigrating to America without knowing what they are really in for.
“I like taking other people’s perspectives and stories and putting my own ideas to it on how I think things regulate in that world,” said Lawson, a spoken word artist and poet, and president of a poetry group at Kean known as Prisoners of Words.
Guests and performers were also able to view the gallery’s Latino artwork, which is on display until January 2016. The We Are You Project is also hosting a project panel discussion on Nov. 16 at 3:30 p.m.
For more information on the We Are You Project, visit their website at: http://www.weareyouproject.org