NEA Literature Fellowships

Orlando Ricardo Menes

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(2009 - Poetry)


From age seven I began to crave
the chewy rice crust from the bottom
of Mamá's electric Hitachi cooker,
raspa de arroz--rich in grease & garlic--
I savored with leftover parsley onions,
soggy fries.  How can you like this
mishmash? she asked, grimacing. 
In Cuba only the poorest of the poor--
all blacks & Chinese--would eat
la raspa.  Slapped my hand as I scraped
those last hard grains.  Carlitos made
faces, baring coolie-boy buckteeth,
eyes stretched to slits as he squealed
chino chin-chon over & over.  Though my
grandmother's eyes tattled Chinese,
Mamá passed off Abuela Nena as part
Turkish Jew, even oriental Russian. 
Painted each eye to simulate roundness,
glued false lashes, permed her straight
ashen hair, rouged sallow cheeks.  Made us
swear by God to tell no one, her voice
slow, tremulous, Without this ghost
we'd be pure white, one rung below the angels.

Orlando Ricardo Menes was born in Lima, Perú, to Cuban parents but has lived most of his life in the U.S. He holds a BA and MA in English from the University of Florida and a PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is currently Associate Professor in English in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame. His poems have appeared in several anthologies, as well as literary magazines like Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, Callaloo, River Styx, and New Letters. His poetry books include Rumba Atop the Stones, (Peepal Tree Press, 2001), and Furia (Milkweed Editions, 2005). He is the editor of Renaming Ecstasy: Latino Writings on the Sacred (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2004) and numerous translations of poetry in Spanish, including Translations from the Poetry of Alfonsina Storni (Latin American Literary Review/Press in 2009).

Photo courtesy of Bryce Richter

Author's Statement

I am honored to receive this literature fellowship, and no doubt I am immeasurably grateful. Because of the NEA's generous support, I will be able to take a sabbatical from teaching, which will then give me the time to write poems that extend and recast the themes of displacement and assimilation that have defined my family for five generations, going back to ancestors who emigrated to Cuba from Spain and China in the 19th century. I will thus delve into a new landscape, northern Indiana, where I have lived since 2000 and about which I am now beginning to write. These poems will attempt to answer the following questions, among others. What constitutes home as opposed to homeland, especially for someone with Cuban parents who was born in Perú but mostly raised in Miami? Furthermore, how does being the father of my son Adrian, born here in South Bend, affect my relationship to place? How does Adrian's childhood, characterized by stability and an enduring sense of belonging, compare with my own, so fraught by the upheavals of an immigrant experience?