Friday, December 6, 2013
When it came time for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project to pick a celebrity guest for its big fundraiser this year, the choice seemed almost too obvious: Richard Blanco.
The poet from Bethel, whose career and fame has shot stratospherically since he read at President Obama's inauguration in January, was a brilliant first choice. That he said "yes" made the invitation all the more genius.
Blanco has been in demand, both in Maine and elsewhere. If we all get 15 minutes of fame, then Blanco is working on borrowed time. Since January, he's barely had time for himself.
He barely had time to talk for this column last week, because he was on deadline for his next book. And he had commitments -- in Maine, Texas and other places.
He will be back in Portland this week, reading and talking at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project's big fundraiser, CeleSoiree, on Friday night at the Abromson Center at the University of Southern Maine.
Last week, it was a function for The Telling Room in Portland. The week before, he gave out awards at Poetry Out Loud in Bangor. There was another fund-raiser in Portland mixed in, and of course, his coming out party at Merrill Auditorium in late February, when he read and talked for about an hour before a mostly full Merrill Auditorium.
People are still buzzing about that event.
Blanco, who was in Texas last week, agreed to speak at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project fundraiser because issues involving immigrants "are close to my heart. I'm an immigrant myself, even though I was only 45 days old when I came here."
His parents had a great support system in place when they arrived in the United States, he said. "I can only imagine the people this organization tries to help out and reach out to. I feel very close to the cause. America's story is very much the immigrant's story."
Blanco admitted he's struggled with his life as a celebrity. He's been asked to speak at more events than he can count. The post-inauguration experience has been an "incredible overload."
In addition to his usual work writing poetry, he's also working on a memoir about his experience.
He's turned down a lot of requests, simply because of the lack of time. He generally looks favorably on events "where poetry is not usually on the program. It's wonderful that poetry has become part of the dialogue. I do enjoy communicating with people through poetry. That's my job."
Ron Kreisman, executive director of the Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, hopes Blanco's star hasn't dimmed. He's counting on the celebrity poet to inspire some 500 people or so to fork over $45 for a ticket -- $50 at the door -- to the project's biggest fundraiser of the year.
"Richard was really a natural choice for what we are trying to do," said Kreisman. "We are delighted and honored that he is coming. His poetry explores the complexity of the immigrant experience in negotiating Maine."
Blanco describes himself as being made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States. He now lives in Bethel, where he lives a quiet, normal life -- or did, until President Obama asked him to read at his inauguration. Before that, he lived in Miami.
His poem, "One Today," made him a literal overnight sensation.
In the turn of the moon, he became one of the most famous and most-quoted Mainers of our time, with a story widely told: A young gay Latino living in a rural community in a nearly all-white state, reading a poem about inclusion and diversity on an international stage.
Welcome to our new America, circa 2013.
The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project works on behalf of people just like Blanco, providing low-cost comprehensive legal assistance for immigrants. It helps Maine's immigrants keep their families together, gain protection from prosecution and domestic violence, and attain residency and work authorization, among other things.
As Kreisman says, "Our work allows immigrants to stabilize their lives and reunite with their families and integrate in Maine economic and civic life. We provide a firm legal foundation so they can live and work productively in Maine."
It sounds very serious, and it is. But Friday's fundraiser is all about having fun.
It has a sharp focus on entertainment, with music from the Cuban trio Platano Macho. The Burundi Batimbo Beats Drummers and Pihcintu Multinational Children's Chorus will also perform.
And of course there is Blanco, who will read poetry and talk about his experiences as an immigrant.
Proceeds support the advocacy project's statewide programs.
The project has been around since 1993. In its early days, it was all-volunteer. It now has a staff of 11, with four paid attorneys and an annual budget of about $800,000. It receives virtually no government money.
Everything comes in the form of grants, foundation support and fundraising efforts, like CeleSoiree on Friday. This is the first time the project has hosted such an event. They are hoping -- praying -- that 500 people show up, which will net about $40,000.
That's a relatively small sum for the amount of time and effort that goes into an event like this. That's 5 percent of the total budget.
But that 5 percent can make the difference between keeping a family together or seeing it splintered amid an array of confusing laws and legal twists.
At its offices on Cumberland Avenue in Portland, the project last year saw clients from more than 100 countries, and handled more 2,000 legal matters.
"What we do, day in and day out, is provide free or low-fee legal assistance to low-income Maine residents who need help on immigration matters," Kreisman said. "We are the only organization that does this in Maine. We help people who have nowhere else to turn."
For tickets, details and other information, visit ilapmaine.org or call 780-1593.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: