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'A Song Of Gratitude': Cuban-American Poet Hopeful Of Improved Relations

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet and novelist.
Sandra Ríos Balderrama
Courtesy of Margarita Engle
Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet and novelist.

On Sunday, as President Obama's plane touches down in Havana, Cuban-Americans will be watching. Many of them have endured periods of separation from their families since the early 1960s.

Award-winning author Margarita Engle is one of those people. She is the first Latina to win the prestigious Newbery Honor, for her 2008 book, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle For Freedom. She is also the author of Enchanted Air, Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir, a 2015 autobiographical book of narrative poetry.

It tells her story of growing up in Los Angeles before getting to know her family in Cuba as a child and teenager in the late 1940s and '50s, and then being separated from that extended family in the ensuing 40-plus years.

One poem tells about a time when her family had been questioned by the FBI for receiving letters and phone calls from her grandmother in Cuba.

On Friday, she stood at a podium at the Library of Congress, receiving a Walter honor award for Enchanted Air. A few days prior, President Obama had reinstated regular mail service in the latest sign of improved relations. As she spoke to the packed ornate room, her voice quavered with emotion.

Enchanted Air ends with a poem as question that made the timing of the award so poignant:

Margarita Engle as a child in Cuba.
/ Courtesy of Margarita Engle
Courtesy of Margarita Engle
Margarita Engle as a child in Cuba.

The Walter award is given in recognition of the life of novelist Walter Dean Myers. It is sponsored by the group We Need Diverse Books.

Engle tells NPR that she just talked to her relatives in Miami and Havana on Sunday. She says they were all excited about President Obama's trip — something she hadn't expected.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 21, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this post called the group We Need Diverse Books, which sponsors the Walter award, by the wrong name. It is not We Need More Diverse Books.
Tracy Wahl
In her nearly 20 years at NPR, Tracy Wahl has established herself as a champion for innovation in the newsroom. She was among the first at NPR to embrace social media as a way to engage audiences and deepen our journalism through crowd-sourced reporting. She launched Morning Edition's first Twitter account, and led the program's early ventures into multi-platform storytelling.