THE PRINCE OF LOS COCUYOS
by Richard Blanco | Ecco Press | 272 pages
If the name “Richard Blanco” sounds familiar, it’s probably not because you’ve read his earlier books. Blanco is a poet, and few Americans – about 7 percent, according to the National Endowment for the Arts – read poetry. But Blanco, the fifth inaugural poet of the United States, wrote and read “One Today” at President Obama’s second swearing-in ceremony in January 2013. In the poem, Blanco evoked images of diverse Americans united through longing, working and dreaming; of feeling lost, finding ourselves and making a home.
Blanco explores the same ideas in his new memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, ideas that are the central themes of his own life. Blanco was conceived in Cuba, born in Spain and raised in Miami. He spoke Spanish and English and felt muy americano, but was also steeped in cubanidad, a product of his family’s deep nostalgia for a place Blanco himself did not know. It’s little wonder, then, that “Riqui,” as his grandparents called him, was obsessed with three questions: “Where am I from? Where do I belong? Who am I?”
The memoir is Blanco’s invitation to the reader to accompany him on the journey of answering those questions. Though that journey was not easy for Blanco – it involved the death of a childhood friend, brief but intense interactions with people whose own conflicted identities allowed them to mentor him, and the persistent feeling of being neither from here nor there – it is one that is immensely appealing to readers. Blanco has a knack for humor. He picks out anecdotes from his childhood that are most relevant and most entertaining, using them to illustrate just how disorienting a “one foot in this world, one foot in that world” identity can be.
Take the opening chapter, in which Riqui tries to convince his very Cuban grandmother to forgo her usual visit to the Latin bodega and shop at Winn-Dixie instead. Blanco, who views Winn-Dixie as a temple of American-ness, manages to persuade his grandmother, who views Winn-Dixie as an overwhelming, foreign place that’s “not for people like us,” to enter the store, thanks to a weekly deal on chicken. The excursion is fraught with cultural misunderstandings Riqui has to broker because he is the only person who inhabits both the Americanized world of Winn-Dixie and the Cuban psyche of his grandmother. When his abuela makes a scene at the register, insisting she should be able to buy as many chickens as she wants, Riqui has to explain the concept of fine print. His grandmother, feeling deceived, leaves the store in a huff, promising never to return.
The remaining chapters of The Prince of Los Cocuyos recount other key episodes from Blanco’s childhood efforts to find himself, fit in and figure out the answers to those three questions. He is often alone in those efforts, surrounded by family members who are struggling in their own ways to belong in their new home while holding on to a past that becomes more mythical with each passing year. Occasionally, though, he finds someone with whom he can connect and learn more about what it means to both be and live on the hyphen of identity. There’s Yetta, an older Jewish woman he meets during a family vacation, and Victor, a young man who comes to work with Blanco at El Cocuyito (the Little Firefly), the family store where Blanco’s grandmother has sent him to work for a summer so he can “become a man” – and, she hopes, lose weight in the process. It’s through Victor that Blanco begins to become fully aware of his identity as a gay man, another journey of identity that is an important part of the book.
“Writers all have a single narrative they’re always working on,” Blanco said at a recent reading. Memoir provides Blanco with a new means of exploring his narrative – the narrative of who he is, and, by extension, who we all are. One hopes it will give him a new audience, too. For those who do not know Blanco through his poetry, this memoir is an exceptional introduction to the writer and his capabilities. The Prince of Los Cocuyos embodies the best of his poetic style, in particular his eye for detail and ability to put the reader right in the place where he is. Having tapped into such a universal theme and having portrayed his characters – even his overbearing grandmother – so sympathetically, the reader will find that place is much more comfortable than might be expected.