From the opening pages of poet Richard Blanco’s refreshing memoir, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood,” it’s clear that you’re not wandering Calle Ocho in one of those nostalgic, Little Havana paradises that so many Cuban-American chronicles try to recreate.
Instead, you’re wandering a Winn Dixie in Westchester.
It’s the 1970s, and you’re in that gringo grocery on Miami-Dade County’s west end because Blanco’s abuela, his tough Cuban grandmother, is cheap. So cheap she’ll abandon her Cuban bodega because she's heard Winn Dixie sells whole chickens for five cents less per pound. So cheap she asks her wily, English-speaking grandson to take her to a store that might as well have been the dark side of the moon for many Cuban exiles back then.
Once inside, the two of them discover America. Or at least the glorious junk-food America that Blanco has soaked up on television: Crunch Berries cereal, Pop Tarts and that most wondrous space-age creation, cheese in an aerosol can. Even at his tender age, Blanco registers how “clean and organized…effortless and efficient” el Winn-Deezee and its aisles and shelves are.
“This,” Blanco slyly writes, “was the world I wanted to live in.”
Blanco, who was an engineer before he took up verse for a living, has made a career of resisting the immigrant’s temptation to romanticize either old or new worlds. As a result, in poetry volumes like the acclaimed “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” he makes those worlds – and the identities he derives from them – feel all the richer.
That’s the main reason Blanco was asked to read his work at President Obama’s inauguration last year. That and the unmistakable fact that as a gay Latino, Blanco also symbolized the 21st-century diversity that got Obama elected.
In the “The Prince of Los Cocuyos,” Blanco crafts a fresh way to look at being – or as he told me in an interview, “becoming” – Cuban-American. Of being the kid who, when his family insists on eating pork for Thanksgiving, fumes to himself: You can't teach old Cubans new tricks.
I asked Blanco, who is slated to speak about the book this weekend at the Miami Book Fair International, if he set out to pen a memoir that wouldn’t try to evoke aromatic Cuban coffee and Beny Moré songs. One that doesn’t idealize the Cuban experience, on both sides of the Florida Straits, the way he so often recalls his parents and grandparents, as he writes, "disappearing into the Cuba of their past."
“I was trying to filter out what might be true and not true,” says Blanco. At the same time, he was trying to decode what he calls the “mythic America” that was so removed from Miami’s Cuban enclaves.
“What is the real America and what is the real Cuba,” he says the book asks, “and where do I belong between those two things?"
Often he's a conduit. Blanco's parents, he recalls, "were terrified to speak English, so once we were outside the Miami-Dade County lines they were at [my] mercy" for translation.
Cocuyos in Spanish are fireflies. The book takes it title from the name of a bodega where Blanco worked as a teenager, and where he eventually “learned to fall in love with my culture.”
“We don’t grow up loving being Cuban,” says Blanco, who in the memoir recounts dusting himself with talc and lying on his bed "like a floured drumstick under the ceiling fan" to cool off during Miami summers. “I mean, your parents are dancing salsa and you’re thinking, ‘That’s tacky,’ because it’s natural, anything your parents like or stand for, as a kid you reject.”
But through a succession of relationships ranging from bodega customers to an elderly Jewish woman on Miami Beach who teaches him the precious value of “being a little from everywhere,” the conceived-in-Cuba, born-in-Spain, raised-in-Miami Blanco comes to a more worthwhile understanding of who he is. And in a country with more and more multicultural kids, it’s a useful narrative.
Especially if those kids are gay. That’s the other identity crisis Blanco struggles with in “Cocuyos” – but perhaps not in ways readers may assume.
“There’s a particular brand of homophobia that my grandmother comes to represent,” he says. “It’s not, ‘You’re going to hell, this is evil.’ It’s the whole machismo thing. Her job [was] to butch me up.”
Her mantra, Blanco writes, was “Es mejor serlo y no parecerlo.” Meaning, it’s OK to be one but not appear like one.
In that vein, Blanco reports that since Obama's inauguration he hasn't tired at all of his role as a diversity beacon. "I must be a weird animal, but I'm like, bring it on," he says. "I love representing who I am, I love doing it for the millions of stories and lives like mine." But he admits: "I didn't realize – if I had I might have really freaked out – how much was on my shoulders until afterwards."
Blanco also acknowledges that many readers will sense a generational divide among Cuban-Americans that today has resulted in a parting of ways over how to engage communist Cuba. The book, he says, “demonstrates another way we can think about the Cuban experience, and so then perhaps about Cuba.”
He has little use for the worn-out conservative, liberal or just plain dumb takes on the issue. (One of the worst things you can say to a Cuban-American, he told me: “‘I want to go to Cuba before it changes.’ That’s like saying, ‘I want to go to North Korea before it changes.’”)
Blanco fans may conclude from "Cocuyos" that his poetry is stronger than his prose, but he flavors the latter with enough of the former to make it a satisfying read. As when he describes his first arrival in Cuba later in life:
Going until the April morning on a plane descending into Havana: the flutter of palm trees miming stories, the turquoise sea lacing the island just as I had imagined it, the red clay of the earth begging my hands to dig into it. I will begin to sob. My mother will give me a tissue and ask me what’s wrong. I will tell her, I am all this – I am all that you are.
Richard Blanco will speak about "The Prince of Los Cocuyos" at the Miami Book Fair International at 2 pm Sunday, November 23.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.