In September of last year, Lewis University hosted poet Richard Blanco. Earlier in 2013 he read his poem “One Today” at the Barack Obama 2nd Presidential Inaugural. While on campus he delivered a public address with readings and spoke to members of the Latin American Student Organization and students in Professor Simone Muench’s Introduction to Creative Writing class. Among the many topics that Blanco addressed was the fruitful convergence of his technical training and his study of poetry. He pointed out that he is a better poet for his work as an engineer and a better engineer because of his poetic craft. It was a valuable message on the importance of the humanities for our technology-oriented students.
Riding the crest of an unexpected public visibility, Blanco has just published his memoir The Prince of the Cucoyos. It’s a very fine entry into the over-crowded contemporary memoir field. It’s an amalgamation of two strands of the genre: coming-to-terms-with-my-sexual- identity and learning-to- understand-my- American- identity. One can feel in the work of this Cuban-American [a marker he is just as likely to avoid as embrace] the impact of writers like his Mexican-American mentor Sandra Cisneros, the gifted Dominican-American fiction writer Junot Diaz, and fellow Cuban writers like Christina Garcia.
There are a total of seven sections each organized around a particularly important event in Blanco’s life, each capable of standing alone. These finely shaped fictionalized accounts include descriptions of a messy family trip to Disneyland, an incubator of American belongingness, and the nostalgic efforts of his Cuban-born abuelo to recreate his life in Cuba by raising chickens in the back yard. The title of the memoir – The Prince of the Los Cucoyos – grows out of a chapter devoted to his role as the escort for Anita, a neighbor girl, whose Quinces is being celebrated in lavish style. The handsome Riqui, skilled in dance floor moves and clothing styles, makes for a fine prince, but throughout he wonders why he does not feel stronger physical desires for the very beautiful 15 year- old South Florida debutante.
One of the best chapters, “Queen of the Copa,” focuses on his odd and brief friendship with Yetta, an occupant of a faded Miami Beach hotel where the extended Blanco family has gone for an surfside vacation. [Born in 1968, Blanco knows the down-on-its-luck Miami of the 70s and 80s that preceded the Miami 90s resurgence and the restoration of hotels like the Copa.] Yetta tells Riqui about her glamorous life in the 50s when she and her husband lived in a Miami mansion and consorted with celebrities and mobsters. She’s now down-sized to a small apartment and keeps company with Jewish retirees from the Eastern Seaboard. Riqui, feeling abandoned by his older brother and sophisticated New York City primas and by his parent generation who spend their time recollecting halcyon Cuba days, secretly takes up with the colorful Yetta. She brings him to the bingo parlor, to her beauty shop where she introduces him as a grandson, and to Wolfies, a legendary Miami Beach restaurant, where she feeds him with unfamiliar borscht and pierogi. The tasty pierogi reminds him of his grandmother’s empanadas and this discovery of food similarity ignites his reflection on the connections between this Jewish woman born in Poland and his parents and grandparents, exiles from Cuba. Long before he stands in front of a million people at the inaugural and feels a sense of membership in the American club, Blanco gets his first experience with e pluribus unum. Blanco feels more than comfortable with his temporary reclassification as a Jewban.
The memoir is filled with some spot-on portraits of family, neighbors and schoolmates. From Victor, a co-worker at his aunt and uncle’s grocery store, he learns about a Cuba that is different than his elder’s depictions of an island paradise. The place the communist regime proclaims as a socialist utopia is really a place of oppression. Victor is part of the 2nd wave of Cuban immigrants, the 1980s Marielitos who were despised by 1st wave refugees, his parents and grandparents, who fled in advance of or shortly after the fall of Battista and the beginning of Castro’s rule in the late 50s. The politically powerful established Cubans distance themselves from these new refugees who are given to crime, unfit for work, or are socially deviant. Listening to the stories of this gay artist who has been imprisoned, Blanco realizes that his parent’s desire to return to their country of origin is a pipe-dream. What should be an alliance of anti-Castro exiles is thwarted by essential class differences. Yet this relationship with Victor moves him closer to the day when he will be able to “disturb the universe” by coming out.
Arguably the most powerful person in Blanco’s life is his abuela. His father’s mother gets twenty times the amount of ink than his father, her son. This is a very independent, head-strong, entrepreneurial woman who runs a small-time neighborhood gambling operation and, despite her fear of American stores and Americanization, goes shopping for bargains at the Winn-Dixie. Her daughter-in-law is smothered by this matriarch’s presence, though she does assert herself in the final section where she single-handedly takes charge of marinating a suckling pig in Riqui’s bathtub.
Where Riqui feels the heavy thumb of his abuela most forcefully is in the development of his sexual identity. She’s as much if not more so an advocate of machismo and the strict separation of male and female activities than are the male members of his family. She looks askance when her Ricardo de Jesus wants to do crafts with scissors and construction paper. She discourages his desire to become an architect. She is quick to raise an eyebrow when he spends too much time on personal grooming. Her advice to him is simple: Better to act like it (gay) and not be it, than to be it and not act like it. His affection and admiration for the grandmother is set against his rejection of her narrow code of conduct.
Despite the buried hostility towards his grandmother, this is a gentle book that readily grants forgiveness to all of those who have been obstacles in his way. It’s a memoir told by a keen observer of human nature who can easily document the human comedy in the village of his birth. This story of a Miami childhood is also an account of the making of a poet, how a discerning eye, a sticky memory, and a sweet disposition – all developed at an early age – can result in poems that engage the mind and move the heart.