OCTOBER 28, 2014
IN 1968 RICHARD BLANCO’S parents decided to emigrate from Castro’s Cuba. They arrived first in Madrid, where Blanco was born in a hospital run by Catholic nuns. A few weeks later, the family was again on a plane, this time to the States, where they would settle in a close-knit community of Cuban exiles in Miami, Florida.
Four-plus decades later, on the morning of January 21, 2013 (which was also, auspiciously enough, Martin Luther King Jr. Day), poet Richard Blanco stood on the steps of the US Capitol and delivered his inaugural poem, “One Today.” His mother, Geysa Blanco, a bank teller and a widow by that time, sat beside her son on the platform that cold morning, among former presidents, justices of the Supreme Court, diplomats, and senators, very far away from the home she’d left in Cienfuegos over 40 years before.
In its press release, not only did the Inaugural Committee call attention to this son of Cuban immigrants as the youngest inaugural poet, but also as the first gay man and Latino to be thus appointed, a shining example of “American Exceptionalism,” a term that had feverishly made the rounds in newspapers, social media, and on Sunday morning talk shows since Obama’s first campaign in 2008. The idea is that in this particular democracy, with its emphasis on equality, liberty, and self-reliance (so the well-worn covenant goes), any person with some grit, whether indigenous or newly arrived to these shores, can grasp hold of his share of America’s abundance. Even so, his official anointment by the highest office in the land caused Richard Blanco to question whether his selection was owed to his talents or to his multiple identities. In For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey, Blanco wrote, “After all, I did fill a lot of ‘boxes.’”
Other qualifications aside, Blanco, a fine poet with a cultivated sense of symbolist imagery pitched perfect for such an occasion, was commendably up to the occasion. In Whitmanesque fashion, radiating oracular authority, his inaugural poem catalogs and celebrates the variegated lives, cultures, languages, and landscapes that constitute our nation. Its guiding conceit is the morning sun that alights on each person, just as the vision of an egalitarian and just country highlights the agency of every citizen. “All of us as vital as the one light we move through,” reads one affecting line. And even so, his own ascendance was unprecedented; Richard Blanco became a celebrity before our eyes. Curious as so many of us were to know more about the Cuban immigrant who arrived on the highest of world stages — an awe-inspiring example of what makes our nation unlike any other — the publication of his memoir is no surprise.
The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood is about one family’s struggle to retain its cultural heritage while cultivating its American identity. However, this is, perhaps, a more complicated story of immigration than most. Blanco grew up in a house of three generations. His story includes portraits and scenes, intimately and lovingly rendered, not only of parents and siblings, but also of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins as well — a clan, in fact — and even so, the price of becoming an American means suffering through feelings of loss and displacement, and finding oneself caught in the middle, not knowing how to identify: Was Richard Blanco Cuban? Cuban-American? An American gringo?
His confusion notwithstanding, this is not a melancholy account of alienation. Blanco tells tales that will have his readers laughing: like the one about his family’s first trip to Disney World in his father’s treasured Chevy Malibu. During the whole of the ride, Blanco and his brother Caco have to suffer their parents’ singing along to Celia Cruz and Julio Iglesias on an eight-track player, which forces the boys to plug their ears with Bazooka bubble gum; and, on that same trip, Blanco has to face his mother’s Kodak Instamatic after pooping behind a tree on the side of a highway: “It was the last thing I expected: taking a dump while thinking of Mickey Mouse as cars whizzed by on the turnpike.” Subsequently, “spot the tree where Riqui did number two” would become a family road trip game.
Speaking of Mickey Mouse — or “El Ratoncito Miguel” — throughout the memoir, Blanco asserts the importance of popular culture to his assimilation. As a boy, he watches his fill of TV shows like The Brady Bunch and Bewitched; his New York City cousins visit Miami with a boom box and dance to “Disco Inferno,” which young Blanco is proud to identify as the song from the movie Saturday Night Fever. Later, as a teenager, Ricky is consumed by Duran Duran, Tom Cruise, the Tootsie Rolls, Barbra Streisand, Lynda Carter, and the nighttime soap Dallas. These scenes in the book are not merely nostalgic; rather, for the author and his reader, they are evidence of how, consciously or not, the children of Cuban exiles gauged and cultivated their Americanness according to popular fashions and trends.
Then there are Blanco’s more poignant memories: like the moment when he discovers that the iconic Disney castle, with its ostentatious display of “turrets and gold-leafed spires,” is just a façade, an empty building meant only for show:
My frustration decayed into gloom when I asked a woman in a Disney World uniform how to get inside […]. “Oh, no, you can’t go up there; there’s nothing inside,” she said. What? Nothing inside? No! I was convinced she was either lying to me or was a new employee and didn’t know what she was talking about. Mamá was upset too … “What you mean, Miss? That cannot be,” she began, becoming belligerent with the woman. “We stay right here until we get inside.”
More painful still is when officials from Miami-Dade Animal Control, alerted by a neighbor to the animals in the backyard, force Ricky’s grandfather to kill his chickens and rabbits, destroying his last link to his old life in Cuba. There are other misunderstandings, many of them owed to the language barrier that puts the elders of the family at a disadvantage with cashiers, policemen, and others who treat them like unwanted “aliens” rather than new Americans deserving of compassion and dignity. Like the time, with both sons present, when Blanco’s father tries to make himself understood after pumping gas at a self-service station:
Winchil wacher. Winchil wacher. Papá kept repeating, embarrassing us with every syllable of his terrible English. The clerk’s blank look turned to one of disdain: ‘Listen, mistah, I can’t understand one iota of what you be saying. You people need to get learning English. You’re in America.’ … Papá was as humiliated as we were embarrassed.
At various points in the memoir, the Blanco men discuss the wealth and property lost to the Castro regime, while the women long for relatives and neighbors left behind. In one moving scene, an old friend from Cuba, who has joined the Blancos at their weekly Sunday picnic at El Farito, shares the fate of extended family, surviving homes, and old restaurants — a sweet wistfulness settles over the gathering with the Miamian dusk. “For years,” Blanco writes, “I had heard of these people and places, but they had never seemed quite as real as they did that afternoon. Listening to Ariel made everything and everyone come to life. Through him, they weren’t simply vague stories told by old, weepy men.”
Caught as he is between two worlds, Blanco wonders from a young age, “Who am I?” — especially because his tastes and urges are not conventionally masculine. Early on, his grandmother, who is suspicious and disapproving, monitors his hobbies (rug-quilting!), and later she bribes Ricky to serve as the date for a quinceañera, the Spanish celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday and passage into womanhood. Even in his grandmother’s absence, Blanco polices himself; thinking twice, for instance, on that family vacation, about skipping in excitement on his way to Cinderella’s castle. But this self-censorship becomes increasingly difficult. Blanco’s attempts to restrain his urges and to assume a heterosexual mask make for some of the most intense scenes in the book. And yet he generously acknowledges the importance of family in shaping and defining who he is today. In one of the most gorgeous utterances in the book he writes, “[they] made me their prince and loved me before I knew how to love anyone, or myself.” Such reflection and insight is plentiful all the way through, and yet never reduces the book to a series of maxims for would-be émigrés.
Eventually, by the end of high school, our hero-poet comes to terms with his identity as a Cuban-American and begins to acknowledge his attraction to men: the last chapters narrate homoerotic yearnings and unrequited encounters, propelling Ricky forward to self-discovery, however painful and hesitant. Of Victor, one of his friends and co-workers, he writes, “His friendship — his love for me — would challenge me to face myself and admit what I wasn’t ready to admit.”
In this way, more than a bildungsroman about how a young Cuban grew up to be a famous US citizen, Blanco’s memoir is an ardent testament to the monumental role of individual families and communities in the culture at large. The Prince of Los Cocuyos is significant not only for his recollection of his own trajectory; in more than several instances, Blanco recalls the fate of other Cubans who were not so fortunate. Though his account may serve as an example of the workings of “American Exceptionalism,” it’s also about what’s possible for those of us privileged to have been born into stable and loving homes. Richard Blanco knows that he is the embodiment of what can happen in this country when one’s blessings are already abundant. Having honored our nation as a whole in verse, he honors it again, but this time as witness to the life and fortune of one exceptionally American family.
Major Jackson is the author of three volumes of poetry, most recently Holding Company. He is the Richard A. Dennis Professor at the University of Vermont. He serves as Poetry Editor of the Harvard Review.