61 pages 2 hours read

Richard Blanco

The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2014

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The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood is a memoir published in 2014 by Richard Blanco, President Barack Obama’s inaugural poet. Blanco describes his childhood living in Miami with parents and grandparents who’d immigrated to America from Cuba. It offers a picture of his family’s nostalgia for Cuba and his simultaneous struggle to relate to a world he’s never seen. His book recounts his quest to reconcile his Cuban heritage with his American upbringing. It also traces the process by which he comes to understand and accept his identity as an artist and a gay man. Blanco accomplishes this by describing notable incidents from his childhood and adolescence and the many people who influenced him in some way. Interspersed are recollections of some of the obstacles his family faces as they attempt to assimilate into American society while retaining their Cuban heritage. Blanco uses these anecdotes to inform the telling of his own journey toward reconciliation of all his overlapping identities.

Blanco opens his memoir by offering a background of how his family came to be in Miami. His grandmother, through ethically questionable means, paid for her husband, son, daughter-in-law, and two young grandsons to move from Cuba to Spain to New York, and then finally to Miami. Abuela is intimidating and fearless except when it comes to Americans. As a result, she refuses to shop at Winn-Dixie despite Blanco’s pleas. After negotiation, Abuela agrees to give money for Blanco to shop there, and she enjoys the American products he brings home. Desirous of having a true Thanksgiving dinner, he enlists Abuela’s help; she cooks a traditional meal, but Blanco is disappointed when his large extended family blends the Cuban and American foods together. By the end of the night, Blanco recognizes the gravity of his family’s plight and how their journey mirrors in some ways that of the Pilgrims.

Blanco’s grandfather yearns to recreate his life in Cuba and gradually sneaks animals into the backyard. He builds a chicken coop for his chickens and brings home a bunny, a dog, and a rooster. Blanco enjoys taking care of all the animals with Abuelo. When an Animal Control officer visits and orders them to get rid of the chickens, Abuelo is outraged, claiming that he came to America because it’s supposed to be free. The next day, Abuela kills the chickens and prepares them for dinner. Blanco is horrified as his family eats his backyard pets; shortly after, he donates his bunnies. Blanco frequently misses his backyard farm, which he sees as his own little version of Cuba.

After saving for weeks, Blanco has enough money to visit a craft store and purchase a rug-making kit, but it’s confiscated by Abuela, who tells him:, “It’s better to be it and not look like it, than to look like it even if you are not it” (72). His spirit is lifted when Abuela pays for the family to go to Disney World. The ride to Disney is fraught with challenge: Caco, Blanco’s older brother, must act as interpreter at a service plaza and later at the police station after Papá is pulled over for speeding. At Disney, Caco and Blanco, who fight frequently, band together in their embarrassment of their parents. Blanco is disappointed that there is nothing to see in Cinderella’s castle, where he hoped to rummage through her clothes. He is excited to bring home a new Mickey Mouse doll, which he hides from Abuela upon his return. The last memory he relates of the trip is his father’s anger at him for letting his crayons melt in the back of his beloved car.

On vacation in Miami, Blanco meets Yetta Epstein, an elderly Jewish woman who lives at the Copa hotel. Abandoned by his older cousins, Blanco accepts Yetta’s invitation to keep her company. He’s intrigued by her claim that she’s “a little from everywhere” (126), for he himself feels without identity, being not quite Cuban and not quite American. From Yetta, he learns that being from more than one place has its benefits. He also finds similarities between her longing for the glorious Miami of the past and his parents’ longing for Cuba.

Now an adolescent, Blanco has put on some weight, and Abuela, in an attempt to make him “un hombre,” arranges for him to work at the Cuban bodega El Cocuyito. Over time, Blanco earns more and more responsibility and, as he grows, begins associating comfortably with the other workers and with the store’s motley group of customers. When a cashier desires him to escort her beautiful daughter, Deycita, to her Quinces party, Abuela insists he go, accusing him of not liking girls; Blanco in fact is not attracted to girls, but he assumes he simply hasn’t found the right girl. Blanco performs his duties at the party to everyone’s satisfaction and feels proud when his “village” (188), his friends from El Cocuyito, chip in for a gift for him.

Sophomore year of high school, Blanco’s best friend Julio, a risk-taking rabble-rouser, introduces Blanco to Anita, encouraging him to get her number. Though Blanco and Anita enjoy chatting and even slow dance together, Blanco can’t feel any physical attraction to her. However, Blanco and Anita become close friends. When Blanco learns that Julio was killed in a car accident, Anita is an important source of comfort and support. At Blanco’s homecoming dance, he finally kisses her. When he feels no passion, he realizes he “wasn’t, and never would be, like other boys” (199).

A man in his mid-thirties, Victor, begins working at El Cocuyito, and Blanco acts as his supervisor. An artist who admits to having been in prison, Victor left Cuba only a few years ago. Blanco finds himself attracted to him but can’t admit it to himself; he is intrigued by Victor’s suggestion that he may have had a male partner in Cuba. The two develop a close and comfortable friendship and frequently bond over wine or cigarettes at the bodega. When Blanco goes to Victor’s house one night for Victor’s birthday, Victor gently initiates sexual intimacy, which Blanco resists even though they both are aware of his homosexuality: “[T]the truth that I had always known: I was a gay man, un maricón, just as Abuela had feared” (217). Victor tells him he will always be who he is and that when he’s ready, he will be able to acknowledge it.

Blanco’s mother is preparing to host the extended family’s weekly barbecue at the beach, and she asks Ariel, a family friend Blanco’s age, to bring her a pig to roast. Blanco is perplexed by Ariel, who is deeply immersed in his Cuban heritage but also has many American interests. At the barbecue, Ariel encourages Blanco to learn Cuban customs and visit his family in Cuba. Blanco is jealous of Ariel for understanding his family’s stories in a way he feels he can’t. AlTthough they’d expressed interest in meeting in the future, after the party disperses, Blanco and Ariel never see each other again. Blanco concludes his memoir by alluding to the major events of his adulthood—the deaths of Abuela, Abuelo, and Papá; his intimacy with his first love; and his emotional visit to Cuba with his mother.

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