Poet Richard Blanco’s wistful Cuban memoir shines brightly


‘The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood’

By Richard Blanco

Ecco, $25.99, 272 pages

Though set in Miami in the 1970s and ’80s, much of Richard Blanco’s sensual new memoir concerns a far less tangible territory: the imaginary lost paradise of pre-revolution Cuba.

Blanco’s mother got pregnant in Cuba, gave birth in Spain and brought her son to the U.S. when he was 45 days old. The extended family — parents, belligerent older brother, more belligerent grandmother — settled in Güecheste (Westchester), a Miami suburb where working-class exiles refused to let the customs of the old country fade away.

At age 44, Blanco became the first Latino and first openly gay inaugural poet, delivering his poem "One Today" at Barack Obama's 2013 swearing-in ceremony. The poem's themes of searching for home and acceptance underscore "The Prince of los Cocuyos." The memoir details the dreams and struggles of young "Riqui," called "sensitive and creative" by teachers, "Lardo" by malicious cousins. Even Abuela, his grandmother, piles on: "Bad enough being a sissy — but a fat sissy — ¡qué va!" The book's portrayal of Abuela as a sharp-tongued matriarch, bookie for a gambling ring and misguided bully walks the line between tender and heart-wrenching.

Riqui’s fledgling worries about sexuality take a backseat to a much bigger identity crisis, summed up during a family vacation to Walt Disney World. No matter where the Blancos go, they carry Cuba with them. “We watched in horror as the bellhop helped Papá load the luggage cart with a hot plate and our espresso pot for making Cuban coffee in the room; grocery bags full of mangoes, oranges, and half a dozen loaves of Cuban bread.” After riding It’s a Small World, his mother rants, “Why no dolls from Cuba?”

As much as he tries to imagine the mythic homeland that relatives describe as a Garden of Eden gone too soon, Riqui can't fathom the persistent nostalgia. Nor does he understand the family's resistance to gringo society. His obsessions involve becoming more American: watching "The Brady Bunch," shopping at Winn Dixie, climbing to the top of Cinderella's Castle. Sadly, the Magic Kingdom visit brings only disappointment, with no sign of "el Ratoncito Miguel" (Mickey Mouse) and the harsh revelation that Cinderella's Castle is empty.

Blanco's ear for poetry comes to light in the memoir's full-bodied language and knack for description: "rolls of fabric like giant Popsicles," "a coffee table as big as a coffin" on "legs carved into lion's claws," "sand like sugar, so clear you could see a dull centavo down at your toes." The most effective chapters work to submerge the reader in a world that's familiar yet distant. Blanco evokes the flavors, fabrics and smells of rundown South Beach hotels, all-night pig roasts, disco-era Quinces debuts.

Despite the brilliant specificity, the memoir also proves that the cringe-worthy humiliations of youth are universal. A public purse-slapping from Mamá or getting busted at a forbidden bingo game stings whether the curses are hurled in English, Spanish or Cubichi.

Blanco falters when he falls into the same habits that irritate his adolescent narrator: indulging in syrupy nostalgia. Autobiography tends to be a sentimental journey, but every memoirist must remember to keep the narrative chugging forward. The engine sputters in early anecdotes involving Riqui’s pet rabbits (Bonny and Bennie) and his unlikely friendship with an eccentric Jewish retiree.

“The Prince of los Cocuyos” finds its strongest voice and urgency after the midpoint. At age 12, Blanco reluctantly agrees to take a summer job at El Cocuyito (“the little firefly”), “the only Cuban bodega in Miami where you could pick up an $80 bottle of Dom Perignon champagne along with a 50-cent bag of home-fried pork rinds.”

The shop turns out to be Güecheste’s go-to emporium for Cuban wistfulness, stocking hard-to-find foods and wine from the island. Although Blanco nearly beats the homesickness refrain into the ground, the procession of flamboyant bodega groupies and employees helps to break up the monotony.

Riqui begins forming friendships with assorted victims of Castro's tyranny. By bonding with the greater village of exiles, he discovers new compassion for his family's idiosyncrasies as well as some hidden talents. Nuñez, a loquacious cafeteria regular, educates him in nombrete, the art of nicknaming, and idioms such as, "Tell it to me singing" and "Tell me something even if it's a lie."

Because we already know the end of the story — Blanco’s later achievements in poetry — it’s easy to see how crucial these playful verbal exercises proved to be.

The memoir says little about Blanco’s compulsion to start writing and gives only scant clues to his adult life. Instead, “The Prince of los Cocuyos” comes to a passionate crescendo at a beachfront family picnic and the narrator’s reckoning with his sundry identities. This poetic “firefly” takes its sweet time testing its wings. Once in flight, it flickers brightly — then vanishes too soon.