Most non-poetry-reading Americans first encountered Richard Blanco in 2013, when he was the presidential inauguration poet. On that occasion, his moving poem “One Today” made passing reference to his Spanish-speaking mother who rang up groceries for 20 years and his father who cut sugarcane so Richard could move ahead in the family’s new country.
Blanco, a gay Latino from Miami’s Cuban community, has now beautifully repaid that debt with The Prince of los Cocuyos, a loving memoir of his boyhood among exiles.
We follow young “Riqui” from his childhood into the larger world of school and El Cocuyito (The Little Firefly), the grocery store where he worked. His tone is fond but clear-eyed: As a boy who loved fairy princesses, he was a puzzle to his relatives. His grandmother was particularly harsh, always badgering him to be more masculine. She was frightened of what might happen to him otherwise.
Indeed, the fear that comes with an unfamiliar language and culture is a running theme: his aggressive abuela flummoxed in a Winn-Dixie; his proud parents treated with contempt during a traffic stop. And Riqui himself was initially frightened by his sexuality. He only slowly integrated his personality—gay, Cuban, American—with the help of fellow Cubans, straight and gay, and an elderly Jewish woman who taught him that living among different worlds could be great fun.
Blanco used the same material in his first poetry collection, City of a Hundred Fires, and he approaches the memoir as a creative artist who shapes his narrative, making clear that it is “not necessarily or entirely factual,” with memories “embroidered.” It doesn’t matter: Blanco’s touching reminiscence has a deep emotional truth.