Sunday, January 25, 2015

Non-Fiction: The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood by Richard Blanco

The way my January reading has progressed is interesting. I'm reading books I wanted to read in 2014, mostly mainstream fiction, non-fiction, or literary fiction, that have been lingering in my Kindle since 2014. Books like The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood by Richard Blanco (September 30, 2014, Ecco).

In 2013, Blanco was the fifth, youngest, first Latino, immigrant and openly gay writer to be chosen as inaugural poet of United States. He read the original poem One Today. With The Prince of Los Cocuyos, Blanco veers from poetry on to the realm of creative non-fiction. He takes a collection of linked short stories that when assembled become a partial biographical tale focusing on Blanco's childhood in Miami where his exiled Cuban family settled.

Blanco chooses slices from his childhood -- moments, memories -- and gives the reader an understanding of the Cuban exile's experience and culture in Miami beginning in the early 1970's. These slices or memories are separated into chapters, each with a title. "The First Real San Giving Day," in which as a little boy Riqui yearns for a real American experience during the Thanksgiving holiday and manipulates his grandmother into making it happen, contains much of what is found throughout this book to make it work. There are funny moments, but it also presents a portrait of the immigrant's experience from an intimate perspective, one that is also encased in frustration and nostalgia.

Nostalgia is the recurring theme. Blanco attempts to understand the seemingly perennial sense of nostalgia that surrounds the Cuban exile community by exploring or dissecting different events that take place in his personal life. However, Blanco also explores the effects cultural differences and language barrier have on an immigrant community, specifically how isolation from the mainstream and fear of the unknown prevents individuals from moving outside the "safety zone" their community represents. Additionally, he goes on to show the frustration and ambivalence of children growing up with two strong cultures pushing and pulling at them. Children who need to be part of the mainstream American culture, yet  want to understand their parents, their love of the 'old country' and cultural traditions.

An excellent example of this effect can be found in "El Ratoncito Miguel," one of the funniest, most touching chapters of the book. Riqui leaves Miami for the first time on a trip to Disney World with his parents and brother. Away from the "safety zone," Riqui's father becomes self-conscious and less confident. Riqui and his brother take control of situations for their parents because they speak English and later, when necessary, both become their parents' protectors. This is a sort of role reversal that many children with monolingual parents experience early on.

On the amusing side of things, in this same chapter Blanco also introduces his mother's "por si las moscas" (meaning or taking the place of "por si acaso" or "just in case") tote bag where she carries the most unexpected items -- some embarrassing, others dangerous. This "in case of flies bag," which Blanco translates literally, becomes a recurring joke throughout the rest of the book. The literal translation makes it even funnier in the context of the stories. Blanco translates most of the Spanish words he uses in the book, and uses literal translations for many of the Cuban sayings -- what he refers to in a later chapter as "Cubichi speech" or Cubanisms.

In one of my favorite chapters, "Queen of the Copa," Miami's glamorous history is integrated along with Miami's diminishing Jewish community, which Blanco uses to further explore the nostalgia theme. And throughout the entire book, including the remaining chapters, "It takes un Pueblo," "Listening to Mermaids," and "El Farito," Blanco also incorporates early difficulties encountered with family, community, and himself while coming to terms with his sexuality. His grandmother, a fierce woman who held old-fashioned, homophobic views, makes a particularly strong impact:
"it's better to be it and not look like it, than to look like it even if you are not it." 
From a personal perspective, I found myself relating strongly to quite a few of the circumstances Blanco portrays in this book. Looking at The Prince of Los Cocuyos from a bit of a distance, I found his storytelling to be touching, insightful, and hysterically funny at times with a bit too much emphasis placed on the nostalgia factor. The book as a whole comes across as genuine, heartfelt, and extremely intimate, depicting strengths and weaknesses in his family, himself, as well as in his community. As a great companion read, I recommend Blanco's poetry volume Looking for the Gulf Motel.


2 comments:

  1. Hils, what a thoughtful write-up, excellent review! Several elements definitely hit home, in particular, the "safety zone" and "two strong cultures pushing and pulling."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Indie, this is a book I ended up discussing with family and friends. It hit home for many of us. Blanco's stories are genuine and his memories are similar to many of those held by many of us. A funny and really very emotional read with a few complex threads running through it. I enjoyed it.

      Delete

Anonymous Users disallowed due to large influx of spam.