Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Prince of Los Cocuyos, poet Richard Blanco's funny, heart-wrenching memoir of growing up Cuban American in Miami

In poet Richard Blanco's funny and heart-wrenching memoir, THE PRINCE OF LOS COCUYOS: A Miami Childhood (Harper Collins) young Riqui is a Cuban American boy in the Miami of the 1970-80's. He wants to fit in but knows he's faking it at home and in school.  In school, he's the smart "hoosky" (as his mother says) kid, who's good at writing and art. When he helps his teacher decorate for Easter, he finds just the right color combinations and cotton for bunny tails. But praise of his creativity elicits derision from his peers. At home his Abuelo, his grandmother, knows creative equals "muchaco," a word more insulting than gay. So young Riqui learns to hide his talents.

Naturally, Riqui is conflicted about his Abuelo, who acts like his worst enemy but can be most generous. He admires her clever frugality, the penny pinching that enabled his family to get out of Cuba. In Miami, she turns bargains into cash and works as a bookie. When his working mother assigns Abuelo the task of buying food and cooking meals, Riqui's enlisted to help with his American English and his bicycle. Though her goal is to eat Cuban in a Yanqui world, Riqui lures her to the American pleasures of the Winn Dixie. Though they agree that Cheese Whiz is a great invention, Riqui's  major problem remains--Abuelo's fierce desire to make him an "hombre."

When all the kids in art class are hooking rugs from kits, not only won't she buy him one but she confiscates one he buys with his own money--despite its macho Tiger image.. Later, she provides funds for the family to go to Disneyland, but is unhappy Riqui wants not only to go inside Cinderella's castle, but to put on her slipper. Though much of his childhood is spent getting around her efforts to make him a perfect Cuban male, Riqui does explore his own American dreams. He plans an American Thanksgiving Turkey dinner with yams and turkey but it doesn't happen in the style of the Waltons. His relatives politely eat turkey but heartily consume pork brought "just in case" and end the meal in a Cuban congo line.

With Riqyui's best friend Julio  new freedom enters his life. Abuelo considers him properly macho, so she looks the other way at their late hours and  loud American music. Still Riqui finds it increasingly difficult to square his American aspirations with his parents' somewhat claustrophobic Cuban community. He's gripped with alienation, a sense of not belonging to either place. Then, on a family vacation, he finds solace with a Jewish octogenarian/ at their broken down hotel. Though his mother and Abuela are furious at the strange attachment, Riqui learns from the Queen of the Copa, a WWII survivor, who's "not from anywhere,"

Then, because Abuelo feels he's too soft, Riqui's given a summer job at his uncle's Cuban Supermarket run by his aunt. Once a beautiful educated Cuban "debutante," she presides over the market, a queen in polyester. Riqui is happy she appreciates his competence, taste, and that he's developing into a fine young man. As they come to respect each other, she allows him to do intricate displays and show off the fine wines. Yet he's aware that the market, like his aunt and his parents,is stuck in the Cuba of the 1950's.

From more  recent immigrants, he learns about the immense poverty in Cuba and the harsh effects of the police state. His parents' world of  mansions and money, culture and education is long gone. Yet their community celebrates extravagant festivals, such as The Quinces, the 15's. When Riqui is recruited to play the "prince" in one, he enjoys the pageantry but feels peculiar about having so little attraction to his beautiful young senorita. He fights recognition of his  real sexual stirrings, unacceptable to both cultures. Then, working at the market, he meets an artist from Havana and admits to himself that he feels emotions for this man he's supposed to feel for women.

The artist reassures him that some day he will "grow into being different." Riqui also realizes, through the friendship, that the world outside his Cuban enclave will value his creative abilities. He doesn't have to pretend to like dead pigs, he can be himself. But first he must leave the warm insular world that nurtured him.

Though this is a poet's memoir, Blanco was named Inaugural poet, I was most moved by his tangible images. Soft silly chicks in his Miami backyard, a cotton bunny tail on construction paper,the pulpy texture of plantains, the glitter of Cinderella's castle, labels of wine bottles made of elegant whirls, the feel of water on erotically charged skin, a portrait that exactly reproduces the line of his nose. Blanco's imagery is palpable. Words and dialogue are simply the mind catching up with the beauty of his senses.