Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"It Takes a Pueblo": Richard Blanco's Loving Memoir

Like any good memoirist, poet Richard Blanco wrote The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood (New York: HarperCollins, 2014) for himself as much as for his readers.  We are the beneficiaries.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/entertainment/books/article3342214.html#storylink=cpy
He wanted to honor the people and places of his life.  He dedicates the book to his brother Carlos (a.k.a. Caco), "my confidant, babysitter, cohort, superhero, ally, friend," and (in the acknowledgments) "a fixed star in my life who means more to me than I can express in these pages." After little Riqui meets his brother's challenge to ride the "Space Mountain" roller-coaster with him, Caco gives him five dollars and the affirmation that the overweight young boy with "sissy" tendencies needed. Later, Richard tries to teach his brother how to dance, "barefoot in Fruit of the Loom boxers" (location 1787 in Kindle edition).   Any sibling can recognize the mix of affection, competition, and, against the parents, coalition.

Blanco lovingly portrays many other characters for us to share.  His thrifty abuela panics in the English-only environment of "el Ween-Deezie" but comes up with "cubaroni" and a hybrid "San Giving" feast to please her grandson.  His abuelo helps him to build a backyard farm for cat, bunnies, and chickens; after town ordinances require the massacre of the chickens, the grandfather embraces the boy in commiseration, remembering a dog loved and left behind in Cuba.  Yetta Epstein, whom he knew only during a family vacation to a run-down resort, gets her own chapter, "Queen of the Copa."  She's a character I recognize from my own past, the kind of little Jewish woman with big jewels, big hair, big voice, and little tact.  She teaches him that it's okay to be "a little from everywhere."  When she takes him with her to the hair salon, she pretends he's her illegitimate grandson from Cuba, explaining in an aside to him, "If it's gossip they want, gossip they'll get" (1873).  We meet the charismatic class clown Julio in his Corvette, and the lovely Anita whose friendship with Richard ended sadly on prom night when a rote kiss revealed to each that they would never be more than friends:
I felt like I was in a movie, like I was acting.  I was there and yet I wasn't.  I felt the tenderness and intimacy, but not the passion that Julio had described.  I knew it should be one of the most beautiful, unforgettable moments in my life -- my first kiss -- but I also knew in that moment that I wasn't, and never would be, like other boys (2723).

Blanco tells in his foreword of writing "to discover what my life would read like without line breaks."  Foremost of the through-lines that he finds is his learning to appreciate his family's deep, visceral sense of yearning for the Cuba left behind.  He feels it in his last glimpse of the Magic Kingdom from the monorail, "nearly weeping as I watched my perfect world shrink to a handful of tiny lights as far away as the stars."  He asks, "Was this what my parents had felt when they left Cuba, not knowing whether they'd ever see such a magical place again?"  (1470).  He tells the Miami Herald, " The Cuban exile archetype is about loss, and as humans we all experience loss."  By the end of the memoir, we know that he will one day weep to feel the ground of Cuba.

Tying in with this theme of lost Cuba, there's another through-line that we'll all recognize, the workplace where we learn competence. For Blanco, it's his uncle's grocery store, El Cucoyito, "the little firefly," named for the fireflies that his uncle recalls lighting up the night sky in Cuba.   Blanco has included fireflies in descriptions of scenes, suggesting memory in their evanescence and elusiveness; but also drawing attention to El Cucoyito.  He's sentenced to work the summer there at age twelve to burn off baby fat, but he gains confidence and comes to love the place.  He learns to be swift at labeling prices, keeping inventory, lifting boxes, and displaying wares in pyramids.  He reflects,
El Cocuyito wasn't just a grocery store anymore, it felt like [my uncle's] village to me, a pueblo where everyone knew each other and where, for a few minutes every day, they could pretend they were still in Cuba... I thought about all I may have lost without knowing.  Perhaps El Cocuyito was my village, my pueblo, too (2474).
Through El Cucoyito, Blanco traces two other themes that make him.

First, there's the call of art.  We meet Felipe, who transforms boxes from the grocery store into a vast model of pre-revolutionary Havana.  Fascinated, Richard comes to visit each week:  "Every Friday, spread out before me, right there on his dinner table, was a Havana I could touch, a Cuba I could hold in my hands" (2230).  Richard would go on to become trained as a civil engineer.  Then there's Victor, hired to help at the store, who listens to opera on his Walkman and portrays life at the grocery store in a mural drawn on boxes stacked in the upper store room. Then, Richard discovers poetry by chance, when a substitute teacher gives the students an hour to write about anything in the textbook.  The day happens to be when Richard had already been shaken by the math lesson about "imaginary numbers," raising a question about the reality of everything for the rest of the day (2735).  Richard is drawn to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," its sadness and longing, and especially the lines about "mermaids singing, each to each.  I do not think that they will sing to me," and the question, "Do I dare...disturb the universe?" 

Last, Richard encounters two men who show him what it might be like to respond to the mermaids' call.  One is that muralist Victor, to whom he has become close.  Victor invites him home to see a full-size mural that Victor calls "Los Cocuyitos," depicting Richard "with a halo of fireflies, floating above everything" at the grocery store (2950).   "It was beautiful," Blanco writes, "like the poem, like the mermaids, like imaginary numbers" (2956).  After dinner, Victor draws a realistic portrait of Richard, and kisses him.  For a moment, Richard wonders, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" but changes the subject (2969).

At "La Farita," a lighthouse where the extended family has a pig roast, Richard has a close encounter with Ariel, who seems to embody all the things that Richard has longed to be throughout the memoir.  Remembered as a sullen pudgy silent child, refugee from the Mariel boat lift of the mid-1970s, Ariel at seventeen is now a "superman" bigger than Richard, more Cuban because native, and more enthusiastic about American music and sports.   (His pug Yackson is named for "Reggie Jackson" - a Spanglish joke.)   When Richard's mother commiserates with Ariel over the lost homeland,
Ariel gently stroked her back.  Was Mama really that special?  I wondered.   For a moment, it felt as if I were watching a movie in which my mother was not my mother, but simply a her, full of loss and fear, love and charity -- a complex woman, not just the family overlord.  I wanted to kiss her too, and thank her -- but I didn't.  (3066)
Later, Ariel proves to be even more competent than Richard's older relatives at building a fire pit for roasting a pig and at dancing.  Richard has another epiphany when his family exclaims over the beauty of the hideously disfigured face of the charred pig: "The pig was beautiful not because of how it looked, but because of what it meant" as a reminder of "who they were" (3272).

Ariel's motto is "I like what I like," and he seems unafraid to go for anything, whether it's New Wave music, a sports car half-repainted gold (all he can afford for now), or Richard (3182, 3287).  When Richard dances with a girl cousin, Ariel audaciously cuts in to dance with Richard.    At the end of the memoir, we see that Ariel is a kind of lighthouse showing Richard the way to dare to go forward.

Is it too neat to be true?   Blanco writes in the "author's note" that the pages are "emotionally true," though he has compressed events, changed names, "collaged" different people in one, and imagined dialogue.  Finding the storyline in the facts of his life, Blanco has created for us a piece as engaging as any fiction, as meaningful as any essay..  

I've blogged about Blanco's poetry:  Not Grievance But Gratitude reviews Blanco's collection of poems Looking for the Gulf Motel; focusing on the last few poems of that collection, I find Solace in Blanco Verse for Midlife, Midwinter Blues.

I recommend Blanco's interview with Connie Ogle of the Miami Herald (article of 10/26/2014).  He says that the irony of writing a memoir is that "you’re being selfish and thinking about your memoir and life, but you have to tap into something universal, some common human denominator." 

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