Anyone who's ever felt they were on the fringes of society knows what it's like to be marginalised and shunned for not fitting in. Richard Blanco experienced that feeling while growing up, and although his popularity as a poet and storyteller allowed him to finally realize his dreams, the road to acceptance was anything but easy. Born in Spain to Cuban parents, he emigrated to the U.S. as child, facing not only the challenge of adapting to a new country and culture, but also having to grapple with his sexual identity at a time when gays were considered well outside the American mainstream.
"I've been exploring questions of cultural identity for years, since my first book of poetry was published in 1998 and through two subsequent collections of poetry," Blanco explains. "However, about five years ago--motivated by my creative curiosity--I decided to try writing prose. And so I began working on what has now become the memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos. I discovered that prose allowed me to 'unpack' a lot of the stories and questions that I couldn't quite capture in poetry."
Clearly he succeeded. The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, describes in bittersweet detail, the anguish, ironies and hardships that this openly gay Latino writer -- and, for that matter, the first openly gay Presidential Inaugural Poet -- was forced to face.
"I don't think being gay in a Hispanic culture is any more difficult or any easier," Blanco says. "It's just different, and presents different challenges. My challenge--especially with my grandmother--wasn't about trying to convince her that homosexuality wasn't a 'sin,' or that I would be eternally damned. Instead, the 'sin' in her eyes was being effeminate.
"In the memoir, I recall her saying, 'It's better to be it, but not act like it, than to not be it and yet act like it.' By "it" she meant being gay. Unknowingly, she epitomized the concept of 'machismo,' which is very characteristic of Hispanic cultures, especially those that place supreme value on masculine qualities and tend to denigrate female qualities. That is what I wanted to highlight the sense that the development of my sexual identity was uniquely related to the development of cultural identity. Those two 'stories' are really one 'story' -- the story of my cultural sexuality, as I call it. I can't separate who I am as a gay man from who I am as a Cuban man."
Despite that overwhelming theme, Blanco's book still manages to come across as warm, compelling, and laced with some surprising humor. "A lot of readers have told me that the memoir made them laugh and cry at the same time," Blanco says. "It's a very particular emotional state; there ought to be a word for it. I've always had that kind of tragic-comic sense to life, which is perhaps a cultural influence. I think it came through naturally in the writing. What's more, humor can be very cathartic, revealing, and healing."
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While there's no denying that assertion, the thing that comes through overall is Blanco's clear determination to find his voice, both as an artist and an individual. Yet, at the same time, it's a tale that resonates well beyond his own experience, making this a book that will likely strike a chord with many of those who read it.
"Although the memoir tells a very particular story, as it should, it's ultimately about the very universal experience of coming of age and the constant act of becoming," he says. "Consequently, I think it's a story for everyone, whether Latino or Anglo, 15 or 50, gay or straight. As such, I hope my words serve as a mirror in which readers can see themselves and reflect on the uniqueness of their own lives -- their own struggles and joys, questions and memories -- and gain a new, or renewed, appreciation for their own 'stories.'"
Blanco, who was selected by President Barrack Obama as the first Latin, immigrant, and openly gay poet to participate in a presidential inauguration in 2012, no longer lives in Miami, but he insists the city will always serve as an inspiration. "Miami has always been and continues to be my muse," he asserts. "I will always be a 'son' of Miami. It has helped make my work unique because it is such a unique city with so many unique stories. I think Miami is the only truly 'Latinized' city in the United States, and as such, Miami has taught me to always be proud of my culture and my heritage. And I think that has been one of the keys to my successes."
Books & Books, in partnership with FIU's Creative Writing Department, will sponsor an evening with the author at Coral Gables Congregational Church at 8 p.m. on Saturday, November 1. The event is free, but RSVPs are suggested at eventbrite. Blanco will also be reading at the Miami Book Fair International. Visit miamibookfair.com.