Cuban Born

Richard Blanco’s Gay Latino Poet Survival Kit

The first immigrant and the first openly gay man to be the inaugural poet, the Cuban-born author talks about exile, his new memoir, and the forces that formed him.

10.08.14 9:45 AM ET

Richard Blanco made waves in 2013 when he was the first immigrant, Latino, and openly gay man to be the inaugural poet.

Born in Madrid as his family was fleeing Cuba, Blanco grew up, as many exiles did, in Miami, in a family trying to recreate the culture and community that was lost.

This month, Blanco is out with a memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos, that is equal parts touching, heart-ache-inducing, and laugh-out-loud funny. It covers his years from early adolescence until high school, as he comes to grips not only with his nascent sexuality, but also his Cuban-American identity. One figure in particular towers over the book—his abuela (grandmother), whose merciless tormenting of him for being effeminate shaped him like little else.

In a Q&A with The Daily Beast, Blanco opens up about coming to terms with his grandmother, about trying to pass as a straight man, and about the poem that changed his life.

What was it about this particular time in your life that made you want to focus a memoir on it?

I think as I look back on my life, my childhood and early adolescence were this magical, bewildering, chaotic, and exploratory time of my life. I always refer back to it in my poetry and I just wanted to expand those stories out and see what else was in there that wasn’t in the poetry. I think everyone has that point in their life that remains somewhat a mystery, and you always want to dig into it and discover it. For me in particular, it was the very formative years because of all the circumstances—coming to the United States at 45 days old, growing up in Miami, which is a large part of what that book is about, and negotiating those two imaginary worlds of Cuba and America. That’s what I think memoir is about, focusing on a certain aspect of your life that still has relevance to who you are as an adult.

Was the book cathartic for you? I imagine there were some scars that were reopened.

I think it was in the context of my grandmother, who is one of the main characters. I think I needed to have a conversation with my grandmother about her verbal abuse of me and her homophobia. As I wrote in the dedication, it allowed me to hate her, to love her, to forgive her. That was certainly cathartic.

There’s also something that was interesting overall in the memoir, and a new ground for me—exploring how the dimension of sexuality and my burgeoning artistic identity were colliding, merging, and intersecting with these questions of cultural identity. It’s what I like to call cultural sexuality. I can’t separate who I am as an engineer, who I am as a gay man, who I am as a Cuban, who I am as an American. In that sense the book really took a large picture of how all these things merged together, and in some way became Richard Blanco. In that way that was cathartic too, to sort of stitch up all those pieces and see how that is. It’s something that fascinates me and is something that translates into all of us, each human being is a unique combination of people and circumstances and cultures that shape us and make us who we are. We don’t always take the time to go back into our lives and try to nail down how it is that exactly happened, how it is we became who we are.

There is a passage in the book where a porno magazine is passed around among the men in your family and you find yourself having to pretend you find the naked woman interesting. I feel like that moment where one has to talk about a woman in a sexual way in front a group of guys is a rite of passage for gay men. What was it like for you revisiting those moments where you were trying to “pass.”

I think that with each “passing,” all those little moments that give you just a little bit more information about yourself, shows that coming out is a process that really begins when you are three years old. Coming out is in some ways the result. It’s not the easy part, but it’s everything that leads up to that, that fascinates me. It’s all those little moments in which we gain a little more perspective on ourselves and make choices and decisions. Even in those “passings” you get that sense of knowing, “Oh, gee God, I’m not like that.” You don’t even have language to describe it. It’s not like you’re sitting there going, “Gee, I wonder if I’m gay or not?” It’s a feeling, it’s a knowing without knowing, and that’s really what fascinates me—how all those seemingly insignificant moments in our life build up to that moment when we have the courage to say, this is who I am. Then comes another phase of that experience, but as I’ve been told and I repeat often, we have to come out every single day in some way, shape, or form for the rest of our lives. All those little moments of “passing,” of negotiating, of not even having language to say I’m straight or gay, but thinking about what are your preferences and why are you different from the others but not being able to say what that is or put a finger on it or say it to yourself—that’s really an amazing process of becoming who you already are.

The memoir is not just about you coming to terms with you being gay, but also you coming to terms with your cultural identity. I’m curious if you’ve talked to your brother, who is straight, if he felt as much turmoil as you did about being Cuban?

My brother is six-and-a-half years older than me. He is just now, at 50-something, questioning things. It’s amazing how each story is so individual and unique even though you grow up in the same family. There are so many complexities that go into being. Since he was older, I think he was a lot more traumatized, and sort of rejected feeling anything because he just wanted to put that behind him. He showed up in Spain at six-and-a-half years old, and four months later is put in PS-I-don’t-know-what in Manhattan with his name and phone number pinned to his shirt because he didn’t know a word of English. It wasn’t until recently when he got divorced and went to Cuba that he is recognizing things he’d put behind.

There is a lot of bitterness and anger in your parents’ and grandparents’ generations about Cuba in the book. Has that faded since then?

I think it’s faded. It’s been almost 60 years now. There’s a lot more revisiting Cuba than people realize. Yes, there’s this sort of public front that is certainly the face of the Cuban community. The declaration that we’re not going back and the embargo and all the rest. That’s more of a collective front. There’s a lot of going back, and a lot of reunification. My mother left all her siblings in Cuba. There’s a lot more communication than meets the eye, than you get to hear from the media. Really, it’s a nonpolitical going back, it’s all about family. It’s all about just being able to connect with those lives and people that you left behind, and feeling lucky that you can do that.

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Your abuela is a central figure in the book. One of the most intriguing things she says in the book, when it comes to your sexuality as a child, is “it’s better to be it, than to look like it even if you are not it.” One of the things I couldn’t help feeling when reading her say that, it seems to be a greater tolerance for homosexuality in Latin America than people in the U.S. realize. There is both a greater appreciation for “characters” as well as a live-and-let-live attitude as long as there is an attempt to be masculine and not be in your face.

I think that’s right on target. One of the things I discovered throughout writing this in terms of my relationship with my grandmother was realizing that the crime wasn’t being gay, the crime was being effeminate. In her twisted sort of way, it was a loving act. It was also generational, she knew that if you were going to be out there, and acting all “gay,” you were going to run into a lot of issues and have a lot of trouble, and so in a way she was trying to protect me. And that’s what she meant by that saying, that what you do is fine, as long as you’re a “man.” I think it’s entrenched culturally in the Caribbean and a lot of Latin America which comes from machismo and that legacy, the idea that you’re a man, first of all, and then there’s being gay.

But there wasn’t denial that homosexuality exists. There’s a practicality to it.

That’s a great observation. In some ways they say Latin American culture is one of the most homoerotic, and I don’t know if homoerotic is the right words, but there’s the weird irony because men are not afraid to kiss or hug but the other side of the coin, is this pretense of machismo. On the one hand it’s a female-revering culture—the biggest insult you can give a Latino is call him a son-of-a-bitch—and on the other it’s a society of men that excludes women. I think it’s certainly different than the Anglo/American tradition in which homosexuality is the pink elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about.

When you were going back to your first loves in the memoir—I call them first loves even thought nothing sexual happened—do you feel regret about not going for it and kissing Ariel or Victor?

No, I think it all happened the way it was supposed to happen. Like we were talking about, it’s all these little moments that teach you something. When you’re not ready, you’re not ready. So, no, I don’t regret it, I think they were all mentors in some ways that added to the pot of what I would eventually have the courage to do. Especially, generationally back then, the idea of coming out in high school wasn’t even a reality. So I think in some ways I’m glad because I was able to sit back and observe for myself by not involving myself in that way, if that makes sense?

When you see stories now about high schoolers coming out, what crosses your mind?

It’s actually something that’s really come on my radar, and something I’m really interested in connecting with, and have connected with. I hope the memoir in some ways offers that teenager some perspective about coming out. Because what I’ve seen happen is that some are great experiences, some are not. On the one hand, the front line of the battle, which is marriage equality, is a very adult, and let’s face it, upper-middle class struggle. And while it’s important, just because we have marriage equality doesn’t mean that the world is fine. We’ve got to take care of the troops behind, and what I’m finding is when kids don’t have a great experience, and their parents tell them, “We’re not paying for your college,” or “Get out of the house” and they have to leave—it’s one thing when that happens when you’re 25, it’s another when it’s at 16.  We’ve got to take care of our youth. We have to make sure we’re giving them this message of “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” but then also be there to pick up the pieces.

You include a story about a poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, really affecting you in your formative years. I was curious if there are poets you read now that are still having a big impact on you?

I still read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock every month or so out loud. Some of my influence has of course been Elizabeth Bishop, even though she has obviously passed. Another is my mentor Campbell McGrath. Someone I love a lot right now is Rachel McKibbens, who is doing wonderful work. As I always like to say, I have more favorite poems than poets, in the sense that a poem from anyone can continue to inspire and teach us new things. Every time I read The Love Song, it touches me deep inside somewhere. As we grow we see different dimensions of the poem we didn’t see before. So I don’t like to idolize any one particular poet because every poet is doing great poetry that inspires and with which we can connect.

How much of your family was able to see you read your poem at the inauguration?

Just my mother and brother. It’s really interesting because there’s a cultural and linguistic divide between my work and my home.  They were ecstatic, but there is still this sense of, “What does he do again?” One is a language barrier. My mother can read basic English, but she doesn’t get the subtlety or nuances of the poetry. So in some ways it’s bittersweet because so much of what I write about is them, and the incredible influences and conflict, and yet they’re a step removed from that. It’s something that was interesting for me in graduate school, because I never had the fear of “I can’t write about that” because my family was never going to read it. With the memoir I am a little more hesitant because it probably will be translated into Spanish.