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NEW YORK, NY -- When Richard Blanco was growing up in a Cuban immigrant family in Miami, American meant The Brady Bunch and boxed macaroni and cheese - which to his horror became "Cubaroni" after his Abuela (grandmother) triumphantly added lard, chorizo, garlic and Bijol seasoning. Decades later, the formerly "hoosky" immigrant boy (that's how his mom pronounced "husky") who longed to be American stood on a podium near President Obama as the nation's fifth inaugural poet.
"That's when I realized my story and my mother's story and the stories of all the millions of people I came to represent were the American story," said Blanco, who sat down with NBC to talk about his richly textured, beautifully crafted new memoir, "The Prince of Los Cocuyos."
"I'm not exactly Peter Brady, or in my case Marcia Brady," said Blanco, who is gay, with a laugh,"but that's exactly what the American story has always been about."
Blanco takes the reader through his childhood in "Guecheste," - the Miami suburb of Westchester where he and his family settled when he was very young. Blanco effortlessly - and at times hilariously - weaves Spanish words and phrases into his text, explaining that was the only way he could give voice to his parents and grandparents. "I don't hear my parents in English," he said. The "Los Cocuyos" in the book's title means is the Spanish word for a type of firefly, as well as the name of his aunt's Miami bodega, where Cuban immigrants went to buy the food that reminded them of home.
There are laugh-out-loud moments, like when young Richard eagerly introduces his family to Thanksgiving dinner but they refuse to eat pumpkin pie - pie means foot in Spanish. On another occasion, when he convinces Abuela (who was a bookie, by the way) to buy Easy Cheese, she ends up putting it on everything except Ritz crackers, which was the way his American friends ate it at their homes.
Then there are the passages that break your heart. When asked about that, Blanco said the sense of "tragicomedia" is very cultural. "One minute you’re laughing and one minute you're crying and you don’t know why – that feeling of crying and laughing at the same time; there should be a name for it," he said.
Blanco did not come out as gay until he was an adult, but tenderly conveyed in the book what it was like to feel different as a young child without fully understanding why.
“It’s a knowing without knowing and I wanted to see what that looked like as I went back into my childhood...my first girlfriend and my first kiss and going gee, there’s something weird here I’m trying but something is not clicking," he said.
Blanco said there are lot of coming- out stories, "but I don’t think there’s many dealing with them since you were 6 years old," he said. "You don't sit there as a teenager, as a pre-adolescent kid and wonder, gee, am I gay or not. It's so terrifying that you don't even have the courage to ask those questions in the private recesses of your mind. said the author.
Some of the most painful moments in the book revolved around his grandmother's reaction to young Richard's early interests. Abuela made him return a latchhook rug kit and exchange it for a leather wallet; she brusquely told him crafts were not for "hombres."
Writing the book, said Blanco, helped him come to terms with his grandmother's hurtful comments and behavior. "I finally understood...She wasn’t hating me per se, she was just trying to change my behavior, to set me out into a world that she thought was a lot more cruel than it actually was," Blanco reflected.
Like other immigrants' children, his childhood was also shaped against the backdrop of the deep, aching nostalgia his adult relatives had for the Cuba they left behind. In a wonderful part of the book, an all-night pig roast "with the hombres" at his aunt's bodega encapsulated the world he inhabited - funny and poignant. (He reads it in the video below).
Blanco said it took him years to understand his heritage and what Cuba meant to him, just like it took years to come to terms with his sexual identity.
Yet he feels we can all identify with the book, because we have all felt like "strangers in our land" at one point or another.
"If you move from Miami to Maine like I did, that in a way is an immigrant experience," he said laughing. "You have to negotiate your community and you have to understand your sense of place in the world...That sense of negotiating this, and being confused by it and in a way having fun with it, is part of the American story we can all relate to."
A teacher recently told Blanco that after a student finished reading his book, he asked the teacher, 'How did he know to write my story?'
That, said the Cuban-American poet and author, is why he writes.
"The whole object of art is to become a mirror and let people see into their own lives."