Cultural identity through the eyes of inaugural poet, alumnus

By Gisela Valencia

“Abuela and the entire family ate breakfast dunking Pop-Tarts into their café con leche.”

–Richard Blanco, The Prince of Los Cocuyos

In 2013, Richard Blanco joined a very short list of great American poets, including Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, who have had the honor of being selected as inaugural poets. Blanco, who holds an undergraduate degree in engineering and a master’s degree in creative writing from FIU, recited One Today, an original poem he wrote for President Obama’s second inauguration.

As the inaugural poet in 2013, Blanco, who holds an undergraduate degree in engineering and a master’s degree in creative writing from FIU, recited One Today, an original poem he wrote for President Obama’s second inauguration.

In The Prince of Los Cocuyos, presidential inaugural poet and two-time FIU alumnus Richard Blanco poignantly shares his story as a kid born in Spain to a family of Cuban exiles who then immigrated to New York and ended up in Miami.

Blanco shares his journey toward unraveling the puzzle of seemingly competing cultures and viewpoints, discovering his identity, his culture, and ultimately, his home. Blanco’s memoir is also the assigned common reading book for first-year students entering FIU this year.

The Prince of Los Cocuyos is perfect for FIU students because it’s about Blanco growing up in Miami and the challenges he faced here. The cultural issues are pertinent to many students here,” says Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education at BBC Valerie Morgan, who also oversees the Common Reading Program.

She says the purpose of the Common Reading Program is “to help create a class identity and a common intellectual experience for first-year students.” An important part of that mission, Morgan says, is to find books freshmen will enjoy, books they can relate to.

Coming from a Cuban family, Freshman Jose Perez says he understands Blanco’s story and his struggle between cultures. “It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the Cuban culture, but as I read the book, I realized I definitely want to grow as both a Cuban and an American.”

Common Reading SLS Class 1

First-Year Experience Instructor Shirley Caballero leads a class discussion on Richard Blanco’s The Prince of Los Cocuyos.

Blanco’s mosaic-like cultural identity rings true for Jonas Gutierrez, too. “My dad’s Italian, my mom’s Hispanic and I’m from here,” he says. “Blanco had no idea where he’s from, but he’s a little from everywhere, exactly like me.”

“It’s a really fun book. That’s the best way I can describe it,” says First-Year Experience Instructor Shirley Caballero. “This is the book that has hit closest to home, literally.”

Nikki Uzquiano, one of the students in Caballero’s class, says Blanco’s description of his Thanksgiving dinner reminds her of her own Thanksgiving food choices. “It’s the best of both worlds: arroz con frijoles and turkey.”

Caballero, who also works at the Student Athlete Academic Center (SAAC), says students who know Miami have fun identifying places mentioned in the book; students unfamiliar with Miami learn about the culture they’ve stepped into by coming to FIU.

A student from North Miami that Caballero was helping at the SAAC was struggling to understand the Spanish words scattered throughout the book. Caballero’s co-workers stopped by with cafecito, and Caballero encouraged the student to try it and see if she liked it.

“When she took the shot of bitter coffee, her face immediately changed. She was grossed out by the cafecito. But as we kept reading the book, Blanco talks about Cuban coffee, and now the student had a real-world experience that she could connect to the book.” Caballero says.

As a student starting college, Perez says he also relates to Blanco’s desire to become part of his new community. “I don’t just want to coast through FIU, I want to come here and be FIU.”

Richard Blanco will be visiting his alma mater to discuss his memoir on Oct. 6 at 2 p.m. in the WUC Ballroom at Biscayne Bay Campus and on Oct. 7 at noon in the GC Ballroom at Modesto A. Maidique Campus.

For more information on the common reading program, The Prince of Los Cocuyos or Richard Blanco’s visit to FIU, go to