By Gisela Valencia
“This is a homecoming for me in many ways, in many layers… coming back to Miami and also to FIU,” said Presidential Inaugural Poet and two-time FIU alumnus Richard Blanco to an audience of FIU students, faculty and staff Oct. 7 at Modesto A. Maidique Campus.
Blanco’s memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos, was this year’s FIU common reading book for first-year students. Part of the goals of the common reading program are to give freshmen an opportunity to read a book they can relate to on many different levels, but especially, in terms of their college transition.
“All of us have one thing in common,” Blanco said. “We all become. We are perpetually becoming. At the end of high school, just for about 30 seconds, you are so sure of exactly who you are. You are a senior, you just graduated high school, and then you start your first semester at FIU. This is going to happen the rest of your life.”
In his talk, Blanco discussed the “behind-the-scenes” of his book, showing a presentation with pictures of characters from his memoir.
“I feel like I’m about to hand out a quiz at any moment,” Blanco smiled as he asked the audience who several people and objects from his pictures were.
The audience responded enthusiastically. Among others, “El Malibú,” Blanco’s father’s car; “Misu,” Blanco’s cat (whom he confessed was actually one of about 18 cats he had named Misu as a consequence of the Cuban/Cuban American phenomenon of naming all cats Misu); and of course, Blanco’s mother, identified by her “por si las moscas” bag.
Blanco, who visited the Biscayne Bay Campus the previous day, also confessed to having his own “por si las moscas” bag. The idiom, “in case of the flies,” means to be prepared for anything.
Vanessa Vazquez, assistant director of Event Management in the Graham Center and SLS Instructor, was pleased to see a her students at the event understanding more about the book after hearing Blanco read selections from it and two of his poems.
The message Blanco hopes readers take from his book: “To never stop exploring who you are, to follow your creative curiosities, your intellectual curiosities, take chances in your life, which is what you’re probably doing at FIU. Recognize that your individuality is universal. To realize you are human first, and then all those defining layers are icing on the cake.”
“His message is impactful,” said Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education at BBC Valerie Morgan, who also oversees the Common Reading Program. “It’s about humanity, getting to know others, and that’s what education is about.”
For student Ana Correa, thinking about her identity as a person in the Colombian and American cultures was touching. “Even though I’m not Cuban, I almost cried when Blanco was talking about how to find your identity in both cultures.”
One of the reasons Blanco decided to write his memoir was “pure creative, intellectual curiosity.” Blanco had written poetry, so he wanted to try his hand at a different genre.
“Becoming is a lifelong process to explore different dimensions of yourself. In a weird way, that’s why I started writing this memoir,” he said. “A lot of the story needed to be told, and poetry didn’t fit with that. In some ways, the memoir is an unpacking of my first book of poetry, City of a Hundred Fires – named after the Cuban city of Cienfuegos.”
Blanco also said, he wanted a book to tell the story of Miami and to let audiences, especially young audiences, know “they’re part of a story that started a long time ago. We are part of a continual story. So much of who we are comes from that. As the saying goes, ‘you have to know where you come from, to know where you’re going.'”
When talking about FIU, Blanco celebrated university’s current cultural diversity and he recalled the dedication of FIU professors during his time as a student.
“The strength of any institution comes down to its professors. The professors were very hands-on when I came to FIU. It’s the incredible love for the students and their learning here, and it seems the spirit has remained.”
Blanco is currently working with a photographer on a press book. He is writing about pictures that depict various borders and the blurring of those borders.
He also would like to start a fundraiser at FIU on Ignite, where he’ll be giving a seed grant for a fellowship for creative writing students at his alma mater.