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Newest Exonians bond around story of becoming

Incoming ninth-graders are reading Richard Blanco's memoir The Prince of los Cocuyos ahead of the new academic year.

By
Patrick Garrity
August 8, 2019
Writer Richard Blanco holding a book.

Richard Blanco, one of the nation's foremost poets, will speak at assembly Sept. 13.

Less than a month to go before their Exeter experience officially begins, the members of the class of 2023 are already on the same page in at least one respect.

The 201 incoming preps are reading Richard Blanco’s memoir, The Prince of los Cocuyos, a summer homework assignment that is the first of its kind at the Academy. English Instructor Tyler Caldwell chose the text, which is intended to form a baseline for the newest Exonians ahead of their arrival.

“The common read establishes a sense of community before the ninth-graders arrive to campus, and it creates a common ground for discussion after they arrive to campus,” said Caldwell, who is entering his second year as coordinator of a ninth-grade program devised to ease the transition of incoming students.

In a letter that accompanied the book, Caldwell wrote to the preps, “We hope that this book encourages you to consider how you might define or understand home, how you might examine and explore elements of your own identity, and how to explore and embrace a diverse range of perspectives and experiences.”

The book is the memoir of one of the leading American poets of this generation and one of five poets to serve as an inaugural poet, as Blanco did in 2013 at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. The son of Cuban immigrants, Blanco was born in Spain but immigrated with his family to the United States as an infant, eventually settling in Miami. His website describes him as “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, imported to the USA.”

The book centers around his immigrant childhood, the pain of exile for his parents and grandparents and his own “becoming” as a gay man.

I realized he was reliving the trauma of falling off the boat from Cuba and nearly drowning. I didn't know what else to do except drape my arm loosely around his shoulder. We listened to the screech of the seagulls."
The Prince of los Cocuyos

Blanco describes a youth caught between two worlds, Cuban and American, exemplified by the chorizos and tamales his abuela cooked for the family and the cans of Easy Cheese he secured on his twice-weekly forays to Winn Dixie for whole-chicken fryers. He would balance the birds on the handlebars of his bike and carefully pedal home because his grandmother refused to set foot in a domain she deemed strictly for los americanos.

The culinary collision of those worlds one night at the dinner table — Kraft mac and cheese mixed with chorizo and bijol in a concoction his grandmother named “Cubaroni” — underscored to Blanco the cultural limbo in which he lived. “The mix of flavors didn’t make sense to me,” he writes. “You had to be either Cuban or American; you couldn’t be both, I thought.”

It is Blanco’s struggle to find his place and discover who he is that drew Caldwell to The Prince of los Cocuyos.

“He is curious and thoughtful; he is funny; he seeks knowledge of the outside world; he learns to assume a greater sense of social responsibility as the narrative progresses. One of the reasons I chose The Prince of los Cocuyos is that I believe the story, the voice, and the perspective of the narrator will prompt students to examine their own personal experiences and to consider how they might enter and support a diverse community.”

Caldwell said all of the Academy’s dorm heads and a few proctors are also reading the text to prepare for conversations in the dormitory. Health instructors intend to use the text for an exercise on identity development. English teachers may use the text for examples of some of the personal writing skills taught during prep year. Most notably, the author himself will be on campus to discuss his book, his writing and his experiences in early September. Blanco’s all-school assembly Sept. 13 will be live-streamed on Exeter Live.

“The very act of reading requires the reader to participate in the creation of that tale with the author,” Caldwell wrote to the incoming students. “The reader must imagine stories and characters into existence. As a result, the reader gains insight into places, characters, and narratives that might feel familiar or unfamiliar, common or unheard.”