Last reviewed: June 2017
Cuban American novelist
August 24, 1951
New York, New York
October 12, 2013
New York, New York
Oscar Jerome Hijuelos (ee-WAYL-ohs) was widely regarded as a successful Latino writer who moved Latino cultural expression from the margins to the center of mainstream recognition. He was born to immigrant Cuban parents in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City. In his childhood, he witnessed the ordeals of his family in exile, and he suffered the turmoils of growing up Hispanic in the United States.
Hijuelos’s father, Pascual Hijuelos, who worked as a dishwasher and a cook, died when Hijuelos was a teenager; his mother, Magdalena Torrens Hijuelos, was a homemaker who yearned to write poetry. His first novel, Our House in the Last World, published in 1983, is dedicated to them. This autobiographical work illustrates immigrant experiences similar to those lived by his family. The protagonists attach themselves to memories of a privileged life in Cuba while struggling to achieve success in the United States as members of an underprivileged ethnic minority. The isolation imposed by a different culture and language leads to feelings of alienation and powerlessness and often to violence and death. Oscar Hijuelos.
The visit of Hijuelos to Cuba when he was three years old is portrayed in the novel. After returning from the sunny and warm island, the young protagonists, Héctor and his brother, encounter the cold reality of the urban world in New York. They are ridiculed by other children for being Hispanic; at the same time they are called “Whitey” or “Pinky” because of their light skin. The concept of being “Cuban” is questioned when other Hispanics consider them “American.” Like his characters, Hijuelos grew up with a sense of marginality and with a need to establish an identity within the two cultures. The use of Spanish words in the novel reflects bilingual and bicultural influences. His work becomes an expression of self-affirmation and the articulation of identity. Nostalgia for Cuba is a source of inspiration for poetic creation.
Ghosts appear in the novel, in an imagined house which represents memory. The writing of recollections and remembrances constitutes a form of survival. Like his protagonist Héctor, the author finished college; his efforts were rewarded when he received bachelor of arts and master’s degrees from City College of New York. The novel won Hijuelos the Rome Prize for literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Hijuelos’s interest in Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean music and its strong influence on American popular culture is reflected in his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, published in 1989. The research-based novel is a well-documented chronicle of the 1930s and 1940s music scene in Cuba and the times and spirit of the 1940s and 1950s in New York. In this family saga, where glories of the past and complex relationships are relived through memory and imagination, musical creation allows the expression of emotions and spiritual survival.
The search for the American Dream leads two Cuban immigrants—Cesar and Néstor Castillo, the Mambo Kings—to musical stardom and romantic adventures. The flamboyant Latin lovers, who fear a lifelong loneliness without love, have a macho, sexist attitude toward women. The younger generation, represented by Eugenio, born in America, recreates in the 1980s the memories of his ancestors and the influence of their culture in America.
The novel’s narrative movement is provided by the shifts from one character’s story to the next, going back and forth in time, with narrations in the first and third person. There are fluid transitions between English and Spanish. Extensive footnotes add to the monologues and dialogues in the text. During the writing of the novel, the author received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. The best-selling book was awarded the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in fiction and was made into a motion picture.
The epic novel The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien appeared in 1993, offering the view of a woman’s world, in contrast to the male perspective of the previous work. In this saga of an immigrant Pennsylvania family with a Cuban mother and an Irish father, the large number of sisters portrayed seems to reflect the reality of Hijuelos’s family: The author’s father had nine sisters, and his mother had three (Hijuelos himself had only one brother). The patriarch of the O’Brien family, Nelson, marries the aristocratic Mariela Montez when he goes to Cuba as a photographer during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The Montez O’Briens’ first daughter, Margarita, is born at sea in 1902, en route to the United States. They settle in a rural Pennsylvania town, where the other daughters and finally a son, Emilio, are born. Readers follow their lives and loves in a chronicle spanning the twentieth century, moving from one character to another, from dreams and hopes to disappointments and tragedies. In this novel Hijuelos provides, once again, a colorful and heartfelt portrait of immigrant life in the United States.
Mr. Ives’ Christmas is a story of a man who must, over his life, cope with both a mystical vision and his son’s murder on Christmas Eve. The murder causes him to question his faith, but ultimately he finds spiritual peace. In Empress of the Splendid Season, Hijuelos follows the fortunes of Lydia España over half a century, from being exiled by her Cuban family for a sexual indiscretion to making a life for herself in New York. A Simple Habana Melody: From When the World Was Good is also epic in scope, tracing the fortunes of a Cuban musician, Israel Levis, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Levis gains fame as the composer of a popular rumba, enjoys café society in the 1930s, and then is mistakenly interned at Buchenwald when his last name is taken to be Jewish. The novel contrasts the expansive, luxury-loving Levis with the increasingly niggardly, mean-spirited world he lives in.
Hijuelos died in Manhattan at the age of sixty-two after collapsing on a tennis court and losing consciousness. He was survived by his second wife, writer and editor Lori Marie Carlson, and his brother, José Hijuelos.