Places: Our House in the Last World

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1983

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Bildungsroman

Time of work: 1920’s-1970’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Manhattan

*Manhattan. Our House in the Last WorldBorough of New York City in which most of the novel takes place within an upper West Side apartment building. From Cuba, New York City beckons with opportunity, a springboard for “making it” before moving on to settle elsewhere or returning to the island. The self-imposed exile of the adventurous or carefree Cubans of the 1940’s was quite different from that of the political refugees several decades later.

After their spending money dwindles, the Santinios–unskilled and speaking no English–discover the harsh reality of surviving in the big city. The kitchen of the luxury hotel in which Alejo works as a cook–a space and job generally reserved for women in Cuba’s patriarchal culture–is a microcosm of the downtrodden of the city and epitomizes Alejo’s failure to become a man of distinction. Similar to the city, the hotel, a large enterprise, offers opportunities that Alejo passes up.

The Santinios’ dilapidated apartment mirrors a dysfunctional family literally falling apart. In the novel, New York can be equated with a place of violence–in the streets, in the home. Ironically, although the Santinios live near “the University,” presumably Columbia University, an Ivy League institution synonymous with upward mobility, a higher education is not accessible to them or their children.

*Holguín

*Holguín (ol-GEEN). Picturesque Cuban city of rolling hills in the island’s central valley; a fertile region for agriculture and diverse commerce often called Cuba’s granary. The novel opens with the family history of Mercedes Sorrea and Alejo Santinio, both of whom come from a lineage of successful Spanish immigrants and respected patriarchs, whose image Alejo is not able to live up to in the United States.

Descriptions of Mercedes’ luxurious childhood home and Alejo’s leisurely, debonair lifestyle in Cuba contrast starkly with the couple’s life in their Manhattan tenement. Mercedes especially resents her husband’s failures and comes to remember Holguín as a lost paradise, as her memory selectively recalls what she has left behind and not why she and Alejo left. The Santinios’ metaphorical loss of their homeland becomes real and permanent with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 that prompts other family members to join the mass exodus of Cubans fleeing the new communist regime of Fidel Castro.

Although the Santinios’ New York-born sons spend only one summer in Holguín, Cuba marks their identity formation. Coming into manhood is linked to a search for Cubanness and personal authenticity. For Hector, who contracts an illness during his visit, Holguín represents painful aspects of his life–“Cuba gave the bad disease. Cuba gave the drunk father. Cuba gave the crazy mother”–but he also recognizes that this place is one of original love and happiness that is seemingly out of reach to the Santinios in New York. Cuba is where Mercedes once lived a “life of style and dignity and happiness.” Hector wants their apartment to be filled with beams of sunlight, “like in the dream house of Cuba.” He also recalls that Cuba was where Aunt Luisa constantly showered him with the hugs and kisses his soul craved.

*Miami

*Miami. Florida city that has flourished economically and culturally with the entrepreneurial spirit of its large Cuban immigrant population. In Miami, the Cuban way of life thrives outside the Caribbean homeland. The city offers hope–for prosperity, for a better life, and for a return to Cuba. In contrast to his Manhattan neighborhood, Hector observes there are no street gangs, derelicts, or junkies on Miami’s Calle Ocho, the small business sector in Little Havana and the heart of a vibrant community of exiles. Members of the Santinio clan who have made it big in the United States live in Miami. Only in Miami does Hector come into contact with strong, successful, and respected Cuban men who, unlike his father, make him feel protected.

Last World

Last World. The title of the book alludes to a multivalent place that may or may not be associated with a geographical location. The “Last World” contains the house of memory, the past and one’s origins, the life of the spirit and of dreams; however, for the characters in the novel it is ultimately the place where love resides.

BibliographyAugenbraum, Harold, and Ilan Stavans, eds. Growing up Latino: Memoirs and Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. This collection of Latino fiction and nonfiction, discusses the coming-of-age and memoir literary tradition which helps to understand Hijuelos’ works; a selection from his second novel is included.Fein, Esther B. “Oscar Hijuelos’s Unease, Wordly and Otherwise.” The New York Times (April 1, 1993): 19. Excellent article about Hijuelos, his life and works, including his personal observations. Confirms the autobiographical nature of his first novel.Foster, David William. Handbook of Latin American Literature. New York: Garland, 1992. Includes Latino writing in America. Discusses Hijuelos’ works in the context of the cultural history and cultural contributions of Cuban Americans in the United States.Kanellos, Nicolás. Biographical Dictionary of Hispanic Literature in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989. Each entry provides a biography, the literary genres, themes and analyses of the works by each author, and a bibliography. Hijuelos’ novel is discussed for its treatment of Cuban assimilation in America.Perez Firmat, Gustavo. Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. Focuses on Cuban American performers and writers. Hijuelos is presented as a cultural figure whose work exemplifies a bilingual, bicultural identity in search of a collective identity.
Categories: Places