Places: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1989

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1930’s-1980’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedHotel Splendour

Hotel Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, TheSplendour. Flophouse on New York City’s 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in which Cesar Castillo drinks himself to death, chosen for that purpose so that he can recollect much happier times, when it was a regular venue for fervent bouts of love-making with Vanna Vane. The name is ironically symbolic: for Cesar (unlike Nestor) New York is–at least to begin with–all splendor: a prolific well of sexual and other delights that shows no indication of running dry until Nestor’s death.

*Las Piñas

*Las Piñas. Village in Cuba’s Oriente Province that is near the farm on which the Castillo brothers are born and raised. Three miles from town, the farm is approached by a dirt road which runs alongside the river. It is in the “concert hall” of the local sugar-mill that Cesar first encounters the music that shapes his life and soul and makes contact with bandleader Ernesto Lecuona. Unlike Nestor, the young Cesar is harshly treated by his father, subsequently remembering the farm primarily as a place where he suffered frequent undeserved beatings.

La Salle Street tenement

La Salle Street tenement. Six-story tenement building west of 124th Street that becomes the Castillo brothers’ New York residence. Their fourth-floor apartment is initially rented by Pablo, the cousin with whom they lodge on first arriving in New York, but it becomes theirs when Pablo moves his family to Queens. Following Nestor’s death, when Cesar joins the merchant marines, it becomes the home of Delores, her children, and her second husband; after his return, Cesar obtains the job of building superintendent, with his own apartment on a lower floor and a workroom in the basement. The building–which is home to a rich assortment of ethnicities, is two minutes from the 125th Street El and offers a view from its roof of the Hudson River and Grant’s Tomb–is the foundation-stone of the brothers’ New York experience. Cesar’s changing relationship with it maps the financial and emotional trajectory of his life.

*Havana

*Havana. Cuba’s capital and leading city, where Cesar and Nestor serve the latter part of their “apprenticeship” as professional musicians, while working by day at the Havana Explorer’s Club. Havana serves as a staging ground for their two principal homes, facilitating the break-up of Cesar’s marriage as well as providing a practice-ground for life in the city, compared to which prerevolutionary Havana seems merely a pale echo. It is in Havana’s red-light district, La Marina, that Nestor’s fateful meeting with Maria takes place. Although Cesar marries Luisa in Santiago de Cuba, and first abandons her there, it is in Havana that she remarries; thus Cesar retains a connection to Havana via his daughter Mariela–although that tie is far weaker than the one that binds Nestor inescapably to his homeland. The neurotic nostalgia encapsulated in Nestor’s song “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” wears a romantic disguise, but its subject is as much a symbol of a forsaken home as of a lost love; it is as significant that Nestor’s wife Delores also originates from Havana as it is that his mother is also named Maria.

Park Palace Ballroom

Park Palace Ballroom. Ballroom on New York’s 110th Street and Fifth Avenue that is Cesar’s favorite among the many pickup joints he frequents in his heyday. Its exceptionally luxurious rest rooms accommodate bookies, dealers in magazines, flowers, condoms, and reefers, and shoeshine boys as well as the usual facilities–everything that a Mambo King could possibly desire, save for the women awaiting his reemergence on the dance floor.

*Hollywood

*Hollywood. Section of Los Angeles that is the center of the television and motion picture industries and the place at which the brothers’ career reaches its zenith, when they are befriended by bandleader-actor Desi Arnaz and make a guest appearance on an episode of his I Love Lucy television show. Hollywood’s reward–a few minutes of universal fame and a kind of immortality–is one that even New York cannot grant.

Fan Sagrada

Fan Sagrada. Village in Spain’s Galicia region from which the Castillo brothers’ father emigrated to Cuba and toward which his own life-blighting nostalgia is directed.

BibliographyFoster, David William, comp. Handbook of Latin American Literature. 2d ed. New York: Garland, 1992. The section on Cuban Americans discusses Hijuelos’ novel as a text inspired and guided by music, which becomes “the center of the narrative,” recalling the influential times in Latin music. Considers the dynamics of the exile experience as a major aspect of the work.Kanellos, Nicolás. “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” Review of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos. The Americas Review 18 (Spring, 1990): 113-114. Praises Hijuelos as an intellectual whose research-based novel is a well-documented chronicle of a period when Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean music strongly influenced popular culture in the United States.Perez Firmat, Gustavo. Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. A scholarly volume of criticism focusing on selected Cuban cultural figures, such as Desi Arnaz and his television show “I Love Lucy.” Hijuelos and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel are also discussed.Shorris, Earl. “Neither Here nor There.” In Latinos: A Biography of the People. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. Refers to the commercial and critical success of Hijuelos’ novel, and discusses death as a major theme in the book.
Categories: Places