Oscar Hijuelos’s novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was published in 1989, and soon became a huge international bestseller. It tells the story of Cesar Castillo, an aged musician who once had a small amount of fame when he and his brother appeared on an episode of I Love Lucy in the 1950s. The book chronicles Cesar’s last hours as he sits in a seedy hotel room, drinking and listening to recordings made by his band, the Mambo Kings. Events and characters whirl through his mind, evoking what he has lost over the years: his brother and collaborator, Nestor, who spent his adult life constantly rewriting one song about a lost love; the many lovers who gave themselves up to him as he rose triumphantly through the mambo music craze of the early fifties; and the way of life that disappeared for all Cubans after that country was overthrown by an insurrection led by Fidel Castro in 1959. In telling Cesar’s story, Hijuelos weaves in cameo appearances by several real-life mambo musicians, including Desi Arnaz, Tito Puente, Pérez Prado, Machito and Mongo Santamaría.
This novel, Hijuelos’s second, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990, marking the first time that that prize was awarded to a Hispanic author. Hijuelos has published four more novels since then, frequently touching on the theme of immigrants and how they adjust to coming to America.