Oscar Hijuelos represents a new generation of Cuban American writers. His Latino roots enrich his chronicles of the immigrant experience. Latino writers often face quandaries when choosing the language for their literary expression (Spanish or English), when committing to traditions of their descendants, and when chronicling immigrant life in their new world. Hijuelos balances the sensitivities of the American reader and the expectations of the Latino reader by presenting characters who, removed from the security of their Cuban homeland, are tossed into the diversity and adversity of big-city life; they survive and still bring grace to their daily existence. Hijuelos’s two shorter novels, Our House in the Last World, his autobiographical debut, and Mr. Ives’ Christmas, an exploration of spirituality, provide balance to his long works. Proud of his heritage, yet choosing to explore themes beyond issues of immigration and assimilation, Hijuelos places his characters in situations that reflect universal themes as well as particular historical events and communities.

Our House in the Last World

Our House in the Last World explores the questions of identity and perspective through the travails of the members of the Santinio family, who are seeking their fortune by moving from Cuba to New York City. The father, Alejo, expects the younger son, Héctor, to live a macho existence and to be “Cuban,” while the mother, Mercedes, smothers Héctor with her anxieties, limiting his ability to develop as a normal boy in the neighborhood. Hijuelos offers two views of innocence: that of the wonder and confusion of a family facing a new life in an unknown world and that of their children’s bewilderment in a harsh environment.

The novel begins in the ticket office of a movie theater in Holguín, Cuba. Mercedes, twenty-seven, almost past the age of marriage, meets Alejo, who woos her, marries her, and moves her to New York, where they share an apartment with other Cubans who come and go. Some attain status and wealth, while the Santinios remain impoverished. Alejo becomes a sot, a gluttonous man who allows his sister to wage a harsh campaign against his wife. Mercedes transfers the memory of her father onto Alejo, and it is only after Alejo’s death near the end of the novel that she is free to realize her dreams as her own.

The older son, Horatio, epitomizes the image of the man he thinks his mother demands. A womanizer and philanderer, he finally adopts a military lifestyle as an escape from fear of failure. Héctor contracts a near-fatal disease while on holiday in Cuba, and the months of hospitalization that follow embitter him toward the culture of his homeland and all things Cuban. Mercedes becomes unbearably overprotective, and Héctor’s anxieties prevent him from reacting to the drunken excesses of his father and the hysteria of his mother. Castro has taken over Cuba during this time, and Mercedes and Alejo are disengaged from the lost world of their youth; New York will hold them until death.

Hijuelos embraces these characters with pure affection and gentleness, as he allows the relatives to flow through the Santinios’ life. He describes their downward slide from hope to resignation, from effort to insanity, and from love to harassment. Love does not conquer all, but it does provide a basis for life. The Santinios are a tribute to perseverance.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

Hijuelos’s life in the advertising agency had little to do with his passion for writing. When he first began thinking of the story that would become The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, he knew that an uncle and an elevator operator would be his models. The uncle, a musician with the band led by Xavier Cugat in the 1930’s, and a building superintendent, patterned after an elevator operator and musician, merge to become Cesar Castillo, the Mambo King. Cesar’s brother, Néstor, laconic, retrospective, lamenting the loss of a Latina lover he left behind in Cuba, writes a song in her memory that draws the attention of Desi Arnaz, who will change their lives.

As the book opens, Cesar rots with his half-empty whiskey glass tipped at the television beaming old reruns; he seeks the I Love Lucy episode that features him and Néstor as the Mambo Kings. Néstor has tragically died. Cesar pathetically reveals his aging process, the cirrhosis, the loss of flamboyant times. Cesar’s old, scratchy records, black, brittle, and warped, resurrect his music stardom. He laments his brother’s death by leafing through fading pictures.

In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Hijuelos presents pre-Castro Cubans who, after World War II, streamed in torrents to New York, their experiences creating a historical perspective for future developing-world immigration. All communities may strive for the American Dream, but in Latino quarters, music, the mainstream of a culture, sought to free the oppressed. The Castillo brothers become, for a moment, cultural icons with their appearance on I Love Lucy. The fame short-lived, Cesar comforts his ego with debauchery, and Néstor dies ungracefully and suddenly. The ironically named Hotel Splendour is where Cesar commits suicide—in Cuban culture, a respectable ending to life. Latino culture encourages the machismo of men such as Cesar, and Hijuelos, through the story’s narrator, Eugenio, nephew of the Castillo brothers, may be asking his countrymen to review that attitude.

The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez...

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