Oscar Hijuelos, one of two children of Pascual Hijuelos, a hotel employee, and Magdalena Torrens Hijuelos, a homemaker, was born in New York City on August 24, 1951. Both his parents had immigrated to the United States in the 1940’s from Cuba’s Oriente Province. Hijuelos grew up in Manhattan and attended a Catholic elementary school and a public high school. Throughout his adolescence, he played in bands with other Latino, mostly Puerto Rican, musicians. Hijuelos received both his B.A., in Asian history in 1975, and his M.A., in English in 1976, from City College of the City University of New York.
After graduation, he supported himself with odd jobs. An amateur archaeologist, he traveled widely and lived in Italy for a few years. In 1985, Hijuelos was awarded both a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rome Fellowship of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His first book, the largely autobiographical Our House in the Last World (1983), which he began writing while working for an advertising agency, earned him $6,400. His second, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), won him fame, fortune, and a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, the first given to a Latino author. The popular novel was also nominated for the National Book Award and for the annual fiction prize of the National Book Critics Circle. Hijuelos was awarded a Guggenheim grant in 1990 and was honored at the...
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While Nestor and Cesar Castillo gaze forever from fictive footage of the I Love Lucy show, Alejo Santinio lives on beside Nikita Khrushchev in a snapshot of the two, and the O’Brien sisters and brother are also apprehended through a lens. For Hijuelos, memory is photographic, if imperfect, and his storytelling is inspired by and analogous to Nicéphore Niépce’s dream of retaining traces of light—and life—on paper. In rich, resonant English prose, the novels of Oscar Hijuelos provide a moving gallery of the ambitions and frustrations of Cuban Americans, Cubans, and other individuals.
Oscar Hijuelos’s family hailed from the Oriente province of Cuba, home of entertainer Desi Arnaz and Cuban dictators Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar and Fidel Castro—wild roots for the New York-born, iconoclastic author. At age four, Oscar and his mother Magdalena visited Cuba, and upon their return he developed nephritis, a critical-stage kidney inflammation. Bedridden, Oscar lingered in a children’s hospital for two long years. This separation from family and language removed Oscar from Hispanic connections; the theme of separation would later saturate his novels.
Oscar’s father Pascual drank heavily, leaving Magdalena to raise her children in a rough, lower-class neighborhood of New York. Hijuelos has expressed sadness about his youth, in which most fathers he knew were drunk, limousines came only for funerals, and “the working class hate[d] everyone else.” The area where he played was caught between the affluence of the Columbia University campus and the habitat of muggers, thieves, and junkies of Morningside Park. Hijuelos hid from this hell by reading, watching television, and observing the traits of his family, as a partially sober father arose to go to his job as a cook at the Biltmore Hotel each day. Affection flooded the household, even with the dysfunction of poverty and neighborhood chaos. Forced to speak English outside his home, Hijuelos easily abandoned his Cuban tongue, although his parents expected Spanish discourse in the home....
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