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 Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with a National Hispanic Heritage Award in 2000.
Though he did not write its screenplay, Hijuelos did play a bit part in director Arnold Glimcher’s The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1992), a film adaptation of the novel, but the author as actor ended up on the cutting-room floor. Despite musical contributions by Tito Puente, Linda Ronstadt, and Los Lobos, the film was a commercial and critical failure. So, too, was a musical stage version to which Hijuelos contributed but which closed in San Francisco before a scheduled opening on Broadway in 2005. His subsequent books have received widespread attention and have solidifed his standing in contemporary literature, but none has matched the commercial or critical success of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
Hijuelos has expressed particular admiration for the writings of Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mark Twain. Asked by an interviewer about the sources of his inspiration, he replied: “You see your characters everywhere.” He recalled how seeing a heavyset man with three children carrying a bass fiddle across London’s Picadilly led to the creation of Cesar Castillo, protagonist of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Hijuelos’s acquaintance with a Dominican elevator operator who could sing as well as Frank Sinatra but never got the opportunities to break into show business led to Cesar’s brother Nestor. The character of Bernardito Mandelbaum, a Jew who passes for Latino, originated in a childhood friend. A fascination with the enigmatic Cuban musician Moises Simons inspired the creation of Israel Levis, the protagonist of A Simple Habana Melody: From When the World Was Good (2002). “I’m not your typical-looking Latino,” observed the fair-skinned Hijuelos, who traces his ancestry to Galicia in Spain, “so I sort of move like a spy through two worlds.”
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...
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