Oscar Hijuelos (ee-WAYL-ohs) is widely regarded as a successful Latino writer who has moved Latino cultural expression from the margins to the center of mainstream recognition. He was born to immigrant Cuban parents in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City. In his childhood, he witnessed the ordeals of his family in exile, and he suffered the turmoils of growing up Hispanic in the United States.
Hijuelos’s father, Pascual, who worked as a dishwasher and a cook, died when Hijuelos was a teenager; his mother, Magdalena, was a homemaker who yearned to write poetry. His first novel, Our House in the Last World, published in 1983, is dedicated to them. This autobiographical work illustrates immigrant experiences similar to those lived by his family. The protagonists attach themselves to memories of a privileged life in Cuba while struggling to achieve success in the United States as members of an underprivileged ethnic minority. The isolation imposed by a different culture and language leads to feelings of alienation and powerlessness and often to violence and death.
The visit of Hijuelos to Cuba when he was three years old is portrayed in the novel. After returning from the sunny and warm island, the young protagonists, Héctor and his brother, encounter the cold reality of the urban world in New York. They are ridiculed by other children for being Hispanic; at the same time they are called “Whitey” or “Pinky” because of their light skin. The concept of being “Cuban” is questioned when other Hispanics consider them “American.” Like his characters, Hijuelos grew up with a sense of marginality and with a need to establish an identity within the two cultures. The use of Spanish words in the novel reflects bilingual and bicultural influences. His work becomes an expression of self-affirmation and the articulation of identity. Nostalgia for Cuba is a source of inspiration for poetic creation.
Ghosts appear in the novel, in an imagined house which represents memory. The writing of recollections and remembrances constitutes a form of survival. Like his protagonist Héctor, the author finished college; his efforts were rewarded when he received bachelor of arts and master’s degrees from City College of New York. The novel won Hijuelos the Rome Prize for literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
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