Oscar Hijuelos

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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...

(This entire section contains 2291 words.)

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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 O’Brien

The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien again paints Hijuelos’s theme of immigrant life in the United States, this time on the canvas of a small rural town. Family traditions pass down, hopes spring eternal, and sadness and attempts to assimilate fade as the book’s characters meet disappointments and victories to varying degrees. Nelson O’Brien leaves Ireland, sister in tow, for the better life promised in America. Weakened by the journey and her general frailty, the sister dies, leaving Nelson to wander aimlessly until he retreats to Cuba to take pictures of the Spanish-American War. He meets the sixteen-year-old Mariela Montez and courts her every Sunday for seven weeks. Seducing her with stories of his Pennsylvania farm and with her first sexual experiences, Nelson convinces her to marry and move to the farm, offering a telescope as a token of their future.

The Montez O’Brien household is fertile, and fourteen magnetic sisters charge the home with a feminine aura. Finally, the lone son, Emilio, is born. Mostly told through the eldest daughter’s eyes, the story portrays the ferocity of Nelson’s ambition and character through the overbearing feminine mystique that surrounds his life, his decisions, and his focus on the future. Emilio, on the other hand, becomes a gentle soul who adores and is adored by his sisters. The sisters grow, many without mates, into expected positions in the world—entertainers, homemakers, expectant mothers, recluses, gluttons—carrying the name and bravado of their father with them. Emilio attracts women and suffers the vanity of his charm and good looks, eventually becoming an actor in B-pictures. His drunken tendencies and a sordid affair with a pregnant teen turn his life sour, and he turns to a reclusive existence until he finds his soul mate in an improbable café in an Alaskan fishing village. She dies before the novel’s end, breaking Emilio’s heart but allowing the sisters to provide him with solace. Hijuelos finishes the novel succinctly, with both tragedies and dreams having been realized.

Mr. Ives’ Christmas

In Mr. Ives’ Christmas, Hijuelos somberly presents Mr. Edward Ives, a character unlike the romanticized Cesar, the macho Mambo King. Mr. Ives sensitively and sanely goes through his life with no malice toward fellow man or woman. He seeks those rewards he has become accustomed to earning.

Mr. Ives’s life is oddly shaped by the Christmas season, a time he loves. One Christmas season when he is a boy, a widowed printmaker visits him, a Cuban child, in a New York City orphanage, adopts him and names him Edward Ives. The adoptive father idyllically rears his dark-skinned son, inspires him to pursue his love for drawing, and eventually guides him to the Arts Student League, where, one Christmas Eve, he meets his future wife. The picture-postcard family image is grotesquely distorted years later when, on another Christmas Eve, the Iveses’ seventeen-year-old son is gunned down as he leaves church choir practice. A fourteen-year-old Puerto Rican gunman has killed the boy for ten dollars. Mr. Ives proceeds to devote his life to obsessive attempts to rehabilitate the murderer.

Mr. Ives’s favorite book is a signed copy of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). Hijuelos relies strongly on this book to link the two tales. He emulates Dickens’s populous canvases and uses Dickens’s love of coincidence and contrivance as a metaphor for God’s mysterious workings. The temperance of Mr. Ives engenders his longing for grace, a gift for contemplation, and a world curiosity.

In this novel, Hijuelos draws heavily on images from his New York neighborhood, his coterie of friends, and the milieu of gangs, muggers, and drug addicts at the end of his street. Mr. Ives’ Christmas speaks of faith—a faith that mysteriously probes emotions, tested by death and the opportunity of forgiveness.

Empress of the Splendid Season

In Empress of the Splendid Season, Lydia Espana is banished from her Cuban home by her father, a small-town alcalde, because she overstayed her allowed time at a dance with a young man. Disheartened, she makes her way to New York and in time marries and gains employment as a cleaning lady. In near poverty, she and her chronically ill husband, a waiter, attempt to maintain respectability and keep food on the table for their two children. Lydia resorts to fantasy as a coping mechanism, envisioning herself as the “Empress of the Splendid Season,” a poetic term of endearment used by her husband during the early days of their romance.

Hijuelos describes Lydia’s passage from privileged girlhood to a widowed old age through her relationships with family, friends, and employers. A wealthy employer sends Lydia’s son to a prestigious university. He becomes a successful psychologist, but he is unhappy and feels disconnected from the world. Lydia’s daughter grows into a rebellious young woman who later marries an Anglo and moves to the suburbs. She chooses to rear Lydia’s grandchildren far from her Cuban roots. Hijuelos again digs beneath the core of tenement life, bringing a magical mystique into his characters’ lives through rich text and powerful prose.

A Simple Habana Melody

The protagonist of A Simple Habana Melody is Oscar Levis, a renowned Cuban composer and musician. As the novel opens, Levis returns to Cuba, after many years abroad, as an exhausted man and frail version of his former corpulent, expansive self. Having sought to escape the restrictive and politically tumultuous life in Cuba in the late 1930’s, he made a home in Paris, where, to his shock and dismay, he—who had grown up Catholic—was identified in 1943 as a Jew. He was forced to wear a yellow star and was shipped to a detention camp after the Nazi occupation of Paris. His return to Cuba provokes his recollection of his life and fame, his loves, and his happy participation in a community of musicians and artists.

In this novel Hijuelos revisits themes explored in his earlier works, particularly in TheMambo Kings Play Songs ofLove. Like Néstor Castillo, Oscar Levis creates for a woman he loves—and who remains forever out of reach for him—a song that propels him to fame and fortune. Like the Castillo brother, Levis too inhabits the musical community of the mambo era. His experiences and popularity illustrate the influence of Cuban musicians and music in the Americas and Europe. Similar to Néstor Castillo, Levis epitomizes the longing for love and the essential loneliness of all humankind. His experiences describe the milieu of artistry in Havana and Paris as well as the horror of the Holocaust.

Dark Dude

In Dark Dude, a novel aimed at young adults, Hijuelos depicts the challenges faced by a young light-skinned boy of Cuban heritage as he grows up in Harlem and tries to find his place in the world. Hijuelos defines “dark dude” as a colloquial term used by persons of color in Harlem between the years of 1965 and 1970 to refer derisively to a person of light skin, a person lacking street smarts, an outsider. Dark dude defines the social position of Rico Fuentes, a blond Hispanic who does not speak Spanish well.

Rico’s difficulties begin when he reaches high school age and can no longer attend the Catholic school where he spent his elementary years. He does not fit in with any crowd at the local high school, and when his parents decide to send him to a military school in Florida, Rico runs away to be with an older friend who, having just won the lottery, has escaped from the gritty streets to rural Wisconsin, where he has started college. Rico adapts to his life in Wisconsin, but after a year of being away from home, he misses the warm affection of his parents and feels guilty for the pain he caused them with his departure. He decides to go back and face the challenges of his neighborhood, recognizing that he cannot turn his back on his family and his life. Here, as in his other novels, Hijuelos explores some of the many struggles that individuals face as they grow up or grow into their lives while coming to terms with personal strengths and limitations and the joys and sorrows of human existence.