Oscar Hijuelos, a native New Yorker of Cuban parentage, graduated from City College of New York. He was awarded the Rome Fellowship in Literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for Our House in the Last World. He won a Pulitzer Prize, the first given to a Latino, for his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), which became a major motion picture. He published The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien in 1993. The first novel illustrates the experience of immigrant life and coming of age in America.
Narrated in the third person, the novel is divided into fifteen sections, each headed by a title and, except for the last section, with years indicating the time of plot covered. The last section, “Voices from the Last World,” includes the first-person memories of the dreams of the principal characters. Several literary techniques are used successfully; flashbacks, anticipation, monologues, and dialogues enliven the narrative. Familiar incidents are seen from different points of view. The use of Spanish words, with a fluid transition from that language to English, represents the sociocultural dualism of bilingual texts.
Just as their ancestors had emigrated from Spain to Cuba, Alejo and Mercedes Santinio move to the United States in search of more opportunity. They remain attached to memories of the old country while their children, born in the new country, struggle to achieve an identity within the two cultures. Horacio and Hector provide an account of the experience of growing up in an immigrant family, one in which the tension between generations allows the author to portray the cross-cultural differences between two worlds.
The nostalgia for the warm and sunny island nation Cuba clashes with the cold reality of life in a crowded inner-city neighborhood. The parents have moved from a privileged position in Cuba to become an underprivileged ethnic minority in the United States. They compensate for their feelings of powerlessness by committing violent acts against each other and their sons. Life in the urban barrio gives them all a sense of alienation, fear, and bitterness. While other Cubans prosper, they allow circumstances to destroy their self-confidence and self-respect; they feel isolated because they cannot communicate in English and do not take advantage of sound opportunities. They scream, cry, and fight, making the lives of their sons miserable.
Horacio and Hector encounter street violence and discrimination; they are called Whitey or Pinky because of their light skin and are told “Why don’t you go back to where you came from.” Children shout at the sickly Hector, “Look at the little queer,” and make fun of his Spanish. For Hector, to be Americanized means to be fearful and lonely, and yet Spanish represents “the language of memory, of violence and sadness” which his parents use. Hector, “tired of being a Cuban cook’s son,” reacts by refusing to talk to his father, not wanting to be like him. He admires the Cubans who did not despair and “did not fall down.”
Hector’s identity crisis is revealed when the reader is told that he feels “Part ’Pop,’ part Mercedes; part Cuban, part American—all wrapped tightly...
(The entire section is 811 words.)