Our House in the Last World Summary
A Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman about an unhappy family of Cuban immigrants struggling in Spanish Harlem, Hijuelos’s first published novel culminates with Hector Santinio’s declaration of redemptive literary ambition: “I think that one day I would like to write a book, something that would so please my mother and my Pop, if he was still alive.” Our House in the Last World is just such a book, a text that, for the autobiographical Hector Santinio, as for his author Hijuelos, preserves and honors the tribulations of a working-class family struggling to succeed in a strange new land.
Letters from his sister in New York inspire Alejo Santinio with dreams of adventure and prosperity. In 1943, he and his wife Mercedes depart Holguín, their small hometown in Cuba’s Oriente Province. But the reality of life in Manhattan is much harsher than Alejo, forced to take a menial, low-paying job in a hotel, had imagined it. Alejo’s one transcendent moment in an otherwise dreary existence comes when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev steps into the hotel kitchen and is photographed beside him. A romanticized memory of their house in the last world—the lost world of pre-Castro Cuba—becomes a constant source of torment for Alejo and Mercedes in New York. But the two Santinio sons, Horacio and Hector, do not share their parents’ Hispanic associations. After contracting a serious illness during a visit to Cuba, Hector even comes to associate Cuba and the Spanish language with evil.
Hector, who is drawn into fierce battles with his father, is embarrassed by and resentful of the crudeness of his parents. His alienation from his parents is exacerbated by a visit to an affluent, confident aunt and uncle in Miami. It is only with the death of his father and the strengthening of his literary ambitions that Hector becomes reconciled to the Santinio legacy. Like many other young men’s debut novels, Our House in the Last World is the story of a son’s coming-of-age by coming to love the father he had fought and the culture into which he was born.
Hector’s older brother Horacio has an Irish American girlfriend named Kathleen whose family refuses to allow him past their door because he is Cuban. Hijuelos populates the neighborhood with Irish and Puerto Rican street gangs, but they are always seen from outside. What makes the book particularly distinctive is its vivid inside account of how first-and second-generation Cuban Americans adapt to life in the United States.
The aristocratic Sorrea family lives in Holguín, a prosperous old city in eastern Cuba. Their immense house has to be sold when the patriarch, Teodoro Sorrea, dies in 1929. Mercedes, the second of three daughters, sees the ghost of her father frequently and dreams about the happy life she has lived in the house. She marries Alejo Santinio, a well-dressed dandy from the small town of San Pedro, ten miles from Holguín. He is the youngest of two brothers and nine sisters. His family owns farmland, but he wants a more exciting life away from rural Cuba and decides to emigrate with Mercedes to the United States.
Alejo sends his wife and children to visit their relatives in Cuba. The three-year-old Hector loves Cuba, but his other brother, Horacio, is only impressed by the sight of Teodoro Sorrea’s ghost. They meet Alejo’s great-grandmother, Concepción O’Connors; she had married an Irish sailor, which explains the light skin and European looks of the two brothers.
Upon their return to New York, Hector has to be hospitalized for almost a year because he contracted an infection in Cuba. The nurses ridicule him for not speaking English and make him afraid of speaking Spanish. Hector becomes sickly and obese. His brother tries to make him tougher so that other children will not treat him like a freak. Horacio is very talented and hardworking; he is a choirboy and has several jobs to help the family. Frustrated by his family and failed love relationships, he joins the U.S. Air Force.
(The entire section is 1,283 words.)