Saludos todos! This week we are taking the time to feature the renowned, Cuban-American author, Oscar Hijuelos, and his body of work. Like with our previous authors, we take this time to feature the breadth of the author’s collective oeuvre, as well as the more personal aspects of his life and legacy.
Oscar Hijuelos (1951-2013) is a Cuban-American author who wrote several adult and young adult books, mostly focusing on Latin American protagonists or themes. Hijuelos was the first Latino to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction when he was recognized for his 1989 novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which was turned into a movie in 1992. Hijuelos also won the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature in 2000. Through his iconic work, Hijuelos endures as a prominent figure of Latino literature, describing the immigrant experience, questions of identity, and the many hurdles of communication, through witty and endearing prose.
A New York Times piece remembering Hijuelos after his death reflects upon the narrative style and insightful perspectives that appear throughout his novels:
In novels like “Our House in the Last World” (1983), which traces a family’s travails from Havana in 1939 to Spanish Harlem; “Mambo Kings,” about the rise and fall of the Castillo brothers, Cesar, a flamboyant and profligate bandleader, and his ruminative trumpeter brother, Nestor; and “The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” (1993), about several generations of a Cuban-Irish family in Pennsylvania, he wrote about the non-native experience in the United States from a sympathetic, occasionally amused perspective and with a keen eye for detail in his period settings.
In the same NYTimes piece, we learn of Hijuelos’ Cuban heritage and the immigrant life of his two parents, as well as his bilingual and bicultural upbringing in New York:
Oscar Jerome Hijuelos was born in Manhattan on Aug. 24, 1951, and grew up in the borough’s northern Morningside Heights neighborhood that later often figured in his books. His parents, Pascual, a cook at the Biltmore Hotel, and Magdalena Torrens Hijuelos, emigrated from Cuba in the 1940s.
The family spoke Spanish at home, and young Oscar became fluent in English only after a 1955 visit to Cuba, where he contracted a severe kidney infection that required him to spend a year away from his family in a Connecticut hospital.
Although Hijuelos is most known for his creative writing, he started his career in advertising, and also spent some time teaching at Hofstra University in New York (where my dad also works!).
Much of Hijuelos’ writing, whether autobiographical or fictional, focuses on the immigrant experience and the complexities of language, identity and appearance, reflecting Hijuelos’ own conflicting identities as a bicultural child. Hijuelos, a fair-haired boy born to dark-haired Cubans, who preferred to speak English, the language of his classmates and his friends, than Spanish, the language of his heritage, often experienced the push and pull of opposing currents. Hijuelos often writes about this familiar tug-of-war between old and new, assimilation and heritage, foreigner and native, Spanish and English, Cuban and American.
In a different NYTimes article, “Lost in Time and Words, a Child begins Anew,” written by Hijuelos himself, he describes his upbringing and the many struggles he faced straddling two cultures and two languages in a bustling and isolating, yet colorful melting-pot city. At the end, however, Hijuelos affirms his eternal affection for his Hispanic heritage, despite the many challenges of assimilation in the United States:
Then, as the years passed, while learning the hard way that I did not completely fit in with either group, a funny thing happened to me. Despite the strange baggage that I carried about my upbringing, and despite the relative loss of my first language, I eventually came to the point that, when I heard Spanish, I found my heart warming. And that was the moment when I began to look through another window, not out onto 118th Street, but into myself — through my writing, the process by which, for all my earlier alienation, I had finally returned home.
For those of you interested in learning more about Hijuelos and his work, here are some additional links:
- “An Appreciation of Oscar Hijuelos,” LA Times article by Hector Tobar
- “Battling Different Faces of Racism,” by Susan Carpenter, LA Times book review for Dark Dude
- “Book review: ‘Beautiful Maria of My Soul’ by Oscar Hijuelos,” LA Times book review by Tim Rutten
- “Pulitzer Prize Winner Oscar Hijuelos Dies At 62,” NPR Remembrances
- “Author spotlights Hispanic cultures,” Chicago Tribune article by Ana Beatriz Cholo, showcasing Hijuelos’ immense contribution to Hispanic literature and Hispanic heritage