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Hispanic Heritage

Oscar Hijuelos

Birth: August 24, 1951 in New York, New York, United States
Occupation: novelist, college teacher, manager

The novel of immigrant life is a durable and extremely significant tradition in American literature, and Cuban-American writer Oscar Hijuelos has emerged as one of its top recent practitioners. His 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was both a prizewinner and a bestseller; in that work and in several other substantial novels Hijuelos has explored the worlds of Cuban-born and Cuban-descended characters who live in the major cities of the U.S. eastern seaboard. "Oscar Hijuelos," noted the National Review, "forces the Hispanic immigrant experience close to the center of our cultural consciousness, where it very much deserves to be."

Born in New York on August 24, 1951, Hijuelos was the son of a Cuban-born hotel worker. In the years before the takeover by Communist strongman Fidel Castro the family occasionally returned to Cuba. On one of those trips Hijuelos became seriously ill and had to spend several months in a Connecticut children's hospital upon his return. Hijuelos was a product of New York's public education system through the Master's degree level, graduating from the City University of New York in 1975 and gaining his M.A. in creative writing a year later. Among his early influences as a writer were the novelist Henry Roth, who had chronicled the experiences of Jewish immigrants, and the minimalist short-story craftsman Donald Barthelme.

Worked in Advertising Firm

Hijuelos, however, evolved into a writer who was no minimalist, but rather has been noted for his rich, detailed descriptions of Cuban-American life. He honed his craft over a period seven years, from 1977 to 1984, during which he worked in an advertising office and wrote fiction by night. Working in the short story genre at first, Hijuelos found gradually increasing recognition for his works. He landed a group of stories in the 1978 anthology Best of Pushcart Press III. That led to a series of small grants that gave him more and more free time to write; one of them, in 1980, was a scholarship to the prestigious Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont.

The first fruit of Hijuelos's long apprenticeship was the novel Our House in the Last World, published in 1983. That book, which included an episode paralleling its author's own childhood hospitalization, depicts the lives of the members of a Cuban-American family in New York's Spanish Harlem neighborhood in the 1940s. Told through the eyes of the youngest son, the story reflects issues common to American immigrants: the pull of assimilation versus the barriers of discrimination and separateness, and the ambivalent attitudes immigrants may have toward their home cultures. In Our House in the Last World (the "Last World" refers to Cuba), those ambivalent attitudes crystallize around the family's attitudes toward the alcoholic father, Alejo Santinio, whose errant ways leave them trapped in poverty.

Our House in the Last World brought Hijuelos few general readers but plenty of critical attention, and in 1985 he won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. The fellowship enabled him to devote full time to the research into 1950s Cuban music that would underlie his sophomore release, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Published in 1989, that book remains his best known work. Tailor-made for cinematic adaptation (a film version starring Armand Assante brought the film's musical world to life in the early 1990s), The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love tells the story of two Cuban brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who move to New York in the early 1950s and establish a mambo orchestra.

Novel Featured Desi Arnaz as Character

One technique Hijuelos used to add realism to his depiction of the heavily Latin-tinged musical world of the 1950s was the inclusion of real-life individuals as characters--most significantly Latin star Desi Arnaz (the brothers make an appearance on the I Love Lucy television program). Such realistic touches, and a prose style that itself evoked Cuban rhythms, contributed to the book's success but ironically landed Hijuelos in court: Gloria Parker, leader of a group called Glorious Gloria Parker and Her All-Girl Rumba Orchestra alleged that an unflattering character in the book was based on her own, and sued Hijuelos for defamation of character. Closely watched as the first case of its kind to involve a work of fiction, the lawsuit was dismissed in 1991.

Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love played in important part in kicking off the 1990s renaissance in Latin American fiction. "I remember being told, when the novel came out, 'Minority novels don't sell. Period.'" Hijuelos told Publishers Weekly. "That's what you hear if you're Hispanic. 'Punto. Forget it, baby.'" But The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love enjoyed strong support from its publisher and by early 1991 had more than 200,000 copies in print. "The book is overcoming a very subtle kind of bias people have about what they'll find in a Latino book--more drudgery, death, and taxes." Hijuelos reflected in the same interview.

After the long years he spent mastering the writing craft, Hijuelos was in no danger of suffering the kind of post-smash slump that has sometimes affected other young writers. His novels of the 1990s were a varied group in both subject matter and technique. The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993) was set in rural Pennsylvania in the early 20th century and depicted the large and predominately female offspring of an Irish-American father and a Cuban-American mother. Though some reviewers complained that the large cast of characters reduced some of the characterizations to shorthand, it was becoming increasingly clear that Hijuelos was claiming for his own large swaths of the American experience that earlier Hispanic writers had not dealt with.

The lyrical and spiritual novel Mr Ives' Christmas (1995) strengthened that impression with its presentation of a main character who finds redemption after his son is randomly murdered during the holiday season. A successful executive who grew up in poverty, Ives, the novel suggests, comes from a Hispanic background. But the novel was aimed at general audiences and was reviewed from that perspective. In 1999 Hijuelos struck a balance between his Cuban roots and his interest in American society in general with the novel Empress of the Splendid Season; the book told the story of a Cuban-American housecleaner and the varied American lives into which her work has given her a window. Perhaps just reaching his prime in the early 21st century, despite all the success he had already achieved, Hijuelos seemed ready to say much more to the nation of immigrants that his family had adopted as home.

UPDATES

November 19, 2004: Hijuelos adapted his novel The Mambo Kings as a stage musical, which will open at the Shubert Theater in New York in July, 2005. The music was written by Carlos Franzetti. Source:New York Times, www.nytimes.com, November 19, 2004.

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Born August 24, 1951, in New York City; son of Pascual (a hotel worker) and Magdalena Torrens Hijuelos; divorced Education: City College of the City University of New York, B.A., 1975; City University of New York, M.A. in creative writing, 1976. Religion: Roman Catholic. Memberships: PEN international writers' organization. Addresses: Home-- 211 W. 106th St., New York, NY 10025; Office--Department of English, Hofstra University, 1000 Fulton Ave., Hempstead, NY 11550.

AWARDS

Selected: Creative writing fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1985; Pulitzer Prize for fiction and numerous other prizes and nominations for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, 1990.

CAREER

Transportation Display, Inc., New York, advertising media traffic manager, 1977-84; published debut novel, Our House in the Last World, 1983; appointed professor of English, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, 1989; international acclaim for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, published by Farrar, Straus, 1989; signed publishing contract with HarperCollins, 1995; published novel Empress of the Splendid Season, 1999.

WORKS

Selected writings

  • Our House in the Last World, Persea Books, 1983.
  • The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Farrar, Straus, 1989.
  • The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien, Farrar, Straus, 1993.
  • Mr Ives' Christmas, HarperCollins, 1995.
  • Empress of the Splendid Season, HarperCollins, 1999.

FURTHER READINGS

Periodicals

  • Library Journal, April 15, 1999, p. 163.
  • National Review, February 22, 1999, p. 50.
  • New Republic, March 22, 1993, p. 38.
  • Publishers Weekly, February 1, 1991, p. 17.
  • Time, November 27, 1995, p. 98.

On-line

  • Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group. 2001. (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).

SOURCE CITATION

Contemporary Hispanic Biography. Vol. 1. Gale, 2002.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.

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