Oscar Jerome Hijuelos was born in 1951 a few blocks from where he grew up – a walk-through ground-floor apartment on the final stretch of West 118th Street, in what is known as Morningside Heights, in upper Manhattan. It is a neighborhood sandwiched between Harlem and Columbia University.
In a sense, he never left that spot.
One of Hijuelos’ older neighbors, the comedian George Carlin, famously dubbed it “White Harlem.” Back in the day, it was mostly a neighborhood of working-class folks of Irish descent like Carlin and a few Cuban implants like the Hijuelos family.
Hijuelos, who happened to have a distant Irish relative, was a light-skinned, fair-haired child, yet he would feel as an outsider among the “all-American” kids of the block.
Hijuelos’ parents were originally from Holguín, in the rural eastern part of Cuba. His father Pascual was from modest circumstances, and had been raised in a farm. In New York, Pascual worked as a cook at the palatial Biltmore Hotel (he was in part the model for the womanizing characters of his son’s novels). Oscar’s mother, Magdalena, was a sweet woman who wrote poetry; she grew up in an upper-middle class household before the turmoil of Cuban politics ruined her father’s fortune.
Hijuelos’ books are an exploration of the immigrant experience of his parents’ generation, as well as the children’s subsequent and enduring quest for identity. Like Hijuelos, his characters were torn between the memories of the old country and the demanding realities of the new, as well as between Spanish and English, and between family loyalties and the allure of strangers.
His first novel, Our House in the Last World, is an autobiographical recreation of his own family story.
The second one, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), made history when it was awarded the 1990 Pulitzer Prize — the first time it was granted to a Latino author. It evokes the Latin jazz New York of the 1940s and 50s and was turned into a movie starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas in his first English-language role.
The rest of Hijuelos’ books complete his portrayal of the Cuban-American experience.
The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brian is a pastoral counterpart to the urbanite The Mambo Kings; Mr. Ives’s Christmas (1995) probes the randomness of life and the possibility of spiritual redemption; Empress of the Splendid Season (1999) tells the story of a Cuban rich émigré who becomes a cleaning woman in New York; A Simple Habana Melody (2002) delves into WWII from a Jewish-Cuban perspective; Dark Dude (2008) is a young adult novel about an introspective Cuban boy in a tough neighborhood; Beautiful Maria of My Soul (2010) marked a return to the Mambo Kings world; and finally Thoughts Without Cigarettes (2011), the memoir that bookends Hijuelos’ production in eerily anticipation of his untimely departure.
In the last years of his life, Hijuelos enhanced his childhood connection to Columbia University. In 2006, the University acquired from him a large collection of manuscripts, including drafts from his novels and shorter works.
Through his work, Hijuelos leaves an indelible mark, as he described so aptly the changed circumstances of so many immigrants who for different reasons call America home.
I had seen Hijuelos shortly before that at a party thrown by a Columbia professor to celebrate the launching of “Finding Mañana,” Mirta Ojito’s memoir of her Cuban exile. The apartment, just a few feet away from where Hijuelos grew up, was full of Cuban artists, journalists, writers, and scholars. The gathering had the cheerful spirit of a traditional tertulia, with live music and all.
I saw Oscar sitting on a couch with his lovely wife Lori, chatting with other people, and I approached to say hello. He was very nice to me, as if he had known me for a long time.
It struck me that his massive physique was somehow balanced by certain shyness. He was like a warm, gentle giant.
His warm, big heart will continue to beat in his books.
Claudio Iván Remeseira is a New York-based award-winning journalist, writer, and critic. Translator of the Spanish-language on-line section of The Nation and editor of Hispanic New York, an online portal and blog on current events and culture. Editor of Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook (Columbia University Press, 2010), an anthology of essays on the city’s Latino, Latin American & Iberian cultural heritage, and winner of the Latino International Book Award in the category of Best Reference Book in English (2011).