Class of 1975,1976MA
Oscar Hijuelos was a Cuban-American novelist who became the first Hispanic to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, earning the award for his 1989 book, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” It was the story of Cesar Castillo, a flashy and promiscuous guitar player, and Nestor Castillo, his contemplative, lovelorn trumpet-playing brother, and how their fortunes soared and fell as they journeyed from Havana to New York’s Spanish Harlem in the 1940s. Like much of his literary output, it focused on the challenges of cultural assimilation. The book was made into a popular movie called “The Mambo Kings” in 1992, with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas as the brothers.
“Mambo Kings” was the second of Hijuelos’s seven novels. He also wrote a young adult novel, “Dark Dude” (2008) and a memoir, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes” (2011). In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he received the Rome Prize, awarded by the American Academy in Rome, for his first novel, “Our House in the Last World,” published in 1983; an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award; the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature; and several grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was presented with a Townsend Harris Medal by the College in 1991. His books have been translated into 25 languages.
Hijuelos was born on Aug. 24, 1951, in Manhattan. He was raised on 118th Street near Morningside Drive in an apartment he described as “a Cuban oasis in a largely non-Latino block of working class folks and Columbia University students.” It was a neighborhood that provided much source material for his novels. His parents were Cuban immigrants who spoke only Spanish at home. Young Oscar didn’t achieve fluency in English until he was about five years old, after spending a year away from his family while recovering in a Connecticut hospital after contracting acute nephritis during a trip to Cuba with his parents.
“It was during that long separation from my family that I became estranged from the Spanish language and, therefore, my roots,” he wrote in The New York Times in a 2011 essay about the cultural conflicts he felt while growing up. He went on to say that “despite the loss of my first language . . . 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.”
Hijuelos graduated from Louis D. Brandeis High School and attended several colleges in New York before entering CCNY, where he decided he wanted to be a writer. He got his bachelor’s degree in 1975 and enrolled in the College’s Master of Fine Arts program, studying under the tutelage of Donald Barthelme (who became his mentor and friend), Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs, Frederic Tuten, and others. After he got his M.F.A., Hijuelos held various jobs, including at an advertising agency, while working on his fiction at night. His debut novel, “Our House in the Last World,” was called “a virtuoso piece of writing” by The Times. Its critical success resulted in fellowships that allowed him to leave his job and focus on his next book, “Mambo Kings,” which became a national bestseller and a National Book Award nominee as well as a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Hijuelos’s other novels include “The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” (1992), about a Cuban-Irish family in Pennsylvania; “Mr. Ives’ Christmas” (1995), the story of a man dealing with the murder of his son; “Empress of the Splendid Season” (1999), the life of a once-wealthy Cuban émigré who becomes a cleaning woman in New York; “A Simple Habana Melody” (2002), a love story about a Cuban composer returning home from Europe, where he had been imprisoned by Nazis who thought he was a Jew; and “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” (2010), which reintroduces a character from “Mambo Kings,” the woman who left Nestor Castillo brokenhearted and what happened to her since then.
Hijuelos died suddenly on Oct. 12, 2013, after collapsing on a tennis court in New York and never regaining consciousness. He was 62.