Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Oscar Hijuelos and the Immigrant Experience

By Claudio Iván Remeseira Follow @HispanicNewYork| Posted on Tuesday, October 15, 2013, at 5:00 p.m. ET. An abridged version of this obituary was published at NBCLatino.com


Oscar Jerome Hijuelos was born on August 24, 1951, at Woman’s Hospital (today’s St.Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center) and grew up a couple of blocks north from there, in a walk-through ground-floor apartment on the final stretch of West 118 Street. This is a quiet patch of early-20th century buildings pressed between Amsterdam Avenue and the Columbia University campus to the west and Morningside Drive—the ivy-lush thoroughfare that overlooks Central Harlem, sprawling down below the hill—to the east. In a sense, he never left that spot.

That section of Upper Manhattan is officially known as Morningside Heights, but one of Oscar’s older neighbors, 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. Oscar, 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” neighborhood kids. Later, he would also feel the rejection of dark-skinned Latinos who regarded him as a “whitey”.

Oscar’s parents were originally from Holguín, in the rural eastern part of Cuba. His father Pascual had been a peasant; in New York, he 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 used to write 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 and of the never-ending quest for identity of their children, torn—as Oscar himself—between the memories of the old country and the demanding realities of the new, between Spanish and English, between the loyalty to family and clan and the allure of the broad, wide world opening before them.

His first novel, Our House in the Last World, is an autobiographical recreation of his own family story. The second one, The MamboKings 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’Brien 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 an elusive 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 as an eerily anticipation of his untimely departure. 

Some critics have questioned the dominance of a white, male, even sexist perspective in his work, as well as an excessive focus on the Cuban community, especially when portraying the Hispanic New York of the 1940s and 50s, in detriment of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos. The validity of these criticisms notwithstanding, the sales and critics success of The Mambo Kings… arguably opened the door for other Latino authors from different national or ethnic background and gender, feeding the interest of mainstream publishing houses in books and themes that might have been considered of little appeal for the general public before Hijuelo’s Pulitzer win.

Julia Álvarez, Esmeralda Santiago, Sandra Cisneros, Cristina García, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Víctor Villaseñor, and Abraham Rodriguez are some of the novelists and stortytellers who emerged or consolidated their literary reputation during the 1990s, a "mainstreamization" of Latino literature that culminated with the granting in 2010 of the second Pulitzer Prize for fiction to a Latino author, Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
In the last years of his life, Hijuelos enhanced his childhood connection to Columbia. In 2006, the university acquired from him a large collection of manuscripts, including drafts from his novels and other works.

The year before that I met him 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 blocks way from where Hijuelos grew up, was full of Cuban artists, journalists, and writers; the gathering had the cheerful spirit of a traditional tertulia, live music and all. I saw Oscar sitting in a couch with his lovely wife Lori, chatting with other people, and approached him to say hello. He was very nice to me, as he had known me for a long time. It also struck me that his massive physique was somehow balanced by certain shyness. He was like a warm, gentle giant.

Over the following years, we had little chance to meet in person again but we corresponded via email; he always treated me with the same affable attitude. In 2010 I invited him to participate in a film series I curated at Instituto Cervantes. The title of the series was “Hispanic New York: Literature and Film,” and it showcased different movies based on books by Latino authors, who were the guest speakers for the post-screening Q&A. One of the films was of “The Mambo Kings”. Oscar told me that that he would bring a little surprise with him; on the day of the screening, he showed up with an old videotape. 

The tape contained the screening test of Jeremy Irons for the role of César, the older Castillo brother, played in the film by Armand Assante. Arne Glimcher, the director of the movie, wanted Assante and Banderas in the role of Néstor Castillo from the beginning, but the studio executives pushed for Irons and Ray Liotta, hot off their respective Reversal of Fortune and Goodfellas, to play the unfortunate brothers.

In the test, Irons delivers a key monologue of the script to Banderas (who didn’t speak much English at the time). Jerermy Irons is a great actor, and he put passion and intelligence in his portrayal—but there was something wrong about him playing that part, something that was simply not working. His acting seemed extrapolated into the Caribbean environment from an alien world. He would have been terribly miscast.

At the end of the evening, I asked Oscar to sing a copy of the novel for me. With his round, expressive handwriting, he put in Spanish: “Para mi amigo Claudio, con mucho cariño” (“To my friend Claudio, with affection”), and signed his full name below. It was a beautiful and heartfelt dedication, one I was not sure I deserved, but which moved me and which I treasure.  

It was this warm, big heart that stopped beating last Sunday. It will continue beating in his books.

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