Oscar Hijuelos lived his ‘cubania’ his way

Author Oscar Hijuelos considered himself Cuban and non-Cuban alike.
Author Oscar Hijuelos considered himself Cuban and non-Cuban alike.


How does one define cubanía from 1,344 miles away?

In Miami it is easy: you don’t have to define it. You live it everyday, as you sip your cafecito at Versailles, as you listen to the cacophony of sounds that make Miami the only possible Cuba for so many of us. It is not that we live in the past or that we are drenched in nostalgia. It is, rather, that we’ve managed to build a Cuba — musical and familial — that we can live with in the context of the United States.

But what about New York? Here, where a bagel with cream cheese and a non-fat latte are poor substitutes for a café con leche and a pastelito de guayaba, you have to grasp it where you can.

At a Nochebuena party at a friend’s house — the accents blending with others from Puerto Rico, Perú, Colombia, the Philippines and Connecticut. At Guantanamera restaurant, in midtown Manhattan, swaying to the music of Pedrito’s drums. At the MoMA, catching a glimpse of an Amelia Pelaez or a Wifredo Lam or a piece by the Carpinteros and whispering to the children, “The artist is Cuban.”

Or walking on the southern edge of Central Park, head down, fists deep in your pockets and looking up suddenly to find the imposing statue of José Martí, astride his horse. Or attending an event organized by the Cuban Cultural Center and feeling, for an hour or two, part of a tribe, no longer alone in the canyons of Manhattan.

These moments are fleeting so you savor them and move on, and you go without them for so long that you may even think you no longer need them. After all, you carry Cuba inside.

And then one Monday evening in December you find yourself sitting on a pew at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, surrounded by hundreds of strangers, a smattering of good friends, a few vaguely familiar faces, and a handful of very bold names, and you are feeling connected to all because you are there to remember the life and art of a great man, Oscar Hijuelos, and you are not thinking about Cuba at all.

Hijuelos, who died suddenly on Oct.12 at 62, was the author most notably of the Pulitzer prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and, my personal favorite, Our House in the Last World. But when I think about Hijuelos, I don’t think of Cuba, I think of New York. I think of Claremont Avenue, the street where I live, and where he chose to develop part of the action in another of his books, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, a tale of loss and grief and redemption.

So there you are, sitting behind the writers Gay Talese and Esmeralda Santiago and the multitalented actor and composer Lin Manuel Miranda, when all of a sudden, the pianist Arturo O’Farrill goes to the front of the church and begins playing El Manisero (the peanut seller), the most Cuban of songs, and your eyes water and you wonder if anybody has ever played El Manisero in the Riverside Church before.

And there it is: Cubanía when and where you least expect it. But there is more. After Hijuelos’ widow, the writer Lori Carlson-Hijuelos, reads a poem by e.e. cummings, “i carry your heart with me,” and various non-Cuban friends talk about his awful golf game, his disdain of doctors, his noble character, his goodness. After all that, O’Farrill goes back to the piano and plays Perfidia and Siboney.

You can almost see Hijuelos smile, marking the rhythm with his hands. Hijuelos, who never attempted to be Cuban, even if he could, even if we wanted him to, who was very clear on who he was and who he was not. (Cuba almost killed him. He traveled to the island with his parents as a child and came back so sick from an infection he had to remain in a hospital for a year, away from his family. It was then he forgot how to speak Spanish.)

“Oscar Hijuelos was born of Cuban parentage in New York in 1951 and graduated from City College,” reads the first sentence of his biography on the jacket of the Mambo Kings book. That sentence must have taken a lot of thought. It includes everything he wanted readers to know about him then. Later, he was willing to reveal more; his memoir, Thoughts without Cigarettes, was released in 2011, his last published book.

“There was always something incomplete about him,” said Jorge Ulla, the filmmaker, who has lived in New York for 35 years. “But in that incompleteness he was complete.”

Hijuelos paid veiled homage to Moisés Simons, the composer of El Manisero, in his book A Simple Habana Melody (note the spelling of Havana), in which he tells the story of a Cuban Catholic composer named Israel Levis who gets mistakenly detained by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Ulla likes to quote the words of the Cuban anthropologist Lydia Cabrera who famously said she had discovered Cuba on the banks of the Seine, in Paris. Distance gives us perspective, Ulla insists. We can see the trees better outside of the forest.

“In its universality, New York affords me the luxury of being Cuban,” he says.

Exactly. In its universality, New York afforded Hijuelos the luxury of being not quite Cuban, not quite non-Cuban. All Oscar: New Yorker, musical, familial.

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