Oscar Hijuelos, a Cuban-American novelist who wrote about the lives of immigrants adapting to a new culture, becoming the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his 1989 book, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 62.
Hijuelos collapsed on a tennis court and never regained consciousness, his wife, Lori Marie Carlson, said.
A New Yorker by birth, education and residence, Hijuelos is said to have been more American-Cuban than Cuban-American. In novels like “Our House in the Last World” (1983), which traces a family’s travails from Havana in 1939 to Spanish Harlem, and “The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien” (1993), about several generations of a Cuban-Irish family in Pennsylvania, he wrote about the exile experience in the United States.
His characters were not necessarily new arrivals, but those who were facing the conundrums of assimilation and absorbing the sometimes assaultive American culture while holding on to an ethnic and national identity.
“The Mambo Kings,” his best-known work, concerns Cesar and Nestor Castillo, two musician brothers whose band, the Mambo Kings, achieves a brief period of celebrity, and at one point - the high point, in fact, of the brothers’ fame before it begins to flicker and fade - they appear on the television sitcom “I Love Lucy,” which starred Lucille Ball and her husband, the Cuban bandleader and actor Desi Arnaz.
“In the biography of a successful artist, the ‘I Love Lucy' appearance would take on a kind of mythic quality: It would stand as one of those happily ironic moments signifying the hero’s own ascent toward the American dream,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review in The New York Times. “But in the case of the Castillo brothers, the ‘I Love Lucy' show provides no more than a momentary glimpse of success. Although it will be rerun endlessly on late-night television, it will remain just a bit of cherished family folklore, an anonymous (and dead-end) brush with fame.’’
Hijuelos wrote poignantly about the exile experience, other writers said.
Whether he considered himself more American than Cuban, his work is still Cuban, said author Carlos Alberto Montaner.
“He was an excellent writer who I think wrote Cuban literature in English,” Montaner said.
A common theme was the need and fear of assimilation.
“His work is distinguished in my opinion, in documenting the risks and rewards of immigration. His novels tell us immigrants that we lose by winning. He expressed a great love for Cuban culture while displaying a painful recognition that culture is ultimately unsustainable in the U.S.,” said the Cuban-American author and poet Gustavo Perez Firmat.
It is unsustainable because of the inevitable assimilation.
"Ultimately we pay a price for adaptation into the American culture,” said Perez Firmat. Hijuelo’s work captured that dilemma. he said.