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Oscar Jerome Hijuelos

Oscar Jerome Hijuelos was an American novelist of Cuban descent. During a year-long convalescence from a childhood illness spent in a Connecticut hospital he lost his knowledge of Spanish, his parents' native language. He was educated in New York City, and wrote short stories and advertising copy.

Background

  • Hijuelos was born on August 24, 1951 in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, to Cuban immigrant parents, Pascual and Magdalena (Torrens) Hijuelos, both from Holguín, Cuba. His father worked as a hotel cook. As a young child, he suffered from acute nephritis after a vacation trip to Cuba with his mother and brother José, and was in St. Luke's Convalescent Hospital, Greenwich, Connecticut for almost a year, eventually recovering. During this long period separated from his Spanish-speaking family, he learned fluent English; he later wrote of this time: "I became estranged from the Spanish language and, therefore, my roots."

  • Education

    • He grew up in an urban environment surrounded by Latino music and culture, where family and neighbors frequently engaged in nostalgic conversations and constant references to the country left behind, which later reappeared in his work. In the 1950s, watching Cuban musician and actor Desi Arnaz in I Love Lucy was a weekly ritual and a source of pride for the entire family.

      Hijuelos attended public schools in his upper-west-side Manhattan neighborhood and graduated from high school in 1969. He considered becoming a cartoonist, played guitar in various Latino music bands, and for a short time worked on an insect farm in Wisconsin before he enrolled in the City College of New York, where in 1975 he graduated with a degree in English literature. In 1976 he earned a master's degree in creative writing from the City University of New York.

    Career

    • While holding a variety of jobs, which included an eight-year stint as an ad writer, he wrote and published short stories. Some of his first published work appeared in Best of Pushcart Press III (1978), with the short story "Columbus Discovering America" receiving a special citation from Pushcart Press. A series of awards that included a 1980 Breadloaf Writers Conference Scholarship and grants from the Creative Artists Programs Service (1982) and from the Ingram Merrill Foundation (1983) afforded him the time and financial support to write.

      His first novel, Our House in the Last World (1983), an autobiographical portrayal of a Cuban family's experiences in the United States in the 1940s, was unusual because it looked at the life of the immigrant family rather than Cuban politics or life in exile. In addition to good reviews, he was awarded both a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and the American Academy in Rome fellowship for Literature. The Rome award provided him with a one-year stipend and living arrangements in Italy, where he began work on Mambo Kings.

      In 1989 he published his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, described by a critic as a story "imbued with the rhythms of spirited and soulful musical styles" (Shirley 1995, 70). The story is told from the perspective of its male narrator, who depicts the lives of sibling musicians Cesar and Nestor Castillo who come to the United States from Havana, have a brief moment of fame and success with a cameo appearance on 1 Love Lucy, and very quickly return to obscurity. It became a bestseller and was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1990 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and in 1992 the novel was made into a feature film with the same title starring then-newcomer Spanish actor Antonio Banderas.

      Hijuelos' third novel, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993), examines the role of women in a Cuban American family. Unlike his previous work, it is told from various female points of view and presents a setting in which women are very powerful. Although reviews were mixed, it established him as a leading Latino writer. His 1995 novel, Mr. Ives' Christmas, narrates the story of a man torn by the senseless murder of his son and his personal journey through his anger and grief. This novel has been heralded as one of Hijuelos' most poignant works.

      His fourth novel, Empress of the Splendid Season, was published in 1999. It tells the story of Cuban immigrant Lydia España, a onetime debutante-turned-cleaning lady of New York apartments. Hijuelos contrasts her life with that of her employers, whose stories she uncovers as she cleans their apartments. It is a detailed look at the struggles of working-class life described by one critic as "a testament to getting through" (Caldwell 1999, HI).

      In 1998 Hijuelos briefly returned to his early love of music and guitar playing. He played lead guitar and vocals on the song "I Want to Eat," which was included in a double-CD recording Stranger Than Fiction, a collection of 32 songs released to benefit the PEN writers' Special Fund.

    Major achievements

    • In addition to the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, Hijuelos received an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in 1983, the year he published his first novel, Our House in the Last World. In 1985 the novel received the Rome Prize, awarded by the American Academy in Rome.

      On September 7, 2000, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., the Latino community awarded Hijuelos with a Hispanic Heritage Award in recognition of his literary contribution.

    Connections

    • Hijuelos' first marriage ended in divorce. He married writer and editor Lori Marie Carlson on December 12, 1998 in Manhattan.
    Oscar Hijuelos
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    Born August 24, 1951
    Died October 12, 2013
    (aged 62)
    Nationality
    • 1975
      City College of New York
      New York
    • 1976
      City College of New York
      New York
    • 1988 - 1989
      Professor, English Hofstra University
      Hempstead, New York, United States

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