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Hispanic Heritage Month - Oscar Hijuelos

Bill Hancock
Runnels County Register

Oscar Jerome Hijuelos was the first Latino winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Hijuelos was born on August 24, 1951 in New York City. His parents, Pascuela and Magdalena Hijuelos, had immigrated from Cuba. Hijuelos' father was a hotel cook. Hijuelos' parents spoke Cuban in the home. As a young child, after returning from vacation in Cuba, Hijuelos suffered from acute nephritis and was cared for in St. Luke's Convalescent Hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut for almost a year. Hijuelos wrote that during the period at St. Luke's,"I became estranged from the Spanish language and, therefore, my roots."

Oscar Hijuelos was a Cuban-American writer who was the first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1990).

After graduating from high school, Hijuelos attended Bronx Community College, Lehman College and Manhattan Community College. He then studied writing at the City College of New York, where he received his B.A. in 1975 and his M.A. in Creative Writing in 1976. While at the City College of New York, Hijuelos studied under Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs and Frederic Tuten. It was Barthelme who would become his mentor and friend. Before taking up writing full-time, Hijuelos worked in a variety of jobs, including working for an advertising agency.

Hijuelos' first novel was Our House in the Last World. The novel was published in 1983 and won the Rome Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The novel is about a Cuban family who immigrates to the United States during the 1940s.

Hijuelos' second novel was The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. This novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and later adapted into the 1992 film, "The Mambo Kings." The movie was a musical that starred Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas. The movie was about the American immigrant experience. Renowned literary critic, Michiko Kakutani, reviewed the book for the New York Times, describing the book as, "essentially elegiac in tone - a Chekhovian lament for a life of missed connections and misplaced dreams."

Hijoles would publish his autobiography in 2011. He expressed discomfort in his memoir with being pigeon-holed as an ethnic writer.

His influences included writers from Cuba and Latin American. Hijuelos won numerous awards during his life in addition to the Pulitzer. He won the Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in 1983 for Our House in the Last World. He won the Rome Prize in 1985; the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature in 2000 and the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature in 2003.

Hijuelos' books would include: Our House in the Last World (1983); The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989); The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993); Mr. Ives' Christmas (1995); Empress of the Splendid Season (1999); A Simple Habana Melody (from when the world was good) (2002); Dark Dude (2008); Beautiful Maria of my Soul (2010); Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir (2011); Twain and Stanly Enter 0Paradise (2015), which was edited and published after Hijuelos' death.

Hijuelos' papers are located at Columbia University Libraries.

On October 12, 2013, Oscar Hijuelos died suddenly of a heart attack while playing tennis in Manhattan.

The above story was gathered through articles and memoirs from Wikipedia, Hispanic Heritage.org. Hispanic Heritage month is September 15 - October 15. This is the final Runnels County Register article in this year's celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.