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A Cuban-American Chronicles Life Between Cultures

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 10, 2011

Like Jacob Marley confronting the ghost of Christmas past, writer Oscar Hijuelos sees things on 118th Street and Amsterdam Avenue that are no longer there. It’s a “haunted feeling,” he says, gazing down the New York City street where he was raised.

Hijuelos has written eight novels exploring the Cuban-American experience. His latest work, a memoir called Thoughts Without Cigarettes, describes his early life in New York, where he was born in 1951.

Here, in his childhood neighborhood of Morningside Heights, Hijuelos can still remember the soulful Sicilian shoemaker in a green smock in the window of his repair shop; the row of tenement houses across the street where he used to play; his father, home from work, leaning against a basement rail, smoking cigarettes; the old “Freegent’s” Pharmacy on the corner.

“There used to be a soda fountain just inside the window,” Hijeulos recalls, “and candy counters, and a big telephone booth — you know the old kind, with doors you’d open up.” Hijuelos’ parents, who immigrated to the U.S. in the late ’40s, didn’t have a telephone until 1965. They’d come to the Freegent’s phone booth to make and receive calls to the relatives still in Cuba.

Hijuelos stops in front of his childhood home, building No. 419. “This is where I was raised,” he says. He points to a front window, once the family’s living room. “As a kid, I spent so much time standing at that window … I was sick as a child, so my mother wouldn’t let me out all that much, so I sort of saw this life [on the street] exploding. I mean, it was such a lively block that it was very hard to feel lonesome. But somehow I could.”

When Hijuelos was just 4 years old, he contracted nephritis, a kidney disease, during a summer trip to Cuba. He had to spend a year in a convalescent hospital in Greenwich, Conn., miles from his family.

“My mother always said I went in speaking Spanish, and came out speaking English,” he recalls. “I think that could be said about my psychic inner state as well. I was sort of plucked out of the whole world I knew and turned into something else. And I don’t think I ever outgrew that, because I always felt shell-shocked growing up.”

Hijuelos incorporated his alienation into his fiction, writing stories about lives lived between cultures. His most celebrated novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, is about two brothers, Nestor and Cesar Castillo — musicians who leave Cuba with the dream of making it big in New York. The novel was adapted by Hollywood, with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas in the lead roles. The novel earned Oscar Hijuelos the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990, making him the first Latino ever to receive that award.

“It was so exciting,” says Cuban-born author Christina Garcia. “I mean, if I had been a gymnast, I would have done back flips … it really felt then that it had blown open the possibilities for all of us. [For] all of us who were writing.”

Garcia is the author of five novels, including Dreaming in Cuban and The Lady Matador’s Hotel. Garcia was born in Havana, but like Oscar Hijuelos, she was raised in New York. “I remember meeting Oscar,” she says, “It was in ’92 or ’93, and I started speaking to him in Spanish and he answered me in English. I completely [understood] how you are one foot in the culture, and the rest of you out of it. Even the sense of being a fraud, because you’re in the culture but you’re more of an observer than a participant.”

As a child, Hijuelos did plenty of observing from his apartment window. He eventually found a refuge in reading. His building was literally in the shadow of Columbia University across Amsterdam Avenue. He says his mother would find crates of books on the street.

“Since we had a bookcase, she wanted to fill the bookcase with books,” Hijuelos remembers. “So she’d take these books from the street, [and] put them in our shelves. So I grew up, for example, reading things like about agriculture in the Midwest in the 1950s. Half a volume of Oliver Twist, I remember — the cover was still nice, but half of it was missing.”

Standing in 90-degree heat on a street corner in his childhood neighborhood, Hijuelos reads a passage from Thoughts Without Cigarettes. It’s about when he was 20 years old, asking himself “who am I?”

And why is it that I always swear, as I begin to look behind me or turn a corner, that, in a moment, I will come upon all that I do not have — a world, perhaps Cuban, perhaps familial, that for so many reasons seems to have been taken from me?

As for the title of his memoir? Hijuelos says he smokes when he gets anxious. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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