Courtesy MacMillan /Suma
Courtesy MacMillan /Suma editorial

'Mambo Kings': The first novel by a Latino author to win a Pulitzer Prize

In 1989, Cuban American author Oscar Hijuelos published 'The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,' about a pair of Cuban brothers who start an orchestra in New York.


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In 1989, Cuban-American writer Oscar Hijuelos published The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, the story of two musician brothers, Nestor and Cesar Castillo, who emigrate from Cuba to New York City in the late 1940s in search of musical success. A year later, the book won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, becoming the first novel written by a Latino author to win the prestigious award, and became a key work in awakening the interest of American publishers in the narrative of Hispanic writers. 

Marked by a strong sense of nostalgia, the novel tells the story of the Castillo brothers, two young musicians from Cuba who arrive in New York in 1949 with their instruments under their arms. Settled in a relative's house, the Castillo brothers work during the day and dedicate their nights to music. They soon become the stars of the dance halls, where their orchestra plays boleros, mambos, rumbas and chachachás, the sensual and brilliant music that will suddenly turn them into Los Reyes del Mambo.

"The novel's main motive is to portray "immigration and the process of insertion of Latinos in the cultural and economic life of the New York city," writes researcher Rodrigo Arenas-Carter in the Chilean magazine Nueva Revista del Pacífico

In 1992, the book, available in Spanish, was adapted into a film and continues to be a bestseller, considering that issues of cultural diversity and identity remain as important today as they were almost 30 years ago. 

Born and raised in New York's Harlem, Hijuelos is the author of novels such as Our House in the Last World (1983), which chronicles the adventures of a family from their escape from Havana in 1939 to Spanish Harlem; Mambo Kings, about the rise and fall of the Castillo brothers, and The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993), about several generations of a Cuban-Irish family in Pennsylvania, and Beautiful Maria of my Soul (2010), considered a sequel to Mambo Kings. Maria is the great Cuban beauty who stole musician Nestor Castillo's heart and broke it, inspiring him to write the Mambo Kings' biggest hit, ''Beautiful Maria of my Soul'.' Now in her 60s and living in Miami with her pediatrician daughter, Teresa, Maria is still a beauty, and able to turn heads. But she has never forgotten Nestor, and as she recalls her days — and nights — in Havana, a whole new perspective on the history of the Mambo Kings unfolds.

Oscar Hijuelos. Wikipedia

Hijuelos died of a heart attack while playing tennis in 2013 at the age of 62.

Unlike many well-known Latino writers, "his work was rarely overtly political, instead focusing on the dilemmas of assimilation," notes the obituary published by The New York Times in the wake of his death. 

Hijuelos taught at Hofstra University and was a member of the English Department at Duke University.


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