RIP Oscar Hijuelos

In the summer of 2011, I was entering my freshman year of college. Because of family plans and other things, we didn’t hold my high school graduation party until the middle of July. By then, I had excitedly ordered all my books through Amazon and they had arrived at my house.

At the actual party, I was running around all day doing various things, although I did get to relax a fair amount. At the end of it all, though, after most of the guests had gone home, my sister had gone to sleep after marathoning all then-7 of the Harry Potter films the night before and my folks were busy chatting with my aunt and uncle, I headed to the stack of my new books and, almost at random, chose one of the titles from my American Literature survey course: Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos.

I read the book in most of 2 days, instantly captivated by the story of a man, himself an orphan, trying to put his life back together after the murder of his aspiring priest son, and thinking back over the story of his own life as a honorary member of New York’s Cuban community of the 40s and ’50s, despite not really being Cuban himself; a simple story, Hijuelos captured it in poetic, delicate writing that painting broad, vibrant brushstrokes in your head.

I bring this up because, this past Sunday, Hijuelos died at the age of 62 of a heart attack after playing tennis in New York, where he lived his whole life. Although a son of Cuban immigrants, a year-long childhood illness requiring hospitalization forced him to commit to English as a first language. He never forgot his roots, though, as he wrote English with the delicacy and grace of flowing Spanish.

I fell in love with Mr Ives’ Christmas and, when it came time to discuss it in class, I eagerly dove into it again. A year later, I bought a copy of Hijuelos’ Pulitzer Prize winning epic, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which explores the mambo/Latin music craze that briefly ruled ’40s and ’50s America as well as the tale of two immigrant brothers, the bullish Cesar and the ruminative Nestor, and became the first novel by an American Hispanic author to win such a prestigious honor. That was also terrific in its balance of the brutal and the delicate.

With the current demographic situation being what it is here in America, I feel blessed and fortunate to have encountered Hijuelos’ writing. Surely and hopefully, there will be more like him in due time.


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