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Oscar Hijuelos’ ‘Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love’ Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

The Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love
Oscar Hijuelos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Classics
December 2015 (paperback)

Héctor Lavoe‘s 1976 “Periódico de Ayer” (Yesterday’s Newspaper) is a bitter but danceable salsa classic about lost love. But like many of his finest songs, it can also be understood as about the trappings of fame and the fleeting nature of celebrity. Something new is always coming along and what was once exciting and innovative, in time, fades out of memory.

The rise of salsa and the Fania All-Stars are never mentioned in
Oscar Hijuelos‘ second novel The Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love (1989) which exists in a semi-fictional timeline, but it’s easy to imagine the main character, Cesar Castillo, hearing Lavoe’s song playing from a shiny convertible zooming by as he walks through Morningside Heights. By this point, Castillo is decades past his prime. Almost every opportunity that has come his way–music, business, or romance–has failed the test of time. A half-dozen times, a tailor has altered the flashy suits that Cesar dons to accommodate his expanding waistline during the increasingly few and far between performances. Nestor, his brother, bandmate and shoulder angel, is long dead.

It seems that every Latinx family has an uncle like this, a man who lived large and fell flat in his final years. An appearance on sitcome
I Love Lucy at the behest of a nationally recognizable compatriot, the generous and charismatic Desi Arnaz, during the height of the 1950s mambo craze was the closest Castillo came to the big time.

Hijuelos uses this bit of fictional family folklore to build out a sensuous and utterly gripping tale celebrating the experiences of Cubans with the ability to evoke, through their music, the passion and melancholy that comes from having lost something that they will never be able to let go. He deeply understood that music and food, both indulged in profoundly throughout the novel, are starting points for the children of immigrants to value their own culture. Each begins as a family’s way of conjuring a sense of home in an unfamiliar place and they eventually morph into a source of appreciation and approval from others.

The Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love is a novel in the deeply American tradition of dreamers who desperately chase elusive and ephemeral goals. The dreams, in this case, are born on a tropical island off the coast of Florida and remain vibrant as the Castillo Brothers try to make it in New York City, forever shuffling between mundane day-jobs and euphoric evening gigs. Along the way, readers get a guided tour through the Uptown Manhattan, Central Brooklyn and South Bronx nightclubs where the band’s songs linger deep into the night. Youtube must be kept close-at-hand to dive into the works of Tito Puente, Machito and the other real-life stars that Hijuelos weaves seamlessly into the narrative.

After the fated brush with national exposure, the Mambo Kings’ tour circuit expands beyond the city toward far-flung locales where the “exotic” music by a big multiracial band is met with confusion, if not downright hostility. Tragedy ends the Mambo King’s upward trajectory, yet the story–much like life–continues. The novel goes beyond the music and shows intimate moments that are all too familiar to our families. The novel’s nostalgia never yields to uncritical glamorization, and Latinx readers are faced with reflections of ourselves and our communities in all our complexity.

One of Hijuelos’ greatest triumphs is his willingness to stare head-on the shortcomings of our culture. He’s unsparing in his dissection of the machismo that pervades our families. The Mambo Kings come home from late-night gigs and demand a hot meal from whichever woman happens to be around. Infidelity is viewed as inevitable as the change of seasons. Even “Beautiful Maria of My Soul”, the band’s enduring hit and contribution to the oldies radio rotation, is dedicated to a woman who left its composer after his brother told him that the only way to keep “your woman” is by shattering her confidence and letting her know who’s boss.

The theme of Latin American gender dynamics through cultural representation is revisited in the underrated 2010 sequel-of-sorts, Beautiful Maria of My Soul, which delves into the impact that the song has on a woman who is relegated to an object of desire. Hijuelos was not one to leave the past, however grandiose and/or messy, behind. Instead, he continued to find rich new dimensions to how we perceive our identities, our communities and our myths.

Thirty years ago, The Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love became the first novel by a Latinx writer to win the Pulitzer for Fiction. This momentous event opened the gates to commercial and critical success for subsequent authors who are ni de aquí, ni de allá (not from here, not from there). Though Hijuelos died prematurely in 2013, his legacy continues to shine in the works of Cristina García, Julia Alvarez, Héctor Tobar, and countless others that owe him a debt of gratitude.

National Hispanic Heritage Month in the US (held annually from 15 September to 15 October) rightfully celebrates the trailblazers, icons like singer Celia Cruz, activist César Chavez, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and baseball hall of famer Roberto Clemente. They and others shifted perceptions, shattered barriers, and inspired children of subsequent generations. Hijuelos sits on the pantheon for his capacity to lovingly detail why the less-heralded men and women in our communities deserve a similar sense of admiration and respect.

An early subplot in The Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love features one of Hijuelos’ most effortlessly beautiful lines, “Right then and there she saw that her father was a fabulous and graceful dancer, and that this dancing seemed to offer release from his pain.” Sometimes, all it takes to renew a sense of joy in a homesick person of the diaspora is the right song.