The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos: A review

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1990 and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction of 1989. Incredibly, it was the FIRST Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner by a Hispanic writer.

Oscar Hijuelos was born in the United States to Cuban immigrant parents and, in this book, he excavates Cuban history, especially Cuban musical history, to tell a story of a family and the culture from which they came.

Latin music was all the rage in mid-twentieth century America and many practitioners of the art of the habanera, the rumba, and the mambo followed the trendy vogue from Cuba to America to seek their fortunes. Among these immigrants were the brothers Castillo, Cesar and Nestor.

They arrived in New York City in 1949. Cesar was a dashing songster with a passionate quivering baritone voice and the good looks to capture the hearts of his female listeners. Nestor was quiet and introspective with a touch of melancholy in his soul. The melancholy was a result of his lost love back in Cuba, a woman whom he celebrated in a bolero called "Beautiful Maria of My Soul." Over the years, he would constantly rewrite that song, finally ending with 22 different versions of it.

There were plenty of examples of Cuban musicians who had made it in America that the Castillo brothers could emulate. In fact, there was an embarrassment of riches of examples. Which one would they choose? The glamorous crooner Miguelito Valdez who sang with Xavier Cugat? Machito, the leader of a popular Afro-Cuban band? Or perhaps Desiderio Arnaz with his congo drum, singing voice, and his quaint accent?

Desi Arnaz and the Castillos had much in common. They came from Oriente Province. Desi had once worked with the same orchestra as Cesar back in Cuba. Desi was a forerunner of the Castillos in America, having arrived here in the 1930s and established himself in the clubs and dance halls of New York. By the 1950s, of course, he was perhaps most famous as the husband of Lucille Ball and as "Desi" on "I Love Lucy."

In the '50s, the Castillos and their orchestra, The Mambo Kings, were establishing themselves in New York. They put out 78 RPM records that sold for 69 cents apiece, and they played to adoring audiences on the East Coast and other parts of the country, dressed in their flamboyant flamingo pink and black suits. They were locally well-known but never became famous nationally.

Finally, in 1955, the Mambo Kings had their fifteen minutes of fame. 

Desi Arnaz had seen them perform in New York and he invited them to appear on the "I Love Lucy" television show. They played his cousins from Cuba and they performed Nestor's song, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul." Cesar strummed his guitar and sang, Nestor played his trumpet, and Desi Arnaz joined in to harmonize. It was in many ways the high point of their careers and their lives.

We get all of this - and much, much more - through the memories of Cesar at the end of his life. He's living in a hotel in New York, after a life devoted to music and sex. The memories that he shares with us are of both. We see his performances with Nestor and other members of their band. We experience their lives on the road and their lives when they return home - Nestor to his wife and two children and Cesar to...Nestor's wife and children and whatever woman he is involved with at the moment.

Cesar never marries but there are always women in his life. He loves women. He loves making love to women and he remembers every one of them in great detail and regales us with those memories. In the end, his memories seem almost equal parts sexual and musical, maybe with a slight edge to the sexual.

In fact, that was perhaps my one complaint about the book. I loved the lush language of the novel as Hijuelos explored the arc of the lives of his two main characters, the sensitive and soulful Nestor and the blustering and charismatic Nestor. But every few pages along, there would be another unabashedly sensual description of Nestor's sexual encounter with yet another woman and a vivid detailing of his remarkable sex organs. Okay, we get it - he's hung like a horse and is an indefatigable lover! That aspect of the story just got a bit boring with all the repetition.

Nevertheless, it is a richly told, tragicomic tale of the immigrant experience and it brings to life that era when the mambo was king. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 


  1. That's quite a colorful novel with a even more colorful set of characters. I'm glad you liked it.

    1. "Colorful" is an apt adjective and it was a terrific read.

  2. I must read this soon! It has many of my favorite elements. At my age, I can at least fantasize about a man who is "hung like a horse and is an indefatigable lover!" I hadn't realized the Desi Arnaz connection. Lucille is one of my sheroes!! Did she and Caesar...? Guess I will have to read the book. Also, didn't the author also write a book called Beautiful Maria of My Soul?

    1. He did write that book. I don't know if the story is connected with this tale of the Castillo brothers, but I would assume that it probably is.


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