Oscar Hijuelos Reflects on Cuba's Capital, Havana

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In a country where food is rationed, upscale tourist hotels offer chefs in white coats serving steaks and lobsters, elegant pastries, and fruit platters. David Alan Harvey / Magnum Photos

The city of Havana in the late 1940s, with its romantic ambience, its splendid sea-worn architecture, and its wall-to-wall music, was at the heart of my best-known novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Though I had only passed through the city as a boy in 1955, I based much of my novel’s portraiture of Havana on both the music I listened to as a youngster and the stories I had heard about it from the Cuban old-timers who would come to our apartment in Manhattan.

I can remember the colossal excitement that erupted in our little kitchen on New Year’s Eve 1958, when the Spanish-language radio announced that the forces of Fidel Castro were on the verge of entering that city. Toasts were made all around. Little did we know that Fidel’s revolution and the American embargo that resulted would bring an end to an epoch when Cubans like my folks, who had immigrated to the United States in the 1940s, could legally travel to the capital of their patria. No, during those years of the Cold War, Havana, like the rest of Cuba, became an abstraction, a forbidden city that seemed to vanish from our reach.

For generations of Americans of Cuban descent like me, Havana became a symbol of a legacy denied. In my case, I grew up without getting to know my relatives—aunts and cousins and their families—who had remained there. Even after my international success with The Mambo Kings in 1990, when the Cuban Ministry of Culture invited me to Havana, my dogged loyalty to family members who had left the island as exiles prevented me from accepting.

The psychological aftermath of 9/11, however, changed my attitude. By then, the Clinton and Bush administrations had made it possible for Cuban-Americans to visit family in Cuba. I finally decided to go with my wife. From the moment I stepped onto the tarmac at José Martí airport, a sense of the city’s dressed-down austerity put me in a gloomy mood. The Technicolor Havana of my dreams, which I had celebrated in my novels, was nowhere to be found. Our drive into the city in a beat-up Russian-made Lada revealed a horizon of sporadically lit housing and entire stretches of road without any lighting at all. Even our hotel, a fancy one, seemed to have left its best days long behind it. Though our room’s air conditioning barely worked, the next morning’s breakfast buffet in a hotel restaurant was obscenely abundant: in a country of severe food rationing, a dozen chefs in white toques stood behind steam tables serving up everything from steaks and lobsters to pastries and fruit platters.

I had gone to Havana to meet with family. One of my father’s eight sisters, Chelo, in her mid-90s, awaited me in her simple two-story house in the suburb of Marianao—along with a number of cousins. I wish I could report that I felt emotionally overwhelmed by this much-delayed meeting, but what I experienced instead was a feeling that, at long last, perhaps 40 years after the revolution, there was hardly any way of compensating for all that lost time. As I first held her tiny body in my arms, I knew that she was my aunt, and at the same moment, despite my longings otherwise, and for all our mutual endearments, she seemed a stranger to me.

Not to say that I regretted our meeting—in fact, Chelo was to pass away a scant few months later, much as that other Havana of my imagination would.

Despite my disappointments, I could not help but notice something beautiful. It had nothing to do with politics, or with its splendid architecture, or the wonderfulness of feeling the placid and balmy winds coming off the Malecón toward dusk. Nor with, as I had rightly gotten in my novels, the incredible live music that was everywhere—the best tres player I’d ever heard in my life was performing almost demurely against an arcade wall. What most moved me came down to our personal exchanges with its ordinary folks—Havana residents who, whether selling $2 blouses or flowers in a market, or just directing us to a certain location, could have not been warmer in their regard for their fellow human beings, American or not.

Hijuelos won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990 and is the author, most recently, of Thoughts Without Cigarettes.