After an enchanting trip with his mother to Cuba as a young child, he becomes ill with a kidney disease and is in the hospital for a year, during which he loses, and never truly recovers, his Spanish. Once released, he is limited to a strict diet of bland food and forbidden from eating Cuban staples like crispy lechon or fried plantains that his family cherishes.
"For the longest time, all I would know was that I had gotten sick in Cuba, from Cuban microbios, that the illness had blossomed in the land of my forebears, the country where I had once been loved and whose language fell as music on my ears," Hijuelos writes. "Of course, diseases happen anywhere, and children get sick under any circumstances, but what I would hear for years afterward from my mother was that something Cuban had nearly killed me and, in the process of my healing, would turn my own 'Cubaness' into air."
It's an experience of displacement and a never-ending inability to reach an identity he inherits but cannot truly grasp, that many Cubans of his generation, along with anyone who has felt divided between two homelands, will understand and relate to. It also defines much of his development as a writer, as he initially hesitates to embrace his story, and that of his family, as a source of inspiration for his fictional characters - too ashamed to put them on paper, believing the world was indifferent to his tale.
Indeed, Hijuelos himself acknowledges the unlikely course his life has taken and the near impossibility of becoming a writer. He was raised in a tough Manhattan neighborhood in the 1960s where countless friends fell into a fatal spiral of drugs and alcohol abuse. He wasn't surrounded by books, often picking up comic strips instead, if he read at all.
Yet his life was rich with stories and characters that later populated his novels - his mother, a beautiful, creative woman who met her future husband selling tickets at a movie theater in Cuba and later followed him to New York, where she was agonized by his late nights and heavy drinking; Hijuelos' father, a jubilant but tormented soul from the Cuban countryside who barely scraped together a living for his family as a hotel cook and whose premature death from a heart attack, before his youngest son could truly know him, left a lasting mark; and, of course, the countless men and women from Hijuelos' neighborhood, whose tales of past triumphs and unrequited loves nearly risked being forgotten.