The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love


By Oscar Hijuelos

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When it was first published in 1989, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love became an international bestselling sensation, winning rave reviews and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that changed the landscape of American literature returns with a new afterword by Oscar Hijuelos.

Here is the story of the memorable Castillo brothers, from Havana to New York’s Upper West Side. The lovelorn songwriter Nestor and his macho brother Cesar find success in the city’s dance halls and beyond playing the rhythms that earn them their band’s name, as they struggle with elusive fame and lost love in a richly sensual tale that has become a cultural touchstone and an enduring favorite.



The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
Copyright © 1989, 2013 by Oscar Hijuelos
Cover art, special contents, and Electronic Edition © 2013 by RosettaBooks LLC

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Cover jacket design by Misha Beletsky
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795337604

It was a Saturday afternoon on La Salle Street, years and years ago when I was a little kid, and around three o’clock Mrs. Shannon, the heavy Irish woman in her perpetually soup-stained dress, opened her back window and shouted out into the courtyard, “Hey, Cesar, yoo-hoo, I think you’re on television, I swear it’s you!” When I heard the opening strains of the I Love Lucy show I got excited because I knew she was referring to an item of eternity, that episode in which my dead father and my Uncle Cesar had appeared, playing Ricky Ricardo’s singing cousins fresh off the farm in Oriente Province, Cuba, and north in New York for an engagement at Ricky’s nightclub, the Tropicana.

This was close enough to the truth about their real lives—they were musicians and songwriters who had left Havana for New York in 1949, the year they formed the Mambo Kings, an orchestra that packed clubs, dance halls, and theaters around the East Coast—and, excitement of excitements, they even made a fabled journey in a flamingo-pink bus out to Sweet’s Ballroom in San Francisco, playing on an all-star mambo night, a beautiful night of glory, beyond death, beyond pain, beyond all stillness.

Desi Arnaz had caught their act one night in a supper club on the West Side, and because they had perhaps already known each other from Havana or Oriente Province, where Arnaz, like the brothers, was born, it was natural that he ask them to sing on his show. He liked one of their songs in particular, a romantic bolero written by them, “Beautiful María of My Soul.”

Some months later (I don’t know how many, I wasn’t five years old yet) they began to rehearse for the immortal appearance of my father on this show. For me, my father’s gentle rapping on Ricky Ricardo’s door has always been a call from the beyond, as in Dracula films, or films of the walking dead, in which spirits ooze out from behind tombstones and through the cracked windows and rotted floors of gloomy antique halls: Lucille Ball, the lovely redheaded actress and comedienne who played Ricky’s wife, was housecleaning when she heard the rapping of my father’s knuckles against that door.

“I’m commmmmming,” in her singsong voice.

Standing in her entrance, two men in white silk suits and butterfly-looking lace bow ties, black instrument cases by their side and black-brimmed white hats in their hands—my father, Nestor Castillo, thin and broad-shouldered, and Uncle Cesar, thickset and immense.

My uncle: “Mrs. Ricardo? My name is Alfonso and this is my brother Manny…”

And her face lights up and she says, “Oh, yes, the fellows from Cuba. Ricky told me all about you.”

Then, just like that, they’re sitting on the couch when Ricky Ricardo walks in and says something like “Manny, Alfonso! Gee, it’s really swell that you fellas could make it up here from Havana for the show.”

That’s when my father smiled. The first time I saw a rerun of this, I could remember other things about him—his lifting me up, his smell of cologne, his patting my head, his handing me a dime, his touching my face, his whistling, his taking me and my little sister, Leticia, for a walk in the park, and so many other moments happening in my thoughts simultaneously that it was like watching something momentous, say the Resurrection, as if Christ had stepped out of his sepulcher, flooding the world with light—what we were taught in the local church with the big red doors—because my father was now newly alive and could take off his hat and sit down on the couch in Ricky’s living room, resting his black instrument case on his lap. He could play the trumpet, move his head, blink his eyes, nod, walk across the room, and say “Thank you” when offered a cup of coffee. For me, the room was suddenly bursting with a silvery radiance. And now I knew that we could see it again. Mrs. Shannon had called out into the courtyard alerting my uncle: I was already in his apartment.

With my heart racing, I turned on the big black-and-white television set in his living room and tried to wake him. My uncle had fallen asleep in the kitchen—having worked really late the night before, some job in a Bronx social club, singing and playing the horn with a pickup group of musicians. He was snoring, his shirt was open, a few buttons had popped out on his belly. Between the delicate-looking index and middle fingers of his right hand, a Chesterfield cigarette burning down to the filter, that hand still holding a half glass of rye whiskey, which he used to drink like crazy because in recent years he had been suffering from bad dreams, saw apparitions, felt cursed, and, despite all the women he took to bed, found his life of bachelorhood solitary and wearisome. But I didn’t know this at the time, I thought he was sleeping because he had worked so hard the night before, singing and playing the trumpet for seven or eight hours. I’m talking about a wedding party in a crowded, smoke-filled room (with bolted-shut fire doors), lasting from nine at night to four, five o’clock in the morning, the band playing one-, two-hour sets. I thought he just needed the rest. How could I have known that he would come home and, in the name of unwinding, throw back a glass of rye, then a second, and then a third, and so on, until he’d plant his elbow on the table and use it to steady his chin, as he couldn’t hold his head up otherwise. But that day I ran into the kitchen to wake him up so that he could see the episode, too, shaking him gently and tugging at his elbow, which was a mistake, because it was as if I had pulled loose the support columns of a five-hundred-year-old church: he simply fell over and crashed to the floor.

A commercial was running on the television, and so, as I knew I wouldn’t have much time, I began to slap his face, pull on his burning red-hot ears, tugging on them until he finally opened one eye. In the act of focusing he apparently did not recognize me, because he asked, “Nestor, what are you doing here?”

“It’s me, Uncle, it’s Eugenio.”

I said this in a really earnest tone of voice, just like that kid who hangs out with Spencer Tracy in the movie of The Old Man and the Sea, really believing in my uncle and clinging on to his every word in life, his every touch like nourishment from a realm of great beauty, far beyond me, his heart. I tugged at him again, and he opened his eyes. This time he recognized me.

He said, “You?”

“Yes, Uncle, get up! Please get up! You’re on television again. Come on.”

One thing I have to say about my Uncle Cesar, there was very little he wouldn’t do for me in those days, and so he nodded, tried to push himself off the floor, got to his knees, had trouble balancing, and then fell backwards. His head must have hurt: his face was a wince of pain. Then he seemed to be sleeping again. From the living room came the voice of Ricky’s wife, plotting as usual with her neighbor Ethel Mertz about how to get a part on Ricky’s show at the Tropicana, and I knew that the brothers had already been to the apartment—that’s when Mrs. Shannon had called out into the courtyard—that in about five more minutes my father and uncle would be standing on the stage of the Tropicana, ready to perform that song again. Ricky would take hold of the microphone and say, “Well, folks, and now I have a real treat for you. Ladies and gentlemen, Alfonso and Manny Reyes, let’s hear it!” And soon my father and uncle would be standing side by side, living, breathing beings, for all the world to see, harmonizing in a duet of that canción.

As I shook my uncle, he opened his eyes and gave me his hand, hard and callused from his other job in those days, as superintendent, and he said, “Eugenio, help me. Help me.”

I tugged with all my strength, but it was hopeless. Still he tried: with great effort he made it to one knee, and then, with his hand braced on the floor, he started to push himself up again. As I gave him another tug, he began miraculously to rise. Then he pushed my hand away and said, “I’ll be okay, kid.”

With one hand on the table and the other on the steam pipe, he pulled himself to his feet. For a moment he towered over me, wobbling as if powerful winds were rushing through the apartment. Happily I led him down the hallway and into the living room, but he fell over again by the door—not fell over, but rushed forward as if the floor had abruptly tilted, as if he had been shot out of a cannon, and, wham, he hit the bookcase in the hall. He kept piles of records there, among them a number of the black and brittle 78s he had recorded with my father and their group, the Mambo Kings. These came crashing down, the bookcase’s glass doors jerking open, the records shooting out and spinning like flying saucers in the movies and splintering into pieces. Then the bookcase followed, slamming into the floor beside him: the songs “Bésame Mucho,” “Acércate Más,” “Juventud,” “Twilight in Havana,” “Mambo Nine,” “Mambo Number Eight,” “Mambo for a Hot Night,” and their fine version of “Beautiful María of My Soul”—all these were smashed up. This crash had a sobering effect on my uncle. Suddenly he got to one knee by himself, and then the other, stood, leaned against the wall, and shook his head.

Bueno,” he said.

He followed me into the living room, and plopped down on the couch behind me. I sat on a big stuffed chair that we’d hauled up out of the basement. He squinted at the screen, watching himself and his younger brother, whom, despite their troubles, he loved very much. He seemed to be dreaming.

“Well, folks,” Ricky Ricardo said, “and now I have a real treat for you…”

The two musicians in white silk suits and big butterfly-looking lace bow ties, marching toward the microphone, my uncle holding a guitar, my father a trumpet.

“Thank you, thank you. And now a little number that we composed…” And as Cesar started to strum the guitar and my father lifted his trumpet to his lips, playing the opening of “Beautiful María of My Soul,” a lovely, soaring melody line filling the room.

They were singing the song as it had been written—in Spanish. With the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra behind them, they came into a turnaround and began harmonizing a line that translates roughly into English as: “What delicious pain love has brought to me in the form of a woman.”

My father… He looked so alive!


Uncle Cesar had lit a cigarette and fallen asleep. His cigarette had slid out of his fingers and was now burning into the starched cuff of his white shirt. I put the cigarette out, and then my uncle, opening his eyes again, smiled. “Eugenio, do me a favor. Get me a drink.”

“But, Uncle, don’t you want to watch the show?”

He tried really hard to pay attention, to focus on it.

“Look, it’s you and Poppy.”

Coño, …”

My father’s face with his horsey grin, arching eyebrows, big fleshy ears—a family trait—that slight look of pain, his quivering vocal cords, how beautiful it all seemed to me then…

And so I rushed into the kitchen and came back with a glass of rye whiskey, charging as fast as I could without spilling it. Ricky had joined the brothers onstage. He was definitely pleased with their performance and showed it because as the last note sounded he whipped up his hand and shouted “Olé!,” a big lock of his thick black hair falling over his brows. Then they bowed and the audience applauded.

The show continued on its course. A few gags followed: a costumed bull with flowers wrapped around its horns came out dancing an Irish jig, its horn poking into Ricky’s bottom and so exasperating him that his eyes bugged out, he slapped his forehead and started speaking a-thousand-words-a-second Spanish. But at that point it made no difference to me, the miracle had passed, the resurrection of a man, Our Lord’s promise which I then believed, with its release from pain, release from the troubles of this world.


In the Hotel Splendour 1980

Nearly twenty-five years after he and his brother had appeared on the I Love Lucy show, Cesar Castillo suffered in the terrible heat of a summer’s night and poured himself another drink. He was in a room in the Hotel Splendour on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, not far from the narrow stairway that led up to the recording studios of Orchestra Records, where his group, the Mambo Kings, made their fifteen black brittle 78s. In fact, it could have been the very room in which he had once bedded down a luscious and long-legged party girl by the name of Vanna Vane, Miss Mambo for the month of June 1954. Everything was different then: 125th Street was jumping with clubs, there was less violence, there were fewer beggars, more mutual respect between people; he could take a late-night stroll from the apartment on La Salle Street, head down Broadway, cut east on 110th Street to Central Park, and then walk along its twisting paths and across the little bridges over streams and rocks, enjoying the scent of the woods and nature’s beauty without a worry. He’d make his way to the Park Palace Ballroom on East 110th Street to hear Machito or Tito Puente, find musician friends at the bar, chase women, dance. Back then, you could walk through that park wearing your best clothes and a nice expensive watch without someone coming up behind you and pressing a knife against your neck. Man, those days were gone forever.

He laughed: he would have given anything to have the physical virtuosity now that he did when he was thirty-six and first brought Miss Mambo up those stairs and into the room. He used to live for that moment when he could strip a woman down on a bed: Miss Vanna Vane of Brooklyn, New York, had a mole just below the nipple of her right breast, and, boom, his big thing used to stick out just like that, just by touching a woman’s breast or standing close to her and sensing the heat between her legs. Women wore nicer clothes back then, more elaborate delicate things, and it was more fun to watch them undress. Yes, perhaps that was the room where he’d take Vanna Vane on those glorious unending nights of love so long ago.

He sat in the flickering street-lit window, his languorous heavy-jowled hound’s face glowing like white stone. He’d brought up a little phonograph, used to belong to his nephew Eugenio, and a package of old records made by his group, the Mambo Kings, in the early 1950s. A case of whiskey, a carton of cigarettes—filtered Chesterfields (“Folks, smoke Chesterfields, the preferred tobacco, the Mambo King’s favorite!”) that had wrecked his nice baritone voice over the years; and a few other items: paper, envelopes, a few BiC pens, his tattered address book, stomach pills, a dirty magazine—something called El Mundo Sexual—a few faded photographs, a change of clothes, all packed in a beaten-up cane suitcase. He was planning to stay in the Hotel Splendour for as long as it would take him to drink that whiskey (or until the veins on his legs burst), figuring he’d eat, if he had to, at the Chinese place on the corner with its sign saying, “Takee Out Only.”

As he leaned forward, placing on the buzzing phonograph a record called “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” he could hear footsteps on the stairway, a man’s and a young woman’s voice, the man saying, “Here we are, baby,” and then the sound of the door opening and closing, and the moving about of chairs, as if they were going to sit in front of a fan together to drink and kiss. Black man’s voice, Cesar figured before clicking on the record player.

A sea of scratches and a trumpet line, a habanera bass, a piano playing sentimental, sad minor chords, his brother Nestor Castillo in some faraway place in a world without light, raising the trumpet to his lips, eyes closed, face rippled by dreamy concentration… the melody of Ernesto Lecuona’s “Juventud.”

Sipping whiskey, his memory scrambled like eggs. He was sixty-two. Time was becoming a joke. One day, young man; next day, old man. Now, as the music played, he half expected to open his eyes and find Miss Vanna Vane seated on that chair across the room, slipping her long legs into a pair of nylons, the cheery white light of 125th Street on a Sunday morning burning through the half-open window shade.


On one of those nights when he could not sit still in their apartment on La Salle Street back in 1954, he was in the Palm Nightclub listening to the fabulous Tito Rodríguez and his orchestra and watching the cigarette girl: she was wearing a too tight leopard-skin leotard and her blond hair was long, curled, and swept to one side, so that it fell pouty over half her face, like Veronica Lake’s. Every time this blonde walked by, Cesar Castillo bought a package of cigarettes from her, and when she would set her cigarette box down on the table he’d hold her by the wrist and look deep into her eyes. Then he’d give her a quarter tip and smile. In a sheeny black top, her breasts were splendid and large. He’d once overheard a drunken sailor saying to a pal in a bar, “Look at the torpedoes on that broad, mamma mia!” Loving American expressions, he thought of torpedoes with their pointed tips, and was enchanted by the line of sweat congealing across her diaphragm.

After he’d bought his eighth package of cigarettes from her, he invited her to have a drink. Because it was very late, she decided to sit with them, these two handsome brothers.

“My name is Cesar Castillo, and this is my brother Nestor.”

“Vanna Vane. Nice to meet you.”

A little later he was out on the dance floor with Miss Vane, putting on a hell of a show for the crowd, when the orchestra broke into a furious jam: a conga player, a bongo player, and a drummer with an American kit, pounding out a fast, swirling, circular rhythm. Their playing was so conducive to spinning that the Mambo King unfurled his breast-pocket handkerchief and in a variation of the scarf dance slipped one end of it between his teeth and urged Vanna to do the same with the other. Joined by a pink-and-light-blue handkerchief clenched between their teeth, Cesar and Vanna started to spin quickly like two whirling acrobats in a circus act. As they spun, the crowd applauded, and a number of couples imitated them on the dance floor. Then they dizzily zigzagged back to their table.

“So you’re a Cuban fellow like that guy Desi Arnaz?”

“That’s right, baby.”

Later, at three in the morning, he and Nestor walked her to the subway.

“Vanna, there’s something I want you to do for me. I have this orchestra and we’ve just made a new record. We’re thinking of calling it something like ‘Mambos for the Manhattan Night,’ that’s my idea, and we need someone, a pretty girl like you—how old are you?”


“—a pretty girl to pose with us for the cover of this record. I mean to say”—and then he seemed flustered and bashful—“that you would be good for this. It pays fifty dollars.”


Decked out in white silk suits on a Saturday afternoon, the brothers met Vanna in Times Square and walked over to the photographer’s studio at 548 West 48th Street, the Olympus Studio, where their photographer had outfitted a back room with fake palm trees. Turning up with their instruments, a trumpet, a guitar, and a drum, they looked quite slick, their thick heads of hair conked high into shining pompadours. Miss Vane wore a ruffle-skirted, pleat-waisted party dress with a tight bodice, gleamy black seamed nylons, and five-inch-high heels that lifted her rump into the air and showed off her nice long legs. (And behind this memory, he didn’t know what they called that muscle up at the high end inside a woman’s thigh, that muscle which intersected the clitoris and got all twisted, quivering ever so slightly when he’d kiss a woman there.) They tried a hundred poses, but the one that made the album cover was this: Cesar Castillo with wolfish grin, a conga drum strapped around his neck, his hand raised and coming down on the drum, his mouth open in a laugh, and his whole body bending toward Miss Vane. Her hands were clasped together by her face, her mouth forming an “Ooooh” of excitement, her legs bent for dancing, part of her garter showing; while to her left, Nestor, eyes closed and head tilted back, was blowing his trumpet. Later the artist who did the mechanicals for Orchestra Records would add a Manhattan skyline and a trail of one- and two-flagged notes spewing out of Nestor’s trumpet around them.

Because Orchestra Records worked on the cheap, most of their recordings were 78s, though they also managed to put out a few party-size 33s, with four songs per side. In those days, most record players still had three speeds. Pressed in the Bronx, these 78s were made of a heavy but brittle plastic, never sold more than a few thousand copies each, and were to be found in botánicas—religious knickknack shops—alongside statues of Jesus Christ and his tormented disciples, and magic candles and curative herbs, and in record stores like the Almacén Hernández on 113th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem, and in bins in the street market and on tables manned by friends at dances. The Mambo Kings would put out fifteen of these 78s, selling for 69 cents each, between 1949 and 1956, and three long-playing 33s (in 1954 and 1956).

The A and B sides of these 78s were titled “Solitude of My Heart,” “A Woman’s Tears,” “Twilight in Havana,” “The Havana Mambo,” “Conga Cats and Conga Dolls,” “The Sadness of Love,” “Welcome to Mamboland,” “Jingle Bells Mambo!” (“Who’s that fat jolly guy with the white beard dancing up a storm with that chick?… Santa Claus, Santa Claus dancing the ‘Jingle Bells Mambo!’”), “Mambo Nocturne,” “The Subway Mambo,” “My Cuban Mambo,” “The Lovers’ Mambo,” “El Campesino,” “Alcohol,” “Traffic Mambo,” “The Happy Mambo!,” “The New York Cha-cha-cha,” “Cuban Cha-cha,” “Too Many Women (and Not Enough Time!),” “Mambo Inferno!,” “Noche Caliente,” “Malagueña” (as cha-cha-cha), “Juventud,” “Solitude,” “Lovers’ Cha-cha-cha,” “How Delicious the Mambo!,” “Mambo Fiesta!,” “The Kissing Mambo!” (And the 33s: “Mambo Dance Party” and “Manhattan Mambo”—1954—and their full-length 33, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, June 1956.) Not only did the Mambo Kings feature winsome and beautiful Miss Mambo pinup girls on each of these records, but sometimes a dance instruction box was included. (By the mid-seventies, most of these records had vanished from the face of the earth. Whenever Cesar would go by a secondhand store or a “classic” record rack, he would search carefully for new copies to replace the ones that had gotten smashed or lent out or given away or just worn out and scratchy from so much use. Sometimes he found them for 15 cents or 25 cents and he would walk happily home, his bundle under his arm.)

Now the narrow entranceway of Orchestra, where those records were made, was blocked off with boards, its windows filled with the remnants of what had become a dress shop; a few manikins were leaning backwards against the glass. But back then he and the Mambo Kings used to carry their instruments up the narrow stairway, their enormous string bass always banging against the walls. Beyond a red door marked STUDIO was a small waiting room with an office desk and a row of black metal chairs. On the wall, a corkboard filled with photographs of the record company’s other musicians: a singer named Bobby Soxer Otero; a pianist, Cole Higgins; and beside him, the majestic Ornette Brothers. Then a photograph of the Mambo Kings all dressed in white silk suits and posed atop a seashell art-deco bandstand, the photograph crisscrossed with looping scrawls.

The studio was about the size of a large bathroom and had thickly carpeted floors with corkboard- and drape-covered walls, and a large window looking out on 125th Street. It was hot and airless on warm days, without air-conditioning or ventilation when they were recording, save for the rusty-bladed fan that sat atop the studio piano, which they’d turn on between numbers.

Three big RCA ball microphones in the center of the room for vocals, another three for the instruments. While making their records, the musicians would remove their shoes and walk quietly about, careful not to stomp their feet during the recording session, as this would get picked up as “thumps” on the microphones. No laughing, no breathing, no whispering. The horn players would stand to the side, the rhythm section—drummers and string bass and pianist—on another.


  • "A rich and sorrowful novel... that alternates crisp narrative with opulent musings--the language of everyday and the language of longing. You finish feeling... ready to throw up your arms and cry, ¡Que bueno es! Mr. Hijuelos is writing music of the heart."—New York Times Book Review
  • "Brilliant... memorable... a heady and powerful triumph... one of the most spectacularly vibrant and moving works by an American in years."—Alice Metcalf Miller, Cleveland Plain Dealer

On Sale
May 4, 2010
Page Count
448 pages
Hachette Books

Oscar Hijuelos

About the Author

Oscar Hijuelos (1951-2013), a native New Yorker and the son of Cuban immigrants, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of nine novels and a memoir and a recipient of the Rome Prize awarded by The American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He became the first Latino winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990 for his international bestseller The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and his novels have been translated into more than 40 languages.

Learn more about this author