Trailblazer of the Day | Monday, September 23, 2013
Oscar Hijuelos and Junot Díaz
Oscar Hijuelos is the first Latino to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his work: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love in 1990. Born in New York to Cuban immigrant parents, Hijuelos attended Bronx Community College, then the City College of New York where he received a Bachelor’s and Master’s in creative writing in 1975 and 1976, respectively. In 1985, he earned a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
Hijuelos’s first novel in 1983 - Our House in the Last World – was highly-acclaimed, winning major literary awards. But it was the lyrical story of the Castillo brothers, who came from Havana to New York City to play music in the 1950s in his The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which put Hijuelos on the map and earned him the 1990 Pulitzer. The lush, descriptive style lent to the film adaptation in 1992 (The Mambo Kings, starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante). In 2000, Hijuelos received the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature. He has taught at Hofstra University and Duke University.
Junot Díaz is a writer and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a fiction editor at the Boston Review. He is the second Latino to win a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008. In 2010, Díaz was selected to sit on the 20-member Pulitzer Prize board of jurors, becoming the first Latino appointed to the panel. He is also a 2012 MacArthur Fellow.
Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Díaz came to New Jersey at age six. He attended public schools and worked his way through college by delivering pool tables and working in a steel mill. He earned a Bachelor’s from Rutgers and MFA from Cornell. His short stories have appeared in New Yorker, which called him one of the “Top 20 Writers of the 21st Century”.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of Oscar de Leon, a Dominican growing up in New Jersey who is a self-described “ghetto nerd”. Using Spanglish and street slang, life in New Jersey and the D.R. is explored, and the former regime of Rafael Trujillo is skewered (Trujillo was the "…Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated!")
Politically active, Díaz is honorary chairman of the DREAM Project, a non-profit education program in the Dominican Republic, and serves on the board for Freedom University, a volunteer organization that provides post-secondary instruction to undocumented immigrants.