The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
is a 1989 novel by Oscar Hijuelos about the lives of two Cuban brothers and musicians, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who leave their native country, emigrating to the United States and settling in New York City in the early 1950s.
Eugenio Castillo, the nephew of Cesar Castillo, narrates the opening of the novel. He describes a memory from when he was a child in the early 1960s, how one afternoon, the landlady called up to the apartment where he lived to let Cesar know that they were playing a re-run of the I Love Lucy
episode that Cesar and his brother had appeared on. In the episode, they are playing a song that Eugenio’s father, Nestor, wrote. Cesar is sitting at the kitchen table, exhausted from having been out all night playing trumpet. Eugenio helps his uncle to the couch and fetches him a glass of whiskey, allowing him to revisit one of the most important moments of his life again.
Cesar and Nestor, from a farm in Cuba, had been playing with a small band in Havana before making their move to New York. Once in New York, Cesar and Nestor formed their band, the Mambo Kings. The early days were slow, and during the day, the brothers worked in a meatpacking facility, using the nights to work on their songs. Cesar remembers living in Santiago de Cuba before he moved to Havana and playing with an orchestra run by Julián García. He then married Julián’s niece, Luisa, and she moved to Havana with him. Luisa became pregnant with their daughter, but during the pregnancy, she found out about one of Cesar’s many affairs, and she left him for good. Through the years, Cesar continues to send presents to his daughter, Mariela.
Nestor had a passionate love affair with Maria, whom he rescued after seeing her being beaten in the street in Havana. Nestor goes to his brother Cesar for advice about his relationship with Maria, and he tells him to assert his dominance and abuse her. This leads her to leave him, returning to her home village. Nestor eventually decides to follow Maria only to learn that she has married the same man he saw beating her in the street in Havana.
In America, Nestor meets Dolores Fuentes and they start an affair. After Dolores becomes pregnant with Eugenio, she and Nestor get married. A few years later, they have another child, this time a girl called Leticia. Nestor is a distant father and husband, constantly dreaming of Maria, writing letters to her and working on his songs about her.
The Mambo Kings eventually became one of the most popular bands in New York City. One night, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball come to see them. After the show, Cesar talks to Arnaz, who grew up in the same part of Cuba. They both used to sing in the Julián García band. A few months later, Cesar and Nestor are invited out to Hollywood to film an episode of I Love Lucy
. From that episode, they become wealthy and head out on the Mambo Kings’ first national tour.
In 1957, Nestor is killed in a car accident after losing control on icy roads and hitting a tree on his way back from a show. Cesar moves in with Dolores and the kids for a little while but finds that he is too attracted to her so he must leave. While mourning his brother and listening to the music they made together, Cesar thinks back on his most recent affair at nearly sixty years old, with thirty-year-old Lydia. Cesar was very insecure about his age, constantly worrying that she would leave him for a younger man. His paranoia and jealousy led to the end of their relationship when she had to cancel a date in order to take one of her children to the hospital and Cesar could not accept her excuse.
He also thinks back on his childhood and how he would have given anything to become a musician. He used to steal rum from his father in order to pay for lessons with local musicians. Throughout his reminiscing, Cesar continues to drink, although he has been warned that his body is incapable of processing alcohol and that the stuff is like poison to him.
The last section of the book is also told by Eugenio. He talks about going to see Desi Arnaz a year after Cesar’s death. Mr. Arnaz has fond memories of Cesar and Nestor and starts singing one of their songs. He has a photo of the three of them together on the wall of his dressing room.