Guernica: Even through your adolescence, you felt like an outsider, both with your family and in your neighborhood. Could you talk more about these feelings and how they shaped you? Did they heighten your powers of observation? Or make it easier to drift like a spy through certain social and ethnic groups?
Oscar Hijuelos: Well, I had a kind of double whammy. I didn’t comport myself like a Latino, and I didn’t particularly look like one either.
Guernica: You mentioned that people continually commented on the lightness of your skin.
Oscar Hijuelos: Oh yes, I have very, very light skin. I didn’t fit into the general image of what a Latino was supposed to look like. I remember riding buses in the Bronx on my way back from high school, and the Irish kids on the bus would say “spic this” and “spic that.” But then when I was fourteen years old, I tried to get in touch with my Latin roots by joining an organization called ASPIRA, but I was given a frosty reception by these kids there who were pissed off at “whitey.” That’s the thing: it doesn’t take much to push you away if you’re already shell-shocked. I always liked being around Spanish-speaking folks who I already knew, but when I started to go out in the world, I saw that prejudice really is skin-deep. Of course, there are other layers, but much of it is just race and appearance.
—Oscar Hijuelos, “Recovering Cubanness“, Guernica