As we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Oscar Hijuelos's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love," the author brings us the story of Maria, the woman behind Nestor Castillo's song of beauty, love, and regret. "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" is the story of Maria, the woman behind the song, and the life she led after she and her lover parted ways.
Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
Over forty years before, when Nestor Castillo's future love, one María García y Cifuentes, left her beloved valle in the far west of Cuba, she could have gone to the provincial capital of Pinar del Río, where her prospects for finding work might be as good—or bad—as in any place; but because the truck driver who'd picked her up one late morning, his gargoyle face hidden under the lowered brim of a lacquered cane hat, wasn't going that way and because she'd heard so many things—both wonderful and sad—about Havana, María decided to accompany him, that cab stinking to high heaven from the animals in the back and from the thousands of hours he must have driven that truck with its loud diesel engine and manure-stained floor without a proper cleaning. He couldn't have been more simpático, and at first he seemed to take pains not to stare at her glorious figure, though he couldn't help but smile at the way her youthful beauty certainly cheered things up. Okay, he was missing half his teeth, looked like he swallowed shadows when he opened his mouth, and had a bulbous, knobbed face, the sort of ugly man, somewhere in his forties or fifties—she couldn't tell—who could never have been good looking, even as a boy. Once he got around to tipping up his brim, however, she could see that his eyes were spilling over with kindness, and despite his filthy fingernails she liked him for the thin crucifix he wore around his neck—a sure sign, in her opinion, that he had to be a good fellow—un hombre decente.
Heading northeast along dirt roads, the Cuban countryside with its stretches of farms and pastures, dense forests and flatlands gradually rising, they brought up clouds of red dust: along some tracks it was so hard to breathe that María had to cover her face with a kerchief. Still, to be racing along at such bewildering speeds, of some twenty or thirty miles an hour, overwhelmed her. She'd never even ridden in a truck before, let alone anything faster than a horse and carriage, and the thrill of traveling so quickly for the first time in her life seemed worth the queasiness in her stomach, it was so exciting and frightening at the same time. Naturally, they got to talking.
"So, why you wanna go to Havana?" the fellow—his name was Sixto—asked her. "You got some problems at home?"
"No." She shook her head.
"What are you gonna do there, anyway? You know anyone?"
"I might have some cousins there, from my mamá's side of the family"—she made a sign of the cross in her late mother's memory. "But I don't know. I think they live in a place called Los Humos. Have you heard of it?"
"Los Humos?" He considered the matter. "Nope, but then there are so many hole-in-the-wall neighborhoods in that city. I'm sure there'll be somebody to show you how to find it." Then, picking at a tooth with his pinkie: "You have any work? A job?"
"No, señor—not yet."
"What are you going to do, then?"
"I know how to sew," she told him. "And how to roll tobacco—my papito taught me."
He nodded, scratched his chin. She was looking at herself in the rearview mirror, off which dangled a rosary. As she did, he couldn't resist asking her, "Well, how old are you anyway, mi vida?"
"Seventeen! And you have nobody there?" He shook his head. "You better be careful. That's a rough place, if you don't know anyone."
That worried her; travelers coming through her valle sometimes called it a city of liars and criminals, of people who take advantage. Still, she preferred to think of what her papito once told her about Havana, where he'd lived for a time back in the 1920s when he was a traveling musician. Claimed it was as beautiful as any town he'd ever seen, with lovely parks and ornate stone buildings that would make her eyes pop out of her head. He would have stayed there if anybody had cared about the kind of country music his trio played—performing in those sidewalk cafés and for the tourists in the hotels was hard enough, but once that terrible thing happened—not just when sugar prices collapsed, but when the depression came along and not even the American tourists showed up as much as they used to—there had been no point to his staying there. And so it was back to the guajiro's life for him.
That epoch of unfulfilled ambitions had made her papito sad and sometimes a little careless in his treatment of his family, even his lovely daughter, María, on whom, as the years had passed, he sometimes took out the shortcomings of his youth. That's why, whenever that driver Sixto abruptly reached over to crank the hand clutch forward, or swatted at a pesty fly buzzing the air, she'd flinch, as if she half expected him to slap her for no reason. He hardly noticed, however, no more than her papito did in the days of her own melancholy. "But I heard it's a nice city," she told Sixto.
"Coño, sí, if you have a good place to live and a good job, but—" And he waved the thought off. "Ah, I'm sure you'll be all right. In fact," he went on, smiling, "I can help you maybe, huh?"
He scratched his chin, smiled again.
"I'm taking these pigs over to this slaughterhouse, it's run by a family called the Gallegos, and I'm friendly enough with the son that he might agree to meet you?.?.?."
And so it went: once Sixto had dropped off the pigs, he could bring her into their office and then who knew what might happen. She had told him, after all, that she'd grown up in the countryside, and what girl from the countryside didn't know about skinning animals, and all the rest? But when María made a face, not managing as much as a smile the way she had over just about everything else he said, he suggested that maybe she'd find a job in the front office doing whatever people in those offices do.
"Do you know how to read and write?"
The question embarrassed her.
"Only a few words," she finally told him. "I can write my name, though."
Seeing that he had made her uncomfortable, he rapped her on the knee and said, "Well, don't feel bad, I can barely read and write myself. But whatever you do, don't worry—your new friend Sixto will help you out, I promise you that!"
She never became nervous riding with him, even when they had passed those stretches of the road where the workers stopped their labors in the fields to wave their hats at them, after which they didn't see a soul for miles, just acres of tobacco or sugarcane going on forever into the distance. It would have been so easy for him to pull over and take advantage of her; fortunately this Sixto wasn't that sort, even if María had spotted him glancing at her figure when he thought she wasn't looking. Bueno, what was she to do if even the plainest and most tattered of dresses still showed her off?
Thank goodness that Sixto remained a considerate fellow. A few times he pulled over to a roadside stand so that she could have a tacita of coffee and a sweet honey-drenched bun, which he paid for, and when she used the outhouse, he made a point of getting lost. Once when they were finally on the Central Highway, which stretched from one end of the island to the other, he just had to stop at one of the Standard Oil gas stations along the way, to buy some cigarettes for himself and to let that lovely guajira see one of their sparkling clean modern toilets. He even put a nickel into a vending machine to buy her a bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale, and when she belched delicately from all the burbujas—the bubbles—Sixto couldn't help but slap his legs as if it was the funniest thing he had ever seen.
He was so nice that she almost became fond of him despite his ugliness, fond of him in the way beautiful women, even at so young an age, do of plain and unattractive—hideous—men, as if taking pity on an injured dog. As they started their approach towards one of the coastal roads—that air so wonderful with the scent of the gulf sea—and he suggested that if she got hungry he could take her out to a special little restaurant in Havana, for obreros like himself—workers who earn their living honestly, with the sweat of their brow—María had to tell him that she couldn't. She had just caught him staring at her in a certain way, and she didn't want to take the chance that he might not turn out to be so saintly, even if it might hurt his feelings. Of course, he started talking about his family—his faithful wife, his eight children, his simple house in a small town way over in Cienfuegos,—and of his love of pigs even when he knew they were going to end up slaughtered—all to amuse his lovely passenger.
One thing did happen: the closer they got to Havana the more they saw roadside billboards—"Smoke Camels!" "Coca-Cola Refreshes!" "Drink Bacardi Rum!"—and alongside beautiful estates with royal-palm-lined entranceways and swimming pools were sprawling shantytowns, slums with muddy roads and naked children roaming about, and then maybe another gas station, followed by a few miles of bucolic farmland, those campesinos plowing the field with oxen, and then another wonderful estate and a roadside stand selling fresh chopped melons and fruit, followed by yet one more shantytown, each seeming more run-down and decrepit than the next. Of course the prettiest stretch snaked by the northern coastline, which absolutely enchanted María, who sighed and sighed away over the hypnotic and calming effects of the ocean—that salt and fish scent in the air, the sunlight breaking up into rippling shards on the water—everything seeming so pure and clean until they'd pass by a massive garbage dump, the hills covered with bilious clouds of acrid fumes and half crumbling sheds made of every kind of junk imaginable rising on terraces but tottering, as if on the brink of collapsing in a mud slide caused by the ash-filled rain, and, giving off the worst smell possible, a mountain of tires burning in a hellish bonfire; to think that people, los pobrecitos, lived there!
They'd come to another gas station, then a fritter place, with donkeys and horses tied up to a railing (sighing, she was already a little homesick). She saw her first fire engine that day, a crew of bomberos hosing down a smoldering shed, made of crates and thatch, near a causeway to a beach; a cement mixing truck turned over on its side in a sugarcane field, a coiling flow of concrete spewing like mierda from its bottom; then more billboards, advertising soap and toothpaste, radio shows, and, among others, a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose faces were well known to even the guajiros of Cuba! (Another featured the enchanting visage of the buxom Mexican actress Sarita Montiel; another, the comedian Cantinflas.) Along the way, she just had to ask her new friend Sixto the ugly to stop again—a few miles or so west of Marianao, where they had come across a roadside market, just like the sort one might find in a town plaza, with stalls and long tables boasting everything from pots and pans to used clothes and shoes. Half suffocating from the swinish gases wafting into his cab, Sixto didn't mind at all. What most caught her eye were the racks of dresses over which hung a sign.
"What's that say, señor?" she asked, and Sixto, rubbing his eyes and pulling up on the brake, told her: "It says, rebaja"—which meant there was a sale going on. A group of women, negritas all, were perusing the racks, and so María, needing a new dress to wear in Havana, stepped from the truck and pulled her life savings, some few dollars, which she kept in a sock, out from where she had stuffed it down her dress or, to put it more precisely, from between her breasts.
Most happily and with the innocence of a farm girl, María examined the fabric and stitching of dress after dress, pleased to find that the vendors were very kind and not at all what she had expected. For a half an hour she looked around, the women working those stalls and tables complimenting her on the pristine nature of her mulatta skin, nary a pimple or blemish to mar her face (the kind of skin which had its own inner glow, like in the cosmetic ads, except she didn't use any makeup, not back then, a glow that inspired in the male species the desire to kiss and touch her), the men giving her the up and down, the children running like scamps tugging at her skirt— You see, my daughter; if I was incredibly good looking in my twenties, you can't imagine what I looked like in my prime, as a girl of sixteen and seventeen—I was something out of a man's dream, with honey skin so glowing and a face so pure and perfect that men couldn't help wanting to possess me.?.?.?.?
But being so young and innocent, I was hardly aware of such things, only that—well, how can I put it my love?—that I was somehow different from your typical cubanita.
That afternoon, she bought, at quite reasonable prices, certain dainty undergarments, they were so inexpensive, as well as a blouse, a pair of polka-dotted high heels, which she would have to grow accustomed to, and finally, after haggling with the vendor, she decided upon a pink dress of a florid design, said to have been styled after the Parisian fashion, with ruffles cascading over the shoulders and hips; a dress which she, being frugal, would keep for some ten years. With such items in hand and after she and her benefactor, the half toothless Sixto, had eaten a little something from a stand, they proceeded east into Havana, the city of both torments and love.
Excerpt from "Beautiful Maria of my Soul" by Oscar Hijuelos, copyright Hyperion Publishing, 2010.