Oscar Hijuelos was born to Cuban immigrants in 1951 in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City. He attended public schools and then Bronx Community College; he later enrolled at The City College of New York and received a B.A. in 1975 and an M.F.A. in 1976. As a graduate student in writing, he worked with Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag.
After completing his studies, Hijuelos earned his living by working during the day in an advertising agency. Before and after hours, he wrote short stories and started writing his first novel, Our House in the Last World. He soon gained recognition for his work: a group of his stories was included in the 1978 anthology Best of Pushcart Press III, and he won a scholarship to the prestigious Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont in 1980. His debut novel garnered several awards--The American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Ingram-Merrill fellowship. These grants allowed Hijuelos to leave his advertising job and devote himself to writing fiction. During his 1985 writing residency in Rome, Hijuelos started writing The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which was published in 1989 and won The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1990--the first novel by a Latino writer to win the prize. Arne Glimcher adapted the novel into the feature film The Mambo Kings in 1992 and, in collaboration with Carlos Franzetti, a stage musical in 2005.
Since the enormous success of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Hijuelos has written five novels, all of which depict the lives of Cuban-born or Cuban-descended characters living in the United States: The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993), Mr. Ives' Christmas (1995), Empress of the Splendid Season (1999), A Simple Habana Melody (2002), and Dark Dude (2008). Hijuelos has also contributed to several anthologies of Latino literature. He has taught at Hofstra University and currently teaches creative writing at Duke University. He lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.