Women’s World Cup

#54 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1990): Summer of Love II or The Summer of Acronyms – SCOTUS and USWNT Let Love (and Equality) Rule

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

Could the summer of 2015 be the Summer of Love II?

There are a couple of indicators leading me to the conclusion that this might be the case. First, back during New York Fashion Week last fall, several top designers such as Tommy Hilfiger, Zimmerman and Vera Wang all paid homage to the 1960s and the Summer of Love. Turns out they may have been on to something more than just an affection of floral patterns, ruffles and maxi dresses.

Then, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, guaranteeing a right to same-sex marriage. I could try to summarize the majority opinion, but Justice Kennedy’s final paragraph is one of the most beautiful you will ever read in a court case so I’ll defer:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

Or, as distilled into Haiku by McSweeney’s:

Hark! Love is love, and
love is love is love is love.
It is so ordered.

That day of elation was based on decades of awareness, activism and perseverance, and as soon as the decision was announced, Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets quickly began to fill with rainbow-themed images. And one of those was a precursor to the third indicator that the summer of 2015 may indeed be the Summer of Love II.

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You see, on that very same June 26th in Ottawa, Canada, the U.S. Women’s National Team was preparing to face China in the quarterfinal matchup of the Women’s World Cup. This was already a special World Cup for me as I had taken my daughter Lily up to Vancouver a week prior to watch the U.S. play Nigeria in the group play round. When Lily was eight, we diligently watched the USWNT play in the 2011 World Cup in Germany, and were heartbroken when they lost in the final to Japan on penalty kicks. But Lily knew then that the next World Cup was going to be closer to home in Canada, and asked if we could go. I can think of few better role models for my daughter – and also I figured she’d forget over the next four years – so I said yes. She never forgot.

Women's World Cup

By June 26th, however, the women of the USWNT had become not only solid role models for girls, but also had become the most prominent sporting symbol of the United States during 2015. This, I might add, occurred without a ton of support. First, all the stadiums hosting World Cup games had artificial turf, a feature that many complained about loudly. Putting aside the arguments in favor of turf fields, there is no disputing that FIFA would have never ever in a million years forced the men to play on anything other than grass. Why? Maybe it’s because sometimes artificial turf gets so hot that it melts shoes. There’s that.

But it wasn’t just the turf issue. Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit tweeted that women’s sports in general – not just soccer – are not worth watching. It was such a stupid tweet that you would have thought he was being sarcastic if he tried to defend his statement by pointing at TV ratings.

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The reaction to this tweet was fast and furious from both men and women with my favorite being Amy Poeler and Seth Meyers reuniting for a segment of Really.

Unfortunately, his opinion, although not usually expressed so publicly, is more widespread than is should be. For winning the World Cup, for example, the USWNT received $2 million. Seems like a fine sum until you realize that the US Men’s Team got $8 million just for reaching the round of 16. How much did the winning German team get? I’m glad you asked. That would be $35 million.

So it was great to watch the naysayers proved wrong as the World Cup progressed. The popularity of the team – of women – swelled in unison with their victories, culminating in a 5-2 victory over Japan in which we scored a ridiculous four goals in 16 minutes.

The final game averaged a stunning 25.4 million viewers, making it the most-viewed soccer game ever in the United States–men’s or women’s–by a giant margin. How does that compare to men’s sports Andy Benoit? Game 7 of the San Francisco Giants/Kansas City World Series game drew 23.5 million viewers. Game 6 of the Golden State Warriors/Cleveland Cavaliers NBA Finals – a Finals series that drew more viewers than any series since the Michael Jordan era – had only 13.9 million viewers. And don’t even try to compare to the Stanley Cup Final. That came in at 7.6 million.

Everyone watched the USWNT finals match! Everyone loves women’s soccer! Everyone can get married! Which made me wonder, can you have too much love? I assumed that since the Beatles said “All You Need Is Love” the answer was no, until I read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, the 1990 winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

The first novel by a United-States born Hispanic to win, Mambo Kings is the story of two Cuban brothers and musicians, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who immigrate to the United States from Cuba and settle in New York City in the early 1950s. Like The Tinkers and The Stone Diaries, the story takes place at the very end of the protagonist’s life. Told from the perspective of the older brother Cesar, it chronicles his last hours as he sits in a seedy hotel room, drinking and listening to recordings made by his band, the Mambo Kings.

Cesar, the Mambo King himself, is an old man, and the book describes his memories of his life (and loves) in Cuba and New York. Cesar and Nestor arrive in New York full of ambition and desire to be musicians. Other than their love of music and shared DNA, however, the brothers are complete opposites. Nestor is an incredibly talented trumpet player and songwriter, but he forever mourns the loss of his first love, a woman named Maria. His demeanor is sad, soulful and tormented. Cesar, on the other hand, is a handsome, macho, player. For Cesar, everything in his life is indulgence: playing music, dancing, eating, drinking, and having sex. In fact, as we’ll get to shortly, Cesar measures his life by his many sexual escapades.

The brothers are talented and willing to work hard, and with some luck put together an orchestra they call The Mambo Kings. The mambo craze of the late 1940s is still in full swing, and the band grows in popularity. They even get a guest appearance on I Love Lucy after Desi Arnaz catches their nightclub act one evening. This appearance gives them a measure of celebrity and helps them to sell some records, but true fame remains just beyond their reach.

As the mambo craze begins to fade, the fortunes of Cesar, Nestor, and the The Mambo Kings decline as well. Although Nestor marries a lovely woman and starts a family, he still pines for Maria and spends his life constantly re-writing one song about his lost love, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” His deep melancholy ends only when the car he is driving skids off the road in a snowstorm, killing him.

Cesar has always been the driving force for the Mambo Kings, and, as alluded to above, is a favorite with the ladies. He’s a handsome, suave, baritone who naturally charms the audience and spreads his love among many women. But not in a totally dickish way (there’s a pun here, but you’re not going to get it until later). He’s generous to a fault, freely bestowing gifts and money on those he befriends, as well as supporting his family members still in Cuba. But after Nestor dies, he simply cannot continue to be the leader he once was. He descends into a depression that begins slowly to eat at him, fueled by drinking and excess. Pretty much, the end.

For me, The Mambo Kings is a tale of two books. Sixty percent of this book is really great. It is a melancholy story for sure, but lyrically told and in a style that evokes the rhythms of Cuban music. Does that last sentence sound too pretentious? Lets just say I like the writing style. I also like the general theme of immigrants coming to the U.S. and how they see themselves in relation to their new culture in contrast to the culture of their birth. It’s like Scarface without the blow and chainsaws.

And compared to some of the other novels that sit in this area of the countdown because their stories are rather dull (e.g., The Stone Diaries and Breathing Lessons), the subject matter of The Mambo Kings is inherently interesting, at least for me. It’s an immigrant story set in 1950s and 60s New York with Spanish music, a Fidel Castro-led revolution, dancing, and unexpected cameos from real-life mambo dudes Desi Arnaz and Tito Puente. It also has a ton of sex. And that, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, may actually be the problem.

You see, the other 40% of this is really, really bad. Thirty percent of the book is comprised of sex scenes. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good soft-porn novel as much as the next guy, but these were more monotonous than provocative. But it was the final 10% that really got me because that part contains Hijuelos’ weird and disturbing fixation on Cesar’s penis. Seriously, if you’re the kind of reader who really likes to know how the protagonist’s dick is doing, this book will be great for you because there’s a dick status update on just about every page. If that isn’t your cup of tea, then this is a tough 10% to get through.

So it turns out you actually can have too much love. At least in Pulitzer Prize winning novels. But the good news is that won’t affect the summer of 2015 (possibly) going down in history as the Summer of Love II. My four year wait to attend a Women’s World Cup match with Lily seems insignificant when compared to length of time same-sex couples have waited for the right to get married, but on a personal level are both are hugely meaningful. Lily will always remember this as the summer the rainbows took over Instagram as she watched the USWNT advance in the World Cup. She turned 13 this summer, and her entire adult life will be in a world where love is love is love is love. And after watching the USWNT kick ass in the finals, her love for soccer is now cemented. You want proof, and another dick status update? Well here is what Lily re-tweeted the other morning while watching the opening weekend of the English Premier League:

Lily's Tweet

I love her.