Oscar Higuelos is probably best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and justly so, it is an intense look at the cultural ethos of the Cuban immigrant and his experience in the new country. In the way that some authors carve out a little piece of the world as their own special province, Higuelos has taken the Cuban Diaspora in the United States, especially New York, as his Yoknapatawpha County. Like the finest of writers he paints that chosen portion in its unique reality while at the same time evoking its universality. His 1999 novel, Empress of the Splendid Season, takes the reader on another fascinating trip to Higuelos' little corner of the world.
Disowned by her father, Lydia Espana, the Empress of the title, has left Cuba for New York to seek her fortune. She has a rather inflated opinion of herself; she prides herself on her looks and her demeanor, but she quickly discovers that in her new country she is merely another insignificant foreigner. She gets a job as a seamstress until she eventually marries a waiter who wants to support her, but early on suffers a heart attack. They have two children, and to help support the family the proud, queenly Lydia, the woman who walks her Morningside Heights neighborhood with her nose in the air, begins to take jobs as a cleaning lady in the homes of the wealthier New Yorkers. Empress of the Splendid Season is the chronicle of this woman's life.
On one level Lydia's story is the story of many poor immigrants arriving in the Promised Land where the streets are paved with gold, only to find that if there is gold, it is tarnished and maybe there only for them to polish. She has great dreams—for herself, for her family. But even when some of those dreams are realized, she finds that sometimes when you get what you wish for, you discover it might not be as wonderful as you thought. She wants a better life for her children. The trouble is that sometimes there is a price for that better life. She has a daughter who marries fairly well, but moves away from the neighborhood. With the help of one of the families she cleans for, her son manages to get an education and make a better life for himself. Unfortunately, with that better life comes some shame and discomfort with one's past. It is an old story, children who rise in the world and become estranged from their roots.
Lydia has her flaws — her pride and vanity — but she works hard for her dreams. She does what she has to do even if the only way she can get around what she feels is demeaning is by identifying with the people she works for and their values. In the end, when she gets an expensive sable coat she admired upon the death of one of her friendliest employers, as a metaphor for her dreams materializes she soon discovers that it comes with more trouble than it's worth. She is afraid to wear it because it might be stolen. She is afraid to leave it in her apartment because someone might break in. True, when she does manage to go out in the fur, people seem to treat her differently; nevertheless she can't take the chance of losing something so valuable. Even a local policeman warns her about wearing it on the streets. All she can do is sell it.
Still, Lydia's is a heroic story. Through all her troubles she maintains her sense of her own value as a human being. She does not let her poverty define her. It should be noted she is not a cleaning woman; she is a cleaning "lady." She may be poor. She may be getting older. People in the neighborhood may think her stuck up. Through it all, she knows she is a lady. The real irony of the title is not in the application of the grandiose sobriquet "empress" to a cleaning lady; the real irony is that Higuelos creates in Lydia Espana a character who deserves it. She is a woman to whom attention must be paid.