The last time that a fourth-grade teacher wrote a book that attracted widespread attention was in the late 1960’s. Then it was Jonathan Kozol, the Harvard graduate whose Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (1967) was both a firsthand account of life in one of Boston’s inner-city schools and a devastating indictment of an educational system willing to write off a large number of children, mainly poor and black. Published at a time of political and social activism, Kozol’s book had a profound effect on the debate over education and social justice in the United States. The same deplorable conditions that Kozol brought to light figure prominently in a debut novel written by another fourth-grade teacher, Ernesto Quiñonez, who teaches in the South Bronx, not far from the Schomburg Projects in East Harlem where he grew up and near where Bodega Dreams is set. That Quiñonez’s novel will reach a fairly large number of readers, well beyond his target audience of young Latinos, is certain. Issued in an inexpensive as well as eye-catching paperback format, the novel has received highly favorable reviews and been featured in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. Whether this decidedly, if somewhat ambiguously, activist fiction will have the impact Kozol’s study had is another matter. Bodega Dreams exists not in an activist age but as part of commodity culture, as Quiñonez himself well understands, for it is the conflict between social activism and personal aggrandizement that lies at the heart of this affecting and accessibly written novel.
The novel’s narrator, Julio Mercado, nicknamed Chino, is an autobiographical character. Like Quiñonez, he is a former graffiti artist (“death meant an opportunity to make a few bucks”), the son of an Ecuadorian father (Quiñonez’s, a Marxist, fled to the United States following an anticommunist coup) and a Puerto Rican mother (in Quiñonez’s case, a Jehovah’s Witness), who uses his artistic ability to begin the difficult process of getting off the streets and improving his socioeconomic situation. In short, Bodega Dreams is a version of that most favored of American narratives of which Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (1791) and Horatio Alger’s tales of rags to (relative) riches are models. Studying at Hunter College and employed part time at a local supermarket, husband of a devout Pentecostal wife and soon to be a father, Chino wonders whether the safe but slow road to middle-class security and respectability, via education and hard work, will ever pay off. Thus his loyalties are divided: to the street and his violent, drug-dealing, BMW- driving boyhood friend and protector, Enrique Guzman (also known as “Sapo” because he looks like a toad), and to his wife and unborn child and the very different dream they represent. More than a caricature of the hypermasculine, street-smart life to which Chino was never more than lightly tied, Sapo is an extreme example not just of self-interest but also of that supposed American virtue of self-reliance, at its least transcendental and most materialistic. Completely defined by his ugly appearance—by how others, especially his teachers, see him—he is denied what the Asian-looking Chino is allowed.
Nonetheless, despite his relative lack of formal education, his crude eating and reading habits (forty-ounce Millers, Domino’s pizzas, and Playboy magazines), and his severely limited (and limiting) ambitions, Sapo understands what Chino does not: that Chino’s desire to improve himself is, or may be, a form of selfishness and even self-hatred—a way of culturally bleaching himself. This is evident even in Chino’s choice of wife, Blanca, née Nancy Saldivia, whose purity, good looks, intelligence, and, above all, light color make her so desirable. Unappealing as he is, Sapo is nonetheless sympathetically portrayed. In fact, the novel’s least likable characters are mainly the most successful: Edwin Nazario, lawyer and front man for the novel’s protagonist; and Vera Vidal, Blanca’s aunt, who used her one asset, sex appeal, to leave the barrio and marry a wealthy, fair-skinned Cuban exile named John Vidal, whose family had grown wealthy supporting the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Just as Vidal “was more American than Mickey Mouse,” Vera was “no longer a Saldivia but a Vidal, and with that misleading last name she could fool anyone into thinking she was some middle-aged Anglo woman who had a taste for shopping on Fifth Avenue, threw dinner parties, and loved expensive jewelry.”
Quite different is William Carlos Irizarry, whose typically American genius for self-creation is not tainted by self-hatred. Irizarry is a former Young Lord turned drug lord who participated in the failed political activism of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; now he has reinvented himself as Willie Bodega, but is determined to keep the earlier idealism alive by any means necessary. This involves using the profits from his drug business to improve the barrio, one renovated building, one safe block at a time, offering loans to small businesspeople and education to the best and brightest—a future class of Puerto Rican doctors, lawyers, teachers, and artists. His ambitions fueled by PBS specials on people such as Joe Kennedy, Willie has successfully transformed...
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