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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2227

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.

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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 himself into “an unforgettable blend of nobility and street,” a shadowy, indeed mythic, even godlike figure, a rarely seen but always revered salesman of dreams.

Dreams, especially dreams of escape of one kind or another, figure prominently in Quiñonez’s otherwise gritty novel. There is the dream of spiritual salvation and Christ’s imminent arrival in which the Pentecostals so fervently believe; the dream of material success and power symbolized by Sapo’s car and Nazario’s suits; Blanca’s sister Negra’s dreams of avenging the wrongs inflicted on her by her abusive husband; the dream of whiteness in both its benign (Blanca) and malignant (Vera) forms; the Vidal family’s dream of deposing Castro and resuming exploitation of their fellow Cubans; and Willie’s dream of a proud, safe, successful, and self-sufficient Puerto Rican East Harlem. These are the dreams—dreams deferred, denied, perverted—by which the ambitions and powerlessness of the characters can be measured. The novel’s end will leave one dreamer, Willie, dead; two others, Nazario and Vera, arrested; and Sapo fantasizing about taking over Willie’s business—the drug part only, not the social improvement. That part is for Chino, last seen literally dreaming of a beautiful new language, Spanglish, “born out of the ashes of two cultures clashing with each other,” and of “our people . . . evolving into something completely new.” As Jake Barnes says to Brett Ashley at the end of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” It is certainly prettier than the ways in which dreams are realized when no other outlets are available, even (or maybe especially) in childhood: kites flown from rooftops with razors attached to their tails, or “kid comets”: “Kid comets was catching a pigeon, spilling gasoline over it, then lighting the bird with a match, just as you let it go. The bird would fly for a few seconds and then turn into a fireball and come crashing down. We would do this at night. On the roof. We would see the bird fry extra-crispy in midair and laugh.”

Willie’s dreams are far grander but no less destructive. They rely on dealing drugs to people whose habit precludes their having a place in the brave new world he envisions, and on arranging the murder of a journalist who, while working for a rival drug lord, got too close to Willie’s secret. Quiñonez has acknowledged that he modeled Willie on the romantic dreamer/gangster from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and on Kurtz, the well-intentioned company-agent-turned-tyrant in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, 1902). “That was what was in my head only,” Quiñonez has explained, “and I hope I hid this well in the book.” The Conrad connection is well hidden—and revealing. The Fitzgerald connection is another matter—so obvious as to prove distracting and more limiting than enabling in all but one respect. Willie is Gatsby: The latter deals bootleg whiskey and shady stocks in order to realize the dream that Daisy Faye represents; the former deals drugs in order to realize his dream, the one that will impress his Daisy, Veronica Saldivia. Near the novel’s end Quiñonez offers a number of twists to Fitzgerald’s plot that prove all the more surprising, almost effective, because the earlier and hardly hidden parallels have lulled the reader into believing that Bodega Dreams will forever plod in The Great Gatsbys more elegant and lyrical footsteps. Because Willie’s love for Vera/Veronica seems more a plot device than a motivating force, Bodega Dreams groans under the weight of Quiñonez’s slavish adherence to Fitzgerald’s novel.

Still, Bodega Dreams is a very interesting and promising literary debut for two reasons. One is the sheer audacity with which this young writer has taken it upon himself to adapt this quintessentially “American” (that is, Euro-American) classic to his own urban-Latino purposes, and to do so in a way that, even if it does not always eschew literariness and fine writing (indeed it strives at times a bit too hard in this regard), seems closer to the immediacy and accessibility of graffiti art and to the communal purposes with which that art is often associated. This is related to the novel’s greatest strength: the way it retells Fitzgerald’s tale of individual romantic striving in the context of America’s failure to develop a more communal ethos. Measured by whether Chino is as interesting and complex a narrator as Nick Carraway, Bodega Dreams does not so much fail as fall short; measured, however, by whether it leads readers to examine the high price of American hyperindividualism, the novel succeeds very well indeed. Moreover, it succeeds in yet another way, in the little touches that not even the shadow of Fitzgerald’s novel (or Conrad’s Kurtz or Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman) can entirely obscure: Quiñonez’s deconstruction of the all-purpose, one-size-fits-all Anglo term “Hispanic”; the way in which the novel’s characters map their world not in terms of Midwest and East or East Egg and West Egg but in terms of corners (111th and Fifth, 116th and Third); the street politics that dictate that those who want something from someone had better have or be able to get something that person wants; the casual violence; the everyday frustrations; the accumulation of slights and indignities—even the Cuban and Puerto Rican cops who show up at Chino’s apartment assume that Blanca is his live-in girlfriend, not his wife. Above all, there is Quiñonez’s depiction of Julia de Burgos Junior High School, named for Puerto Rico’s greatest poet, where her work is not assigned and where the chief lesson taught by the mainly white faculty is that Puerto Rican students are doomed to failure. The combativeness of Chino’s world is evident not only on the streets and in the schools but in the very structure of Quiñonez’s novel, divided into “rounds” rather than chapters. The rounds function in much the way the botanica that doubles as a pawnshop does: as “a place that knew hunger and desperation” but that offers hope as well. The novel also offers occasional bits of parody (of the 1972 film The Godfather), nicely understated humor (feeling threatened, John Vidal “reached inside his blazer and took out a cellular phone” just before Vera shot him dead), and Fitzgerald-quality lyricism: “Iris Chacón was my wet dream, as she was for many. When she danced, she prostituted your blood, masturbated your soul. She was a gift from the mother island to remind us of the women that were left behind, the girls that were not brought over to Nueva York and were left waving goodbye near las olas del mar, en mi viejo San Juan.” Quiñonez’s novel casts its own backward glance. Although its publication and reception clearly partake in and are indebted to the enormous recent interest in Latino culture (mainly but not exclusively at the popular music, Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez level), and are a sign of the larger consumer society’s awareness of Latino buying power, Bodega Dreams reminds its readers of the still-unfulfilled dream of that earlier activist age of the Young Lords. Even as the novel helps demonstrate how far Latinos (Junot Díaz, Sandra Cisneros, and others) have come in gaining acceptance in the mainstream American literary marketplace and in the larger American culture, Quiñonez understands all too well the threats to East Harlem’s Puerto Rican community—not only those mentioned above but also the gentrification that was one of the reasons he wrote Bodega Dreams and the differently devastating AIDS epidemic that will play a large part in his next novel.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal
, April 16, 2000, p. L12.

Library Journal 125 (January, 2000): 162.

The New York Times, March 15, 2000, p. A23.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (March 12, 2000): 11.

Publishers Weekly 247 (January 17, 2000): 42.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 12, 2000, p. Review 3.

The Washington Post Book World, April 30, 2000, p. 15.

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