Chango's Fire (Rayo: New York), Ernesto Quiñonez's second novel about New York's Spanish Harlem, or 'El Barrio' for the cognoscenti, is ostensibly a protest novel about gentrification and more subtly an internal debate about racial identification within the main character Julio Santana. The fast-moving plot and unadorned prose of Chango's Fire make this book a good read. But what takes this novel to another level is Quiñonez's extraordinary ability to detail, and nurture, and then unveil complex emotions in his characters. For any reader who wants to believe in a difficult protagonist, and appreciate the reality of El Barrio beyond facile stereotypes, this book is essential.
The story of Chango's Fire is told from the first-person point of view of Julio Santana. Julio is an arsonist who burns down buildings in El Barrio for investors and his sinister boss Eddie. Julio has managed to save enough money to buy his own home, the third floor of an old brownstone that he shares with his mother and father. The second floor is owned by Helen, a güerita who writes soulful letters and is trying to find her place in a neighborhood often hostile to outsiders. Helen likes Julio, but their relationship is, well, complicated. The first floor is a Pentescostal church owned by Martiza, a political activist/pastor who is selling illegal citizenship documents to undocumented immigrants.
Julio works at a construction job by day, and takes college courses at night. He struggles to make that leap from a questionable, illegal way of living toward an educated, legitimate life, one permanently beyond the projects. But as he attempts to stop setting fires for Eddie, Julio is pulled back into a dangerous nether world, one with its roots in official government policy, and official neglect, in insurance fraud and the relentless march across America of Starbucks.
Julio struggles with his difficult choices, which eventually paint him into a corner of destruction enveloping his friends and family. Amid the tension and chaos, he is aided by Papelito, the owner of the botanica across the street, San Lazaro y las Siete Vueltas. Simply for its sensitive and revealing treatment of the practice of Santeria, Chango's Fire is a worthy book. But it is also a political book, with Quiñonez's harshest words saved not only for the forces that turn a traditional working-class neighborhood beyond the grasp of the working class, but also for employers who use and abuse undocumented immigrants (primarily Mexicanos, in today's El Barrio).
Yet the primary literary achievement in Chango's Fire is Quiñonez's ability to get into the heart of Julio Santana, and how Julio feels about who he is, and who he wants to be, and how he finally connects with Helen, whom he saw as the enemy at the beginning of the novel. There are essential questions here about who is a Latino, who should a Latino be, and what we have done that is right, and what we have done that is wrong. It is a cultural criticism and self-analysis that catapults this novel beyond entertainment or today's politics. As readers, we arrive at a bold new place, and a new way of thinking, by the end of Chango's Fire, and that's the definition of a book that matters.
This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on November 21, 2004.