Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quinonez (2000)

316967A friend gave this book to me as she was cleaning out her classroom, and in handing it over to me, she recalled another teacher telling her that this book trumps The House on Mango Street (or something like that, anyway).  While I don’t agree, I do like this book for its gritty and unvarnished descriptions and its strong voice.

Set in Spanish East Harlem, the story is narrated by Chino, a young and newly married Puerto Rican college student who is trying to make a better life for himself and his family, but he can see it will be slow going. Juxtapose this against Willie Bodega, the Puerto Rican drug lord and community leader who buys and renovates run-down projects, pays bills for those who can’t, and offers college tuition money for those deserving. All funded by his drug trade. This book is not for the faint of heart. It’s a raw look into the daily life of that slice of Manhattan forgotten by NYC politicians and leaders. As Chino puts it, what Willie Bodega does is not so very different from half of Wall Street—find the loopholes so the illegal doesn’t look so bad. It can be done on the street or in an office. Quinonez uses description and allusion and metaphor to bring out the grim realities of their life.  This is one of my favorite descriptions: “Manhattan at night seen from its surrounding bridges is Oz, it’s Camelot or Eldorado, full of color and magic. What those skyscrapers and lights don’t let on is that hidden away lies Spanish Harlem, a slum that has been handed down from immigrant to immigrant, like used clothing worn and reworn, stitched and restitched by different ethnic groups who continue to pass it on…East Harlem had no business being in this rich city, but there it was filled with broken promises of a better life dating decades back to the day when many Puerto Ricans and Latinos gathered their bags and carried their dreams on their backs and arrived in America, God’s country. But they would never see God’s face. Like all slumlords, God lived in the suburbs” (161).

Passages like that just blew me away.  Quinonez’s writing is poetic harsh whereas Cisneros’s is poetic and subtle.  Together, they give us a powerful view of the Latino community inside a big city.

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