Bodega Dreams, the first novel from Creative Writing Professor, Ernesto Quiñonez , was published in 2000 and is one of the best modern novels of the ’00s that explores Spanish Harlem in such a descriptive way the reader could forget the book is a fiction novel.
Anyone that has any knowledge of the “Hood,” “Projects,” or “Barrios,” can relate to this novel. Raised in Spanish Harlem Quiñonez is able to settle his reader in the heart of the city in which the novel takes place without having to have ever stepped foot in Harlem.
Ernesto Quiñonez explained to Spikemagazine.com that the setting is one of the most important things for him about the novel: “It’s basically a fact in the United States, that a lot of Latino issues go uncovered, especially in neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem. They get totally ignored…I name a lot of places in the novel because I want the world to know that they exist. I wanted to show that this is a neighborhood that is vibrant and a big cultural force in New York City, and that you can’t keep ignoring us, we’re part of the United States.”
Chino the narrator and protagonist has up to this point in his life, stayed out of trouble unlike many that he grew up with in his neighborhood, his friend Sapo was one of those friends who brought Chino to Willie Irizarry better known as Willie Bodega. In her review essay, “On Bodega Dreams” featured in the journal, Sociological Forum, Nicole Marwell commented that: “When Chino meets Bodega, a complicated plot ensues. With the unanticipated twists of a mystery, and some high-drama, thriller dynamics, the story eventually brings Chino to the classic character-defining moment of a bildungsroman.” Basically upon meeting Bodega, a former activists with the Young Lords in the 1960’s turned drug dealer in the 1990’s, Chino is faced with decisions that with the slightest mistake could mess up the life that he has made with his pregnant wife, Blanca or worst cause him to be right in the middle of a drug trade war which could ruin more than his marriage. This is a “bildungsroman” type of story because the reader is learning how the main character, Chino is developing albeit maturity or in the defined social context of the society in which he is living. It’s not the pull of the underworld or drug dealing life style that complicates Chino’s life. Marwell explains it: “the novel shows how challenging it is for Chino, pulled by competing loyalties to the other people in his life, to always make the ”right” choices: choices that so far have allowed him to scratch out a slow path toward upward mobility, but that could detour badly with the smallest of missteps.” Chino has loyalties to his friend Sapo, which go deep from childhood, but also loyalties to his wife as a husband and once he meets Bodega, and finds himself involved without even officially agreeing to be involved, he also has loyalties to Bodega.
What is interesting about Quiñonez’s novel is that the situation between Bodega and Chino is not that of illegal matters, but more about the romantic quest of Bodega, who is using Chino to bring his past love to him. From there the tale twists from what looks like drug warfare turns to love warfare, in which Bodega becomes the casualty of both, as another major character Nazario turns the tables on his pal Bodega and through all of it Chino is a pawn for both. In the end the reader gains respect for both Bodega and Chino; Bodega for his love and Chino for his tactful revenge.
Quiñonez has delivered a novel that helps to further build on Latin American Literature, but is contemporary, which brings a diverse group of readers to this novel and will introduce them to Latin American Literature. This book is a great read, easy to get through and follow although there are many plot twists. The only problem with this novel is that that Quiñonez leaves the reader with a few questions about Chino and his relationship with Blanca, the reader can develop his/her own conclusions, aside from that issue the novel should be on a “Must Read List.” Another novel from this author is Chango’s Fire.