Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Burning Desires in Spanish Harlem

Review: Chango’s Fire by Ernesto Quiñonez


Julio Santana is hijo de Chango, a child of the Santeria god representing fire and lightning. He knows this because the operator of the botanica next door, the high priest of Regla Lukumi, Papelito, told him so.

Black as tar, with no trace of Spanish blood in his lineage, at sixty-eight, Papelito is a man made up of rumors. It is said he can kill with prayers. Papelito is the only gay man who can walk the streets of Spanish Harlem swaying his hips like a cable-suspended bridge and not be ridiculed.  —Ernesto Quiñonez, Chango’s Fire

Julio has lived all his life in Spanish Harlem, where he now owns the top floor of a gentrified building. He loves this neighborhood where he built a cardboard clubhouse in a burned-out lot as a boy, where his mother saved his father’s life from depression and addiction. Where he watched as the Pentecostal church in which he had lost his boyhood faith burned to the ground.

... Spanish Harlem was worthless property in the seventies and early eighties. Many property owners burned their own buildings down and handed the new immigrants a neighborhood filled with hollow walls and vacant lots. Urban Swiss cheese. The city would then place us in the projects, creating Latino reservations… as many who owned real estate burned the neighborhood, collected the insurance, sat on the dilapidated property, and waited for better days. Today the wait is over, Spanish Harlem’s burned-out buildings are gold mines…

Julio’s trial by fire is still to come, though, because he is keeping secrets. His name is not on the deed to his building, because he doesn’t want the IRS to ask where his money comes from. His best friend, Trompo Loco (Crazy Top), wants nothing more from life than some attention from his unacknowledged father, Julio’s secret boss Eddie. And Julio’s secret job is to burn down buildings.

…In the news, we were being punished for being junkies, thieves, whores and murderers. The evidence of God’s wrath was the blocks upon blocks of burned buildings we supposedly brought on ourselves. In my church it was a sign, these fires that consumed Spanish Harlem… these fires were evidence of prophecy, of fulfillment, of… “The Truth.”   But the truth was, it was just a guy like me who had set those fires…

Chango and the other Santeria Orishas expect to be paid for their help, for the stories that guide their followers: with sweet cakes and candy, burning of candles and incense, a derecho of $50 or $5—or sometimes, with everything you hold closest to your heart. Julio wants to help his friend Maritza with her immigrant-filled church. He wants to find a way to help his friend Trompo deal with his father’s neglect. He wants to quit his secret job.

Julio Santana, child of Chango, wants to find a way out of the fire. Federal agents, the INS and his secret boss Eddie all are conspiring to keep him on the job. Julio must make a decision. Whatever he chooses to do, someone will get hurt.

This is a thrilling story, told in a genuine voice of Spanish Harlem. Quiñonez makes us part of his neighborhood, helps us feel its rhythms and its pain. I cared about these people and their problems, I wanted Julio to find the solution and rescue those he loved. I read until 3 AM, unable to put it down.

This one’s a winner.