The Washington Post
Chango's Fireby Ernesto Quinonez
In New York City's Spanish Harlem, Julio and Maritza are each searching for a path that will give their lives meaning, even if it's shadowed by controversy. Julio is an arsonist for hire, pocketing thousands of dollars from investors eager to capitalize on more expensive real estate. But when he has reason to stop setting his neighborhood ablaze and vows to change
In New York City's Spanish Harlem, Julio and Maritza are each searching for a path that will give their lives meaning, even if it's shadowed by controversy. Julio is an arsonist for hire, pocketing thousands of dollars from investors eager to capitalize on more expensive real estate. But when he has reason to stop setting his neighborhood ablaze and vows to change his ways, Julio's employers threaten his life and the lives of those close to him. Maritza, meanwhile, has become the pastor of a progressive Pentecostal church the perfect cover for the scam she's running. For the right price, she'll make anyone an American citizen.
With a cast of characters as colorful as the city itself, Ernesto Quiñonez brings to life a landscape we can all recognize.
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Read an Excerpt
By Ernesto Quinonez
Chapter OneComplaint #1
The house I'm about to set on fire stands alone on a hill.
In this Westchester darkness, it resembles a lonely house Hopper might paint. A driveway wide enough for a truck. A lawn with trees and wide-open space you can picture Kennedy kids playing touch football - their smiles perfect, the knees of their khakis stained with grass. No ocean though, but a wooden porch does wrap itself around the house as if hugging it. Large windows and spacious bedrooms, an American house new immigrants dream of. The type of house America promises can be yours if you work hard, save your pennies and salute the flag.
I open the screen door, punch in the alarm code and I'm in. It's my house, really. The owner doesn't want it. It's my house for these precious few minutes. I can indulge myself in snooping through someone else's life. Walk through wooden floors that I hope to inhabit someday.
When I was first hired, I used to enter these houses with my tin gallons filled with kerosene and quickly set to work at wetting the beds, couches and curtains. Light it all up with a flick of a match and quickly take off. Now I look around, wondering why, besides the money, does this person want his house taken out? I pace around. I pick up pictures, stare at the loved ones. I see childhood secrets that were never known to me, secrets of horses and country homes, of summer vacations. I open drawers. Sift throughclothes. Read the spines of books and try to find clues about this person's life. Once I burned a house where an entire set of cheerleader outfits sat in an attic closet, nicely folded. Was his wife the coach? Did he kill these girls? Who knows?
I walk around. This house is beautiful but the furniture is outdated, the lamps, doors and closets have old, yellow glows. In the living room, there's a television with knobs, a stereo with a turntable. Nailed to the wall is a black rotary telephone that hangs like an extinct breed. In the kitchen, there is not so much as a toaster. The wooden chairs in the dining room are chipped, and the walls are crowded with portraits of Catholic saints, of fruits and landscapes. But it is the faded sunflower curtains and dead plants by the windows that pretty much indicates an old woman lived here. Now that she's been put away, or is dead, this house seems to be used only as storage space, like a huge empty room where broken toys or unused objects from a previous life or a failed marriage sit lifeless. There's sadness in this house. It feels like its children deserted it many years ago and not so much as even cared to look back. Not a single tear. All around, everything carries such sorrow. A darkness attaches itself to the walls, as if no light had ever shone, even when tiny feet ran around these floors. There's a sense of neglected space in these halls. I'm stepping on unwanted family history. Nothing in this house has been deemed worthy to be saved or treasured. Everything has been condemned to be erased by fire.
But I can't really say for sure what happened here years ago that has made this house so bleak. But bleak it is. And now that the last of the old folks are gone, their grown children will light a match to unwanted memories. The house gets lit, the neighborhood stays the same color, and the property gets rebuilt with funneled insurance money.
Just as well. It's not my house, nor my memories. Even less, it's not my place to ask.
I don't ask.
I never ask.
The people I work for don't know me. I only deal with Eddie, and Eddie deals with them, and I don't know who they deal with or how the insurance is fixed, all I know is that the bread gets passed around in that order. Me getting the last of the crumbs.
I've been working for Eddie for some time now. The crumbs I get are large enough that I mortgaged an apartment floor in this old, battered, three-story walk-up. On the first floor, my friend Maritza has set up her crazy church, and the second floor is owned by a white woman I barely know. Though she seems nice, she rarely makes eye contact and is always on the go. She leaves the building early in the morning and I can usually hear her come back late at night when I'm reading in bed. She doesn't spend much time in her house or on fixing up her floor like I do.
I've been upgrading my floor slowly, because it's so goddamn expensive. But I'm happy there. At times and for no reason, I go outside and cross the street and stare at my building. I smile. See the third floor? I own it, I tell myself. I see the windows a little crooked, not exactly fitting in their frames. Got to fix that. I smile. I see the paint chipping on all sides. Got to fix that. I like the gray shadow my building casts when the sun hits it from the west side of 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue, and how it's sandwiched between Papelito's botanica and a barber shop. I tell myself, I've come a long way from the clubhouse I built as a little kid. I had gathered refrigerator boxes, painted them, cut open windows and doors, and placed my clubhouse on a vacant lot full of rats, charred bricks and thrown-out diapers. I called it the Brown House, home to the president of Spanish Harlem.
What I was too young to know back then was that it was during the decade of my childhood that my future boss, Eddie, and guys like him were hired. Eddie burned down half of El Barrio and most of the South Bronx ...
Excerpted from Chango's Fire by Ernesto Quinonez Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Ernesto Quiñonez is the author of Bodega Dreams, which was chosen as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title as well as a Borders Bookstore Original New Voice selection. He lives in Harlem.
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In Chango's Fire the readers appreciate how Ernesto Quinonez has matured and now delivers his message much more methodically. This novel is another 'cultural-urbanistic' work-of-art, just as his first novel: Bodega Dreams. Ernesto, please continue to write as you have a group of devoted followers that truly enjoys reading your books; you are a master at capturing in words what a Kodak camara would otherwise have captured in a picture.
Quinonez weaves a tale that is not only engrossing in its plot, but he meticulously crafted a world that is totally real. If you want an intimate, detailed look into the Puerto Rican culture in the Barrio, this book is not to be missed. Whether its El Barrio in NY or the ghettoes in Passaic, NJ, (where I grew up), Quinonez brought back memories both poigniant and bitter, such as the tin cans to funnel the hydrant spray in the summer on the block, to the harsh realities of this country's treatment of illegal immigrants and the arsons of the barrios in the 60's and 70's. Thank you, Ernesto for this eloquent reminder of my roots, and DONT TAKE SO LONG FOR THE NEXT BOOK, please! :)
Chango's Fire is filled with color and fills your mind with it's light. The prose is well and tightly written. You are caught up and have finished the book before you know it. Hours have passed and it seems just a few short minutes. Extremely engrossing and simply delicious.