CHANGO'S FIRE by Ernesto Quiñonez (HarperCollins Canada), 288 pages, $33.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Ernesto Quiñonez reading with Russell Banks , Panos Karnezis and Jeffrey Moore Friday (October 22), 8 pm, Premiere Dance Theatre.
Ernesto Quiñonez in a round table with Jakob Ejersbo , Elisabeth Harvor and Seth Kantner Sunday (October 24), 1 pm. Brigantine Room. Moderated by Tina Srebotnjak for TVOntario's Imprint.
When latino writer Ernesto Quiñonez was growing up in Spanish Harlem, he used to support himself by stealing dogs and then returning them for the reward.
It's this kind of illicit economic transaction that gave him the inspiration for his novel Chango's Fire.
"I wanted to give a slice of what it's like to live in a neighbourhood like Spanish Harlem," he tells NOW.
Chango's Fire is based on a historical event, an epidemic of fires that swept through the slums of New York in the 70s, forcing thousands of poor blacks and Latinos out of areas like his.
The policies of "benign neglect" and "planned shrinkage" advocated by President Richard Nixon's urban adviser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and New York City housing commissioner Roger Starr involved closing down fire stations in the neighbourhoods that most needed them.
According to Quiñonez, the fires were set by the landlords themselves in order to collect the insurance. The burnt-out buildings remained empty for years, until the government declared the areas "empowerment zones," giving businesses tax breaks to renovate.
"Those were the seeds of gentrification," says Quiñonez. "Now the people who were driven out can't afford to live there."
Chango's Fire is a lament for the gentrification of poor, immigrant districts.
"Spanish Harlem was once newly arrived Italians, newly arrived Jews, newly arrived Irish. When the Puerto Ricans came, when we came, it was still a magical place. If it gets gentrified, you're not going to have neighbourhoods where immigrants can come to better themselves."
Construction worker Julio, the book's main character, and his love interest, white art gallery owner Helen, embody the tension between Spanish Harlem's Latino denizens and the yuppie intruders.
Quiñonez urges Latino immigrants to take back their neighbourhoods by becoming property owners.
"If we don't make el barrio ours, eventually we will lose it."