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St. Paul Pioneer Press

Latino Writers, Universal Themes

Book Critic

24 October 2004
Copyright © 2004 St. Paul Pioneer Press. All rights reserved. 

Ernesto Quinonez was so poor when he was growing up in Spanish Harlem he spent a couple of summers stealing dogs to claim the rewards. Quinonez's father was from Equador, his mother from Puerto Rico.

Lolita Hernandez, a 30-year member of the United Auto Workers, held various jobs at the Cadillac plant in Detroit while raising two children as a single parent and earning college degrees. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Trinidad in the 1940s.

Quinonez, 39, and Hernandez, 57, will read separately this week in the Chicano and Latino writers festival sponsored by Friends of the St. Paul Public Library.

Hernandez will introduce her debut story collection, "Autopsy of an Engine,'' a love letter to the men and women who made luxury cars. Quinonez will read from his second novel, "Chango's Fire,'' a cry against gentrification and homage to the power of the Santeria religion.

These books show the wide variety of work coming from American authors whose roots are in Spanish-speaking cultures.

This "pan-Latino'' movement has been growing for more than 15 years, according to Harold Augenbraum, National Book Foundation executive director and a scholar of Latino literary studies.

"The idea that there might be commonalities of literature across the country, from Chicanos in the southwest to Puerto Ricans in New York City, came from the 1980s,'' he says. "They are drawn together in large part by religion and the historical background of conquest and colonialism. Now that writers like Sandra Cisneros and Oscar Hijeulos are in the mainstream, Latin authors can write about general topics within a specific culture.''

Rene Alegria is publisher of HarperCollins' Rayo imprint, devoted to the work of Latino authors such as Ernesto Quinonez. He says there is a renaissance at play with respect to Latino literature.

"There is a new, energetic literature written by a younger generation of Latinos to the younger generation,'' he says. "There is a sense of energy in this new crop of writers, who are unapologetic about their existence as Americans. They do not see themselves as on the fringe of American society. For the most part, they do not focus on the struggles of ethnic identity politics. Their focus is on human universal characteristics. Anyone can relate to them.''

ERNESTO QUINONEZ Ernesto Quinonez's writing grows out of New York's Spanish Harlem – El Barrio – where he grew up the youngest of five children. His dad lost his factory job after he was disabled when a steel drum fell on his back. His mother was a seamstress in a garment district sweatshop.

"We had to go on welfare because my father broke three ribs, and the company wouldn't pay his medical bills,'' Quinonez recalled in a phone conversation from his home in Harlem, where he lives with his girlfriend and their newborn daughter.

"When I was about 14, my friends and I would go the Upper East Side, which is next to Spanish Harlem, and steal lap dogs from rich people. We'd take good care of the dogs for about five days, then look for reward fliers. We usually made $50, sometimes $100. All we needed was popcorn and comic book money. Once in a while, I'd give my mom some bucks to pay the phone bill.''

It took Quinonez five years to get through night school at New York's City College. After graduating in English and Latino studies, he taught fourth grade in the South Bronx in the 1990s.

"The roof leaked, and we had to put pails on the floor,'' he recalled. "My students were from the Dominican Republic, and they were in this school, in the greatest city in the world, that was like being in a Third World country.''

While he was teaching, Quinonez gave up his dream of becoming a painter ("I decided I wasn't that good'') and realized he wanted to tell stories. His first novel, "Bodega Dreams,'' published in 2000, was named a Best Book by the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

His new novel, "Chango's Fire,'' centers on a young man who pays his college tuition by setting fires to old buildings whose residents have been warned to get out. After the structures are destroyed, landlords get insurance money, and the vacant land draws rats and trash until property values rise. Then, the government creates an empowerment zone and developers put up expensive housing on the site. Everybody wins – except the poor people who've been displaced.

"I wanted to write a novel protesting gentrification and about how a lot of fires are basically due to profit,'' Quinonez says.

"Protest novels are not chic now. Everything that comes out is love stories, or dysfunctional families or self-indulgent 'look at my pain' novels. I wanted to throw myself back by rereading Richard Wright's 'Native Son,' James Baldwin and John Steinbeck.''

Quinonez has seen what happens when a neighborhood goes upscale.

"I live in Harlem now because I want to stay close to my roots, but even Harlem is expensive since Bill Clinton had offices there,'' he says. "Middle-class people are having a hard time paying for places in what used to be a ghetto.''

Quinonez knows that change is inevitable, but he fears we're running out of places for newcomers to live.

"There used to be immigrant neighborhoods,'' he recalls. "A generation would be able to find affordable housing, they would leave, and another group would move in. Spanish Harlem used to be Jewish, then Italian, then Puerto Rican and Mexican. Now, it's upper-class white. New immigrants have to live in the outer boroughs and take subways 21Ú2 hours a day. That beats you up physically and emotionally.''

But white people have dreams, too, and Quinonez addresses those in the character of Helen, an art gallery owner who is trying to understand her Spanish-speaking neighbors and their culture. Part of that culture is Santeria – the way of the saints – the religion that blends ancient West African beliefs and Roman Catholicism.

Quinonez has mixed feelings about ethnic-based events such as the St. Paul Chicano and Latino writers festival.

"Part of me says I should go and support my own people,'' he says. "The other half says that no one would call Faulkner or James Joyce 'ethnic' writers. People advertise 'new African-American voices,' or 'exciting women's voices' or 'Latino voices.' Nobody ever talks about 'three white guys from Iowa' writers. I'd like to get rid of labels. You are a writer.''

LOLITA HERNANDEZ Lolita Hernandez's "Autopsy of an Engine'' is a lyrical evocation of the people who worked with hoses and pistons, engine blocks and control arm bolts on the line of the defunct Clark Street Cadillac plant in Detroit.

These 12 stories cross racial and cultural lines, as Hernandez depicts the men and women who made what they could never afford. Her characters are fictional representations of the real life that swirled around her when she worked on the motor line and then in auto layout and design.

"My factory collection includes stories with characters who sing songs from Trinidad, Mexico, a song from the U.S. American civil rights movement, a Motown song,'' she says. "There are the poetic memories of a white man from the Kentucky coal mines, the prayers of a black woman. There is a story about the sexual exploitation of women and one about a woman who was recycled into various jobs because her fantasies were disruptive. And through the collection is my joy at having a voice to tell their stories.''

One woman brings the factory back to life in a ghost story. In another, a man dies on the job and so does the three-legged rat who lives under the pallets.

These workers are often tired and sometimes sick of their jobs, but they find time to flirt, share food and become a sort of family. Most of all, they take pride in their work.

Allan Kornblum, publisher of Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press, snapped up Hernandez's manuscript as soon as he read it.

"She found a way to turn the workplace, the factory, into an incredible sensory explosion that tickles every sense,'' Kornblum says. "You could smell the place, hear the place, almost taste the oil. And she did it with the delicate touch of an accomplished artist. This is the voice of experience.''

Hernandez was hired at the Cadillac plant in 1973, and kept working after her two children were born. While she raised her kids, she earned a degree in psychology from the University of Michigan and another in newsprint journalism from Wayne State University. She wrote some of the stories in "Autopsy of an Engine'' when she was working on her master's in creative fiction from Norwich University in Vermont.

Although Hernandez is a widely anthologized poet, with two published chapbooks, she doesn't know where she gets the rhythms that give her prose such beauty.

"I think it's just in me. I sense rhythms all the time,'' she said in a phone conversation from her condo in downtown Detroit.

"There is a rhythm to the way people moved in relationship to their jobs in the factory. Some moved fast, some slow, some almost dancing. There's a rhythm to the sound on the line that the body absorbs until you don't even realize it. If you are holding a tool, it vibrates in your hands. Everything you touch is moving in some way, and you have to move with it.''

She also absorbed the rhythms of her parents' Caribbean-influenced English.

"I'd lay in bed in the morning hearing them in the kitchen talking with a beautiful accent,'' she recalled. "And I grew up listening to the rhythms of calypso. I was very hot on Tito Puente and Latin music, like salsa.'' (Puente was a bandleader and composer credited with popularizing Latin music and playing salsa before it even had a name.)

Hernandez works now in the General Motors Tech Center and teaches writing at colleges and public institutions. She dedicated her book to her son Pedro, a comic in Los Angeles, and daughter Demecina, a student at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Like Ernesto Quinonez, Hernandez has mixed feelings about literary events centered on ethnicity or gender.

"I'd do anything to help the (Latino) cause, but it's hard to get out of that because folks want to tie you to some kind of ethnicity. They don't think you are capable of seeing anything outside your culture,'' she says. "In my book, I'm writing about the plant, making observations about life. Period. I don't want to be typecast as a 'labor writer' or a 'woman writer.' Why can't I just be a Detroit writer?''

"It's a religion of poet priests yanked out of their beloved Africa and forced to embrace not just slavery in the new world but also Catholicism. And so these poet priests preserved their religion by hiding their gods inside Catholic saints. The Spaniards bought the hustle, and, in time, the two religions merged, forming the way of the saints, Santeria. A religion born out of a need for survival, of diversity, of color and magic.''

– From "Chango's Fire''

"She could feel the rattling from the trays traveling up her arms and the noise from the section behind her pummeling her bones as if she were one big conga drum vibrating in time to the bouncing trays and the piston rhythms. Pshoop, number one piston in. Pshoop, number four piston in. Pshoop number three piston in. Oui foote. Back to back, belly to belly, in a jumbie jamboree.

– From "Autopsy of an Engine'' Title: "Chango's Fire''

Author: Ernesto Quinonez

Publisher: Rayo/HarperCollins

Cost: $23.95

Author appearance: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Riverview Branch Library, 1 E. George St., St. Paul

Title: "Autopsy of an Engine''

Author: Lolita Hernandez

Publisher: Coffee House Press

Author appearances: 7 p.m. Thursday, Amazon Bookstore Cooperative, 4755 Chicago Ave. S., Mpls.; 7 p.m. Friday, Riverview Branch Library, 1 E. George St., St. Paul; 7 p.m. Saturday, Black Dog Cafe, 308 Prince St., St. Paul, with Coffee House Press poet Mark Nowak, whose collection "Shut Up Shut Down'' focuses on deindustrialization.

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