Because place still matters: mapping puertorriquenidad in Bodega Dreams.
--Ernesto Quinonez, Bodega Dreams
Bodega Dreams (2000) is about one man's--Willie Bodega--vision of an empowered East Harlem. Set in flashbacks between the 1960s and the 1990s, the novel depicts Bodega's efforts to provide the neighborhood's residents quality housing, higher education, and business development. In the 1970s, Bodega was a Young Lord; he rallied for access to those services and other civil rights. Ernesto Quinonez, the author, has vivid but ambivalent memories of the Young Lords: "I remember being about five years old, and being led by the hand across the street by some of them. They seemed so strong and good to me then" (Quinonez n.d.). Willie Bodega posits a similar but ultimately negative view: "And when the Young Lords got too high and mighty, they began to bicker among themselves. Later they changed their agenda and became something else" (Quinonez 2000: 33). Bodega's assertion that the movement failed because of internal difference troubles established conceptions of the Young Lords as well-intentioned activists undermined by municipal authorities. (1)
Willie Bodega never states precisely what that "something else" was; however, Quinonez endeavors to do so. His central project in Bodega Dreams is to unravel the relationship between activism and aesthetic--to understand why the Young Lords and their closely associated Nuyorican literary artists are becoming spectral figures in El Barrio. Bodega Dreams implies the shift in ethnic composition of East Harlem's residents amplifies the challenges to East Harlem's empowerment the Young Lords faced a generation ago. Bodega Dreams makes an important contribution to Nuyorican literary aesthetics by conversing with germinal works by Nuyorican authors such as Piri Thomas' text, Down These Mean Streets (1997). (2) Both novels explore the intimate and fraught relationships among geography, social mobility, and ethnonationalism. The epigraph above modifies a quotation from another text about internal strife, the film, Lawrence of Arabia: "So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people" (1962). The quotation appears as the title of Chapter 8, at the midpoint of the novel, foreshadowing ethnonationalism's threat to Latino empowerment. Here, as throughout Bodega Dreams, Quinonez uses intertextuality to speak the unspeakable realities of hierarchy within Latino America generally, and within the Puerto Rican ethnonation, more specifically. (3)
Bodega Dreams suggests that a current hindrance to an empowered Puerto Rican Harlem is the shift in Latino immigration occurring after Down These Mean Streets was published. Today, East Harlem is home to Latinos from the Hispanophone Caribbean Basin and the various nations of Central America and South America. (4) This shift began in the 1960s, when "new legislation opened the door to a host of other immigrant groups" (Sharman 2006: 62). Subsequent legislation meant to deter the growth of Mexican immigration did not stop the flow of Mexican immigrants to areas such as East Harlem (Sharman 2006: 114). Between 1990 and 2000, for example, the number of Mexican immigrants in East Harlem rose to approximately seventeen percent of its Latina/o population (Sharman 2006: 120). My colleagues in Latina/o Studies have delineated the connections among immigration, Nuyorican identity, and social mobility, especially in literary and anthropological scholarship. Juan Flores, for example, illustrates the evolution of the construction and reception of what is considered "Latino" literature in From Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (2000). He argues Puerto Ricans' 'in-betweenness'--their identity as 'citizens' but treatment as 'immigrants'--fosters their resistance to acculturation: "Rather than embracing the hyphen ... Puerto Ricans typically challenge the marker of collusion or compatibility and erase it as inappropriate to their social position and identity" (Flores 2000: 180). Understanding Puerto Ricans' challenge of simultaneous belonging in two cultural spaces--of seeing Puerto Rico as ala (home) and the United States as aqui (here)--is key to understanding Nuyorican literary aesthetics.
The continuous migration of its people into and out of the U.S. mainland has shaped Puerto Rican literature since the Spanish American War (1896-1898). Puerto Ricans are not exiles nor are they immigrants in the same manner of late 19th century European and Asian immigrants. The literature Puerto Ricans in the mainland produced, therefore, has two strains: an early to mid-century Immigrant strain emphasizing the differences between alla and aqui and a late-century Native strain emphasizing a call for an equal distribution of rights as evoked by the Young Lords. (5) Life between aqui and alla is becoming yet more complex. Puerto Ricans are becoming the major Latino population in states such as Florida, in addition to their historic presence in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois. (6) William Burgos, in his essay, "Puerto Rican Literature in a New Clave: Notes on the Emergence of the DiaspoRican," also sees this shift as having significant consequence to Nuyorican identity because "as other Latino groups are now displacing Puerto Ricans in New York neighborhoods they once dominated, and as Nuyoricans are increasingly moving to other places in the United States or moving to Puerto Rico, the centrality, indeed the hegemony of that New York-based culture may be ending or entering a new phase" (Burgos 2008: 126). Nuyorican culture is not ending but it certainly is experiencing metamorphosis, if not migration. In her study, Culture Works: Space, Value, and Mobility across the Neoliberal Americas (2012), anthropologist Arlene Davila discusses this migration in a visual arts context. She discusses the work of Juan Sanchez, who moved from New York to Florida but identifies as a Nuyorican artist. Davila asserts, "a 'Nuyorican' tradition is thus conceived as the extension of the politicized and community interventions of the Taller Boricua and the community of Nuyorican artists who broke artistic barriers in the 1970s alongside the Nuyorican movement to formulate work that was in intimate conversation with the empowerment of the Puerto Rican community both in the states and on the island" (2012: 121). Quinonez's depictions of these changes in Nuyorican culture are timely; however, despite their similar powerful critiques of identity politics within Puerto Rican communities, neither Bodega Dreams nor his second novel, Chango'sFire (2004), has received critical attention comparable to Thomas' first novel, Down These Mean Streets. (1)
The events of Bodega Dreams coincide with the height of systematized urban renewal, which Quinonez details in his second novel, Chango's Fire (8) Burned out of their homes, displaced Latinos had to move to the projects consuming the skyline starting from the 96th street moving north toward East Harlem's boundary at 125th Street. This resulted in their further displacement. (9) Latinos from various nations and neighborhoods were now contained in the same projects. (10) Arlene Davila draws explicit connections between Puerto Rican nationalism, gentrification, and the neoliberalization of housing and community spaces of New York City in the essay, "Dreams of Place, Housing, Gentrification and the Marketing of Space in El Barrio" (2003). She concludes that the neoliberal rhetoric of community revitalization and home ownership continue to "challenge Puerto Ricans' longing for a permanent place in El Barrio" (Davila 2003: 131). Quinonez's novel is simultaneously a prescient exploration of East Harlem's changing identity and a record of Nuyorican efforts to map puertorriquenidad onto its streets permanently. (11) Davila convincingly argues, "Bodega Dreams represents the ultimate neoliberal novel. The context it speaks to is one where the purchase of place is presented as the only alternative for lasting power, even when the feasibility of such a dream is quickly fading" (2003: 114). Nuyorican literature, in particular, is adapting to the neoliberal reality of East Harlem. Though Quinonez does not foreground gentrification in this novel as he does in Chango's Fire, he does craft Bodega Dreams as a bittersweet memorial to East Harlem's fight to remain Nuyorican. In what follows, I will illustrate how Quinonez portrays at least two responses to neoliberalism's challenges in urban America: the development of panLatino solidarity or the further stratification of Latinos along geographic, class, and ethnonational lines.
?Down Whose Mean Streets?
Thomas' autobiographical novel depicts East Harlem as a refuge within racially hostile New York City. (12) Bodega Dreams extends Thomas' narrative, both spatially and chronologically, returning to East Harlem and blaming the current stagnancy of El Barrio on ethnic hierarchies developing since the late 1960s. Down These Mean Streets and Bodega Dreams foreground the protagonists' efforts to identify as Puerto Rican based on an understanding that Puerto Ricanness is a privileged identity facilitating greater social mobility than other Latino ethnonationalities allow. For example, Thomas' father is Cuban but moves to Puerto Rico to obtain American citizenship. He then performs a Puerto Rican identity in his speech and mannerisms in the United States. Similarly, Chino, the narrator of Bodega Dreams, prioritizes his puertorriquenidad even though he is also Ecuadorian.
If Bodega Dreams demonstrates the streets are now mean because East Harlem's struggle with racial difference has been complicated by hierarchy among Latinos, what made the streets mean for Piri Thomas? Down These Mean Streets addresses Thomas' struggle for what he defined as respect: recognition as part of the Puerto Rican ethnonation by Latinos and non-Latinos alike. He was a dark-skinned Puerto Rican/Cuban, often assumed to be African American. When his family moves a few blocks within what he calls Spanish Harlem, Thomas asserts, "Even when the block belongs to your own people, you are still an outsider who has to prove himself a down stud with heart" (1997: 47). This means he must endure a jumping-in to be nicknamed and garner a rep associated with a particular gang. (13) Reputation, Thomas argues, is what defines a man and garners him respect and loyalty. The importance of the rep--one's reputation in El Barrio--cannot be underestimated. It is more powerful than shared ethnicity: "They were Puerto Ricans just the same as we were, but this didn't mean shit, under our need to keep our reps" (Thomas 1997: 52). The novel spans decades and ends with Thomas' acceptance of his being an AfroLatino. Before that acceptance, though, Thomas struggled with the racism of non-Latinos as well as from Latinos, including his own family members.
Marta Caminero-Santangelo's essay, "'Puerto Rican Negro': Defining Race in Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets" (2004), is especially useful in historicizing scientific and literary debates over race that shaped readings of Thomas' novel. (14) Caminero-Santangelo illustrates a key paradigm of the first half of Thomas' narrative: to resist discrimination, Thomas attempts to deconstruct his racial identity, blackness, and claim his mother's ethnonational one, Puerto Ricanness. Thomas asserts his ethnonational cultural identity when he is the victim of racially motivated assaults, institutionalized racism in school, or job discrimination. In passages such as this, he asserts his puertorriquenidad, wholly eliding his father's Cuban national origin: "I ain't no damn Negro and I ain't no paddy. I'm Puerto Rican" (Thomas 1997: 123). Caminero-Santangelo asserts Thomas' desire and struggle to be identified as Puerto Rican "is not nationalistic or ethnic pride but an assertion of privilege in a complicated racial hierarchy" (Caminero-Santangelo 2004: 210). Privilege, or respect, Thomas' version of it, offers more than cultural recognition; it can also protect him from violence.
Caminero-Santangelo describes the relationship between race hierarchy and physical violence in Down These Mean Streets thus: "Thomas's insistence on a higher place within that hierarchy is, furthermore, clearly a self-protective denial of shared experience with African Americans; if he is not black, he assumes, he need not fear being lynched" (2004: 209). Quinonez asserts this context remains, a generation later, in Bodega Dreams: "Some Italians from the old days of the fifties and sixties were still around. They lived on Pleasant Avenue off 116th Street, and if you were caught around there at night you'd better have been a light-skinned Latino so you could pass yourself off as Italian" (2000: 6). For Thomas, though, colorism is operational not only outside his turf but also inside his home. One's skin color is not a problem in and of itself; rather, one's skin shade--the level of its lightness or darkness--is the determining factor of one's place in social and familial hierarchies.
Thomas' father's preference for his lighter-skinned children drives him to question the reality of racial origins in Puerto Rican identity (Thomas 1997: 87). Piri's family denies African ancestry in Puerto Rican and Cuban racial composition, denying Thomas' reality as a racially Black and culturally Latino man (Thomas 1997: 135, 143). Through his friendship with Brew, an African American from the rural South, Thomas realizes it is his sensitivity to the harsh realities of racism, not his skin color, which makes him Black. His acceptance of his blackness separates him from his family because they view his darkness as being prieto and refuse to view him as he does himself, as being moyeto, not dark, but Black (Thomas 1997: 145, 153). The narrator of Bodega Dreams, Chino, is also of mixed Latino nationalities: part Puerto Rican and part Ecuadorian. Mirroring Thomas' father, he also claims puertorriquenidad as his primary identity and as a means of belonging in El Barrio. Chino is well aware of his lower position in the Nuyorican hierarchy; he "felt compelled to tell Bodega" he was only "half Puerto Rican, because his father was from Ecuador" (Quinonez 2000: 36). Elsewhere, we see colorism in discussions of who is "Latin" or authentically "Spanish" in East Harlem.
Bodega Dreams' superb use of meta-fiction, intertextuality, and allusion interrogates the concept of puertorriquenidad at many levels, beginning with authorship. Quinonez has said, "I didn't want to write a coming of age novel. I didn't want to exploit my poverty either. But I did want to write a book from the place I knew" (Quinonez n.d.). (15) These two kinds of writing clearly refer to Down These Mean Streets and later Nuyorican cultural production contributing to the body of contemporary Latino literature. (15) His critique is readily visible in one of the chapter titles, "My Growing Up and All That Piri Thomas Kinda Crap," which the narrator says he will "spare you from" (Quinonez 2000: 86). Though he spends less time on themes such as addiction, despair, and incarceration than Thomas does, Quinonez has not been spared from them in the critical reading of his novel: it has been defined as an example of ghetto literature or "dirty realism" (Di Iorio Sandin 2004; Dominguez Miguela 2008); as a reengagement of Nuyorican social protest, (Dalleo and Machado Saez 2007); and as an interrogation of neoliberalism's false promises of community revitalization (Davila 2003; Moiles 2011).
Perhaps because of these critical foci, Quinonez's modernist author influences have been less often discussed: "There were two models for Willie Bodega, Jay Gatsby and Kurtz of Heart of Darkness" (Quinonez n.d.). The novel is saturated with literary references not only to these modernist authors, but also to Nuyorican and African American writers and leaders, as well as to movies, music, and film spanning the 1960s to the 1990s. (16) In their study, The Latina/o Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature (2007), Raphael Dalleo and Elena Machado Saez locate Bodega Dreams as an effort to simultaneously reinvigorate the social protest politics of the 1960s Latina/o canon and engage in contemporary literary market aesthetics. They argue, "Seeing this renewal requires developing new lenses that acknowledge the ways in which the relationship between literature and the public sphere is being redefined in light of post-Sixties' realities--the market's centrality in the creation, dissemination, and reception of virtually all contemporary cultural texts" (Dalleo and Machado Saez 2007: 7). While Chino spends less time portraying his youth than Thomas does, he consistently digresses to memories of his identity formation by detailing urban poverty, institutional discrimination, and homosocial bonding.
Quinonez said his impetus for writing the novel was his frustration with the fact that the negative aspects of his youth had not changed: "Why is it that we keep failing the residents of inner city ghettos? Someone has to have a vision and try to change things. In Bodega Dreams it's up to ordinary people to bring change because politicians won't" (Quinonez n.d.). Because politicians have not changed East Harlem for the better, a generation later, Quinonez is exploring a second response--pan-Latinism--to illustrate how the people of Harlem might accomplish what decades of public policy have not. Though Chino does not keep his promise to spare the reader from "all that Piri Thomas Kinda Crap," he does offer readers a powerful critique of Nuyoricans' failure to engage pan-Latino activism (Quinonez 2000: 86).
Bodega Dreams examines the legacy of civil rights movements that characters glimpse but do not get to fully experience in Down These Mean Streets. Thomas' discussion of racial discourse in Harlem significantly shapes Quinonez's novel. Dalleo and Machado Saez rightly argue, "Quinonez explicitly invokes three major Nuyorican literary works of the Civil Rights generation that engage the legacies of the American dream and its anticolonial critique" (Dalleo and Machado Saez 2007: 60). In addition to Thomas' novel, Quinonez uses parts of Pedro Pietri's epic Nuyorican poem, "Puerto Rican Obituary," and Miguel Pinero's poem, "La Bodega Sold Dreams," for epigraphs beginning each of the novel's three Books. (17) The critical difference between the representation of puertorriquenidad in Down These Mean Streets and Bodega Dreams is that Bodega Dreams implies Harlem's "mean streets" are no longer the European American-dominated blocks confining Puerto Ricans physically, economically, and psychologically.
Rather, Puerto Ricans are both perpetuator and victim of national, racial, and class hierarchies. In the essay, "When Willie Met Gatsby: The Critical Implications of Ernesto Quinonez's Bodega Dreams," June Dwyer suggests these epigraphs are part of Quinonez's project to celebrate Puerto Rican cultural writers and political figures (2003: 168). This assertion undermines the significance of and the challenge to the Nuyorican aesthetic Quinonez reconciles in this novel. Quinonez's portrayal of Bodega explicitly represents Nuyoricans' cultural pride as a weapon against neoliberalism's flattening of ethnic difference and facade of neighborhood revitalization. East Harlem's shifting demographic promotes cultural and political differences, which Quinonez implies prevent Latinos from achieving effective coalition. Piri Thomas' point about keeping one's reputation, even amongst "your own people," suggests what the novel Bodega Dreams illustrates powerfully: shared ethnicity does not guarantee ethnic solidarity or respect (Thomas 1997: 52).
Several passages depict racism or ethnonational difference among Latinos more generally; Chino refers to his displacement as someone who is half Puerto Rican, half Ecuadorian at least three times (Quinonez 2000: 7, 36, 177). Chino's aunt-in-law, Vera, is criticized for abandoning Puerto Rican Harlem for Cuban Miami (Quinonez 2000: 44). Chino draws on extreme religious conflict to denote the significant difference between the two Caribbean nations: "For a Rican to marry a Cuban he better be rich ... Cubans and Puerto Ricans never hit it off. The Arabs and Jews of the Caribbean" (Quinonez 2000: 46). This anti-Cuban sentiment is repeated in Chino's mockery of Vera's husband: "I would never have guessed he was Latin. He was more American than Mickey Mouse and just as old" (Quinonez 2000: 187). These differences are not rhetorical; readers see them manifest in very tangible ways. They note, for example, how Bodega and his associate, Edwin Nazario, practice ethnonational discrimination in their language and benevolence (Quinonez 2000: 147, 207).
According to Chino, "Bodega took pride in helping someone who had just arrived from Puerto Rico or Nicaragua or Mexico or any other Latin America country," but "his buildings were run by good, hardworking men from Puerto Rico" (Quinonez 2000: 100). Cultural, racial, and political competition amongst Latinos from the Caribbean is not new; it reflects the rhetoric of various colonizers and is reinscribed in the U.S. as immigrants compete for resources and social status. The newest immigrants, regardless of national origin, are lowest on the American social ladder until they have attained some economic stability and social presence. Certainly, by the 1980s, when the U.S. experienced the first mass Central American migrations from refugees of civil wars, and the second Caribbean mass migrations, this time from economic refugees from Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Puerto Ricans' position in the economic hierarchy shifted up, not down. As those immigrations continued and various groups occupied more and more of Harlem, their position shifted again, as they were dispersed among the five boroughs, as Davila illustrates in Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City (2004).
Readers see the remnants of Thomas' racial hierarchy and the trope of respect in Willie Bodega's first comments to Chino. Bodega complains about the ethnic identity options one has, each of which displaces the Puerto Rican's ethnonational uniqueness: "But when you go fill out a job application you get no respect. You see a box for Afro-American, Italian-American, Irish American, but you don't see Puerto Rican-American, you see just one box, Hispanic" (Quinonez 2000: 26). The equation of ethnonational distinction and respect echoes the Young Lords' platform; it appears early in the novel and is repeated throughout. Because of the demographic shifts occurring between the two novels' publications, the motif of respect takes on even greater significance in Bodega Dreams than it does in Down These Mean Streets.
Respect is so integral to Nuyorican identity that Quinonez opens and closes the novel with it. Of his best friend, the narrator, Chino, notes: "I loved Sapo because he loved himself" (Quinonez 2000: 3, 86). Close to the novel's end, Sapo suggests Chino should "do one last R.I.P.," a memorial in graffiti form, with which Chino earned his respect in El Barrio (Quinonez 2000: 205). The trope of respect in the relationship between Chino and his best friend, Sapo, replicates that of Piri and Brew Because of Sapo, Chino managed to survive the "mean streets": "Sapo had arrived at a time when I needed someone there, next to me, so I could feel valuable" (Quinonez 2000: 11). He survives long enough to graduate high school and obtain all that Bodega has been unable to acquire and maintain: political innocence, an institutional education to help him acquire socially sanctioned power and the love of a good woman. Blanca represents a means to what Chino perceives Bodega has, unquestionable respect: "Like with Sapo while I was growing up, I needed Blanca with me so I could feel valuable" (Quinonez 2000: 18). Similarly, when Thomas acknowledges his blackness and is rejected by his family, his father confesses how he practiced Puerto Rican Spanish and mannerisms to disguise his Cuban identity: "I made my accent heavier, to make me more of a Puerto Rican than the most Puerto Rican there ever was. I wanted a value on me, son" (Thomas 1997: 153). Thus, Chino's emphases on being valuable--metaphorically and semantically--are direct intersections, if not a clear blues riff, on Thomas' novel. (18)
Bodega Dreams' portrayal of the younger generation of Nuyoricans illustrates the persistence of racial and ethnonational hierarchy amongst them. Chino describes his best friend, Sapo, as if he had stereotypical African American features: "He was strong, squatty, with a huge mouth framed by fat lips, freaking bembas that could almost swallow you" (Quinonez 2000: 1). Despite consistent racial discrimination, Sapo did not need external affirmation; Chino notes that Sapo "loved himself. He didn't need teachers or anyone else telling him this" (Quinonez 2000: 4). Yet, Sapo is critical of Chino; he accuses him of preferring white women and denies the puertorriquenidad of Chino's wife, Blanca: "I mean, I know you like white girls. You always liked white girls ... Cuz even though she might be Spanish, she's a white Spanish" (Quinonez 2000: 153). The nicknaming of Blanca (Nancy) and her sister, Negra (Debra), reflects the simplistic, racist binaries common in Thomas' generation. To be a "Blanca" is to be culturally "White" and enjoy social mobility by abandoning your cultural roots. To be a "Negra" is to be culturally "Black" and to be tied to Harlem without hope of mobility. Neither choice reflects the complexity of Puerto Rican racial, cultural, or class realities. Quinonez reinscribes a problematic gender system the Nuyoricans of Thomas' generation illustrated, and he is not successful in scripting a more realistic puertorriquenidad for Puerto Rican women than Thomas had in his novel. (19)
Chino's relationship with Blanca reveals another layer in the social stratification of Nuyoricans, one that is particularly gendered: religion. (20) Blanca is a devoted Pentecostal whose loyalty is to her church, not to El Barrio, or to her Puerto Rican ethnonation (Quinonez 2000: 153). She is subservient to the rules of the church; when Blanca marries Chino, who is non-Pentecostal, she loses privileges in the church and frequently asks Chino to join, not so that he can save his soul but so that she can regain those privileges (Quinonez 2000: 17). Blanca only expresses interest in 'the street' when she needs something institutions cannot provide. When she wants to help an undocumented Colombian woman in her church get a green card, Chino notes, "there was no way she could ask around, put the word out on the street wire, because the street was never her playground" (Quinonez 2000: 63). Since Blanca's primary allegiance is not to El Barrio or other Puerto Ricans, Sapo questions her puertorriquenidad.
Dreaming in Nuyorican
Quinonez structures his novel in three books, with each chapter being one of twelve "rounds," reflecting the novel's overarching metaphor as a boxing match from its start to its knockout finish. He opens Book I of the novel with an epigraph from Pedro Pietri's 1973 poem, "Puerto Rican Obituary;" the stanza ends, "All died waiting dreaming and hating" (Pietri quoted in Quinonez 2000: 2). (21) This stanza encapsulates the negative portion of the poem, critiquing the Puerto Rican community as it turns its hatred inward and begins to self-destruct. Quinonez uses another stanza of the poem to open Book II of the novel: "These dreams/These empty dreams" (Pietri quoted in Quinonez 2000: 84). Quinonez is affirming Pietri's view that the Puerto Rican community is partly responsible for its inability to "pull itself up by the bootstraps." (22) Pietri suggests Puerto Ricans must gaze inward to free themselves from oppression. (23) Quinonez establishes this self-reflection early, aligning himself with Pietri and other Nuyorican writers: "Bodega would go down as a representation of all the ugliness of East Harlem and also all the good it was capable of being. Bodega placed a mirror in front of the neighborhood and in front of himself" (Quinonez 2000: 13-4). In this way, Quinonez illustrates the initial response to the oppression Puerto Ricans faced in New York: the rejection of neocolonial subjectivity through invention of Nuyorican ethnicity.
The novel's engagement of the "street" has been the focus of several literary critics. Lyn Di Iorio Sandin, for example, identifies Nuyorican writers Piri Thomas, Miguel Pinero, and Pedro Pietri as key figures writing a "melancholia of the street" (Di Iorio Sandin 2004: 105). She argues, "the old objects--Puerto Rico and Americanness--have been introjected, not mourned and then forgotten as the speaker [of Pinero's poem] would have us believe. However, having been removed as external objects and possibilities, they have been replaced by a new, accessible object, the street" (Di Iorio Sandin 2004: 107). When activism failed, Bodega did return to the "street," developing a methodical but criminal plan to renovate East Harlem. The "street," however, ultimately fails to be an empowering space both for Bodega, and the current generation of activists he enlists, Sapo and Chino. I depart from other analyses of Nuyorican literature, including Antonia Dominguez Miguelas's optimistic reading: "Using the language of the 'masters' and in some ways disguised as ghetto literature, Bodega Dreams tropicalizes the American space of the barrio and builds a Puerto Rican sense of community as it transforms the American Dream into a Puerto Rican communal dream" (Dominguez Miguela 2008: 175). Such a celebratory reading of the novel is common; this analysis foregrounds the identity discourses Quinonez problematizes.
Ernesto Quinonez has been largely ignored for his critique of limiting conception of puertorriquenidad operative in Nuyorican East Harlem. Lisa Sanchez Gonzalez makes a similar argument that authors are largely ignored when their work is critical of Puerto Rican nationalism. She uses the work of Luisa Capetillo as a case study in diasporic scholarship that recognizes Puerto Rican literature's "invisibility in a context of forced exile from dual identities and nationalities" (Sanchez Gonzalez 2008: 5). Of Arturo Schomburg and Luisa Capetillo, Sanchez Gonzalez argues, "This elision is related to how both Schomburg and Capetillo struggled within the Puerto Rican and Cuban nationalist organizations of their time" (2008: 57--emphasis in the original). Perhaps more problematically, as ethnic literatures scholar Werner Sollors suggests, the problem is related to the interpretation of literature.
Sollors argues that scholars, who do shape what and how people read, less often study "the innovative aspects of ethnic writing, the invention of ethnic traditions, the syncretism and modernism that characterizes so many of the forms of ethnic culture in America" (1986: 240). My analysis intersects more closely with Sollors' work in general and in particular, with Sanchez Gonzalez's call for a "new frame of reference that helps historicize Boricua narrative experimentation in its unique moments and milieus" (2008: 56). This essay proposes such a new frame of reference--what I call the narrative of fracture--to situate U.S. Puerto Rican literature as developing explicitly out of late 19th century anticolonial political and artistic expression, as well as its consistent engagement of modern and contemporary American literary esthetics. The narrative of fracture reflects the communities' resistance to not only the incipient U.S. neocolonialism but also to the ethnonationalism and colorism within the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Bodega Dreams fractures the notion activists are primarily concerned with community empowerment. Unfortunately for East Harlem, Bodega's desire for respect can only come with an individual mobility that undermines communal uplift: "The things I do, they're just a means to get what I need, and when I'm done, I'm going to be respectable and send my kids to Harvard, like Joe Kennedy" (Quinonez 2000: 37). Though his skin color is not described, Bodega's "curly hair" suggests he is also a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, one whom routinely experienced discrimination, as did Thomas (Quinonez 2000: 23). His idealization of the Kennedys' ability to rise above their second-class ethnicity of the time--Irishness--suggests that Willie Bodega believes in the American Dream more than he realizes. The novel's pointed depiction of Bodega's selfishness is a narrative of fracture about social protest movements that simultaneously problematize and perpetuate the desire for the impossible dream, the American Dream. (24)
Bodega garners respect by defying urban renewal; he renovates burnt tenements and puts Puerto Rican families in them (Quinonez 2000: 29-30). Yet, when he talks about his actions, he does not discuss communal ownership as something that will give Puerto Ricans, in general, respect. June Dwyer claims Bodega's "dream is not to become someone else but to make his neighborhood somewhere else" (2003: 170). I absolutely disagree: Bodega wants to make his neighborhood something else, not somewhere else. He does not move people out of it; rather, his real estate scheme is developed precisely to keep Puerto Ricans within East Harlem, rather than dispersing them among the five boroughs of New York City. As Davila observes, his dream is "to become the second largest slumlord in the city of New York" (2004: 28). Because he wants to own East Harlem "the way the Kennedys own Boston," it is clear Bodega wants to live in East Harlem but become someone else (Quinonez 2000: 36). Bodega wants to be recognized for having pulled himself up from his bootstraps; this is poignantly clear when Vera's husband insults him and Bodega yells, "I am not a nobody," an infamous line spoken by Tony Montana, the Cuban drug lord of the film, Scaface (Quinonez 2000: 191).
Antonia Dominguez Miguela usefully describes Bodega's goals as "a counter invasion, a reappropriation of a 'home' that has been historically denied to Puerto Ricans" (2000: 170). Chino's vision of Bodega and Vera, his lost love, liberating Puerto Rico depicts this counter invasion in tragicomic mode. Chino imagines they "would both sail back to America like conquistadors in reverse. They would arrive in New York Harbor and Latinos from all five boroughs would be there to greet them" (Quinonez 2000: 125). The novel's events are triggered by Vera's return to New York. Bodega was driven to achieve social status because his lack of it prevented him from winning Vera's heart. In this regard, Bodega is similar to Jay Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby; however, I disagree with this assessment of the relationship between the two characters: "Bodega seems to fit the model posed by Jay Gatsby, but his dream differs from Gatsby's in that it responds to his community's social and economic needs" (Dominguez Miguela 2008: 174). The difference between the dreams of Gatsby and Bodega is accounted for in her apt observation about the difference in the literary projects of Vega and Quinonez (Dominguez Miguela 2008: 168).
Quinonez's text is more critical because it is ambivalent; readers are, from the start, subject to Chino's trajectory from seeing Bodega as a Fitzgeraldian "green light of hope" (2000: 14) to "some drug lord" (2000: 25) to a "lost relic" of activism (2000: 31). Ultimately, he depicts Bodega as a tragic hero whose fall was caused by a woman: "In that transitory moment when at last the pearl was about to be handed to him, like Orpheus or Lot's wife, he had to look back to find Vera" (2000: 213). The author describes his characterization thus: "I wanted to invoke some ambivalence in the figure of a street hero, a hero who isn't just a hero, a villain who isn't a villain, to look at both sides of the coin, in the figure of one particular street lord, a guy who's getting older and is seeing his dreams starting to tarnish" (Quinonez n.d.). Quinonez also depicts Bodega as a former idealist turned paternalistic crime boss, to whom Puerto Ricans should be grateful: "But what it means is fourteen families that would riot for Bodega. Fourteen families that would take a bullet for Bodega... In order for me to keep my slice, I also have to issue grants. But I take care of the community and the community will take care of me. They must, because their shelter depends on me" (Quinonez 2000: 29-30). During this conversation, Chino challenges Bodega's social responsibility in an inescapably literary irony. As they smoke pot, Chino condemns Bodega for selling drugs in el barrio; Bodega responds thus: "Any Puerto Rican or any of my Latin brothers who are stupid enough to buy that shit don't belong in my Great Society" (Quinonez 2000: 31). Regardless of what Chino believes Bodega's dreams were or are, the former Young Lord's actions are now the means to his own ends.
The Importance of Being Named
Mirroring Piri Thomas' hierarchy, Bodega prioritizes geography in identity formation. He embraces those who share his geographic loyalties and class background, not necessarily excluding others due to their national background. When Chino explains he is half-Ecuadorian, Bodega retorts: "So what? You Spanish, this is your neighborhood ... Just remember, no matter how much you learn, no matter how many books you read, how many degrees you get, in the end you are from East Harlem" (Quinonez 2000: 36). In "Getting There and Back: The Road, The Journey, and Home in Nuyorican Diaspora Literature," Solimar Otero argues "that Julio is a 'halfsie' becomes a moot point when we begin to realize that a strict biological and national essentialism cannot operate in a cultural context that is based on the more open social epistemologies that are set in place in East Harlem" (2008: 280). Part of that social epistemology is another recurring trope in the novel: the importance of being named.
Julio's biculturalism does not matter to Bodega because of his geographic origins and loyalty, but there is great significance to names in the novel, including Julio's nickname "Chino," Enrique's nickname, "Sapo," and the barrio names, East Harlem and Loisaida. Of Chino's name, Otero notes, "we learn that Julio 'earns' the name Chino for being different from the 'other' Puerto Ricans at his school in Spanish Harlem. The name 'Chino' may be exoticizing, the name literally meaning 'Chinese' in Spanish" (Quinonez 2000: 281). Chino describes himself thus: "And since I was born with high, flat cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, and straight black hair (courtesy of my father's Ecuadorian side of the family) and because kung fu movies were very popular at the time, when I was in the eighth grade, I was tagged Chino" (Quinonez 2000: 8). Beyond this orientalism, Julio becomes Chino only because the 'street' allows it. He uses the word 'tagged'--which in graffiti culture, names the symbol an artist or a gang uses to mark 'turf'--to claim ownership of specific geographic space. This language recalls Thomas' acquiescence to being named by the gang in his new neighborhood (1997: 48). By examining the other character and neighborhood names we can see how place and name still intersect and matter for Nuyoricans.
Sapo gets named early--in the fourth grade--when "he threw a book at Lisa Rivera's face because she had started to make fun of his looks by calling out 'ribbit, ribbit'. But in truth, Sapo did look like a toad" (Quinonez 2000: 1)--as the title of the chapter, "Spanish for Toad," indicates. Sapo has a range of meanings. First, it does remind readers of el coqui, the tree frog symbolic of Puerto Rico. Sapos, however, are not frogs--they are toads. In a Central American context, to be "sapo," is to be either sly or cunning, or to be extremely angry. These latter connotations seem a more apt fit for Enrique Guzman. Finally, the use of given names instead of street names, signals one's non-belonging to the street. When detectives question Chino about "an Enrique Guzman," Chino identifies them as outsiders: "That right there told me that although they were Hispanic they weren't homegrown. They knew as much about East Harlem as Oscar Lewis. Only Blanca referred to Sapo as Enrique" (Quinonez 2000: 174). Naming and the use of names establish how one is or is not allowed to belong in El Barrio.
Initially, Chino and Blanca embody the rhetoric of neoliberalism Davila interrogates (2003: 124-6). They enroll in Hunter College because they knew they "needed school if we were ever going to change ourselves" (Quinonez 2000: 13). Chino relates to the Futurists, noting, "I wanted to reinvent myself too" (Quinonez 2000: 13). Even though she wants to change, specifically to leave the crime-ridden neighborhood, Blanca criticizes people for changing their names. When she criticizes her aunt for Anglicizing her name--changing it from Vera to Veronica--Blanca claims, "I'm not going to do that. I'm going to keep my name, Nancy Saldivia, and my friends can always call me Blanca" (Quinonez 2000: 13). Her comments reveal a naivete about race privilege Thomas, Bodega, Chino, and Sapo cannot enjoy because of their dark skin, curly hair, and gender. Blanca does not have to change her given name because it is Anglo; moreover, her "light tan skin hazel eyes and beautiful mane of semibrown, semiblond, hair" allow her freedom of movement only she and one other character in the novel, Edwin Nazario, enjoy (Quinonez 2000: 9). (25) Chino notes that both Bodega and Vera had reinvented themselves: "But unlike William Carlos Irizarry, now Willie Bodega, Veronica Linda Saldivia didn't want to be considered Puerto Rican" (Quinonez 2000: 119). (26) Vera's self-invention was problematic not because of the Anglicization of her name but because of her desire to shed its Puerto Rican origins.
Willie Bodega speaks very little in the novel, which makes his descriptions of Edwin Nazario especially compelling. Bodega represents their relationship as close; yet Quinonez provides subtle hints the relationship is not as it seems. Readers see the differentiations Bodega makes between himself and Nazario; for example, Bodega identifies Nazario through his class, not his ethnicity: "He's a lawyer, but he hustled. He can still hustle because he never forgot he is street" (Quinonez 2000: 29). The two met after Bodega had left the Young Lords, while Nazario was finishing Brooklyn Law School. Bodega claims, "Nazario was in the street hustlin'. In Loisaida and East Harlem," suggesting Nazario is from the Lower East Side, not East Harlem. (27) These and other distinctions illustrate how each man is the foil of the other in racial, national, and class contexts.
While biological essentialism seems inoperative in their relationship, Bodega's local and Nazario's national epistemologies are increasingly operational. The fact that Quinonez does not use Miguel Pinero's well-known poem, "A Lower East Side Poem," for any epigraphs indicates beyond the geographic distance, there are socioeconomic and psychocultural distances between East Harlem and Loisaida. Trenton Hickman, in "The Political Left and the Development of Nuyorican Poetry," compellingly illustrates that Nuyorican poetry derives from several places, including "the early diasporic Puerto Rican colonias and their associated publications, to contact with U.S. prison culture in the 1960s and 1970s, and to the encouragement and sponsorship of various political and cultural organizations, from the Socialist and Communist parties to other avant-garde artistic movements in New York City" (Hickman 2008: 143). In discussing the movement, Hickman states it was Bimbo Rivas and Chino Garcia who "famously rechristened the Lower East Side as 'Loisaida" (Hickman 2008: 149). Hickman also describes Garcia as having tried to "reclaim the broken down buildings and other public and private spaces in the Lower East Side as part of an effort to reinvigorate that terrain for the Nuyoricans living there" (2008: 149). Clearly, it is no coincidence Julio is nicknamed Chino.
Chino is often reading materials unrelated to his business classes and is being trained, perhaps unbeknownst to him, to fight in the war against gentrification. Bodega views Chino as a future Nazario, imagining their partnership: "Nazario the lawyer and his sidekick Julio College, both Ricans helping Ricans" (Quinonez 2000: 36). Interestingly, here, Bodega uses Chino's given name, Julio, to refer to him in relationship to Nazario. Bodega also links Chino's institutional education to his given name, Julio, marking differences in Chino's relationships with Bodega and Nazario. Even more compelling to me is the fact that Nazario, not Bodega, indicates that Loisaida has been lost to gentrification and that he, Nazario, does indeed want to reclaim it: "All those white yuppies want to live in Manhattan, and they think Spanish Harlem is next for the taking" (Quinonez 2000: 107). Neither the Lower East Side nor East Harlem enjoyed a decent standard of living in relation to other parts of Manhattan such as the Upper West Side or midtown; however, the Lower East Side, postgentrification, grew in its racial and economic distance from Black Harlem's massive projects, which bordered East Harlem. Though the Lower East Side would also become home to projects, East Harlem would do so first. (28) Bohemian in the 1960s and yuppied in the 1980s, Loisaida may have been perceived as "better" than East Harlem. Because one's barrio defines one's social belonging, Nazario and Bodega have always walked different streets.
Bodega's use of the name East Harlem, not Spanish Harlem, is also significant. Nazario uses the term Spanish Harlem, illustrating the middle- and upper-class Latino assertions of Iberian identity. Chino goes back and forth between the two and Sapo just refers to the area as "the neighborhood." Bodega, Sapo, and Chino all grew up in a narrowly defined turf defended through physical fights, graffiti, and petty crime. The combination of their names and their neighborhood is what affords their belonging. Solimar Otero makes a similar point about ethnicity and place: "It is Chino's contribution to the neighborhood that 'counts' toward his 'Nuyorican' identity. ... The public artwork of his R.I.P. murals commemorating the dead of the barrio and his own upbringing, make him part of East Harlem. That the community will recognize his belonging to the space of the barrio, regardless of how he performs his latinidad in terms of national origins is the point" (2008: 281). I agree; moreover, even though he claims that Nazario is "street," Bodega's omission of him in this description is conspicuous: "B'cause men that made this country, men that built this country were men from the street. Men like you, men like me, men like Sapito" (Quinonez 2000: 25). Since Bodega praises Chino and Sapo for earning their names through fighting and we can surmise that while Nazario is his friend, Bodega does not consider Nazario a man of the street because Nazario did not earn a nickname the way he, Sapo, and Chino earned theirs. The fact that Nazario uses a formal name--he is the only character in the novel without a nickname--indicates his non-belonging in East Harlem. (29)
When Bodega first meets Chino, Bodega claims Nazario "is my brothuh, we share the same vision," which is this: "With Nazario, I intend to own this neighborhood and turn el barrio into my sandbox" (Quinonez 2000: 24-5). The fact that Bodega wants to make El Barrio his sandbox, not his and Nazario's, suggests the two men are not equal partners, nor is their vision the same. Nazario refers to something different as Bodega's vision: "He plans on building a professional class, slated to become his movers and shakers of the future" (Quinonez 2000: 106). Nazario also speaks infrequently in the novel, so the reader must pay close attention to these gaps in their articulations of "the vision." Nazario is institutionally educated; he speaks grammatically correct, nonaccented, standard American English, wears alligator shoes and expensive suits, and walks the streets without fear of being mugged or arrested. Nazario works in the public, garnering the respect Bodega urgently craves, but he is no less a criminal than Bodega. Nazario charms municipal clerks into losing, stealing, or modifying legal documents (Quinonez 2000: 99).
Eventually, Chino realizes how the two men functioned: "Nazario would lead, leaving Bodega to take all the hits, absorb the stigma, because of what he was" (Quinonez 2000: 106). Quinonez does not identify the "what," but Davila's discussion of gentrification makes the "what" clear: "... Puerto Rican nationalist discourse, which saw urban New York life and the Nuyorican--the New York born/bred Puerto Rican from El Barrio--as evidence of polluted culture, in theory always opposed to the supposedly authentic culture of the island" (2003: 121). Nazario is linked to Puerto Rico through his relationship to the Salsa Museum, his references to Santeria, and his inclusion of himself in this description of the community: "We're Boricuas! We're Latinos (Quinonez 2000: 147). When Chino says Nazario "was not some docile Latino you could push around," he definitively links Nazario to the work of the important Puerto Rican author, Rene Marques (Quinonez 2000: 108).
Marques' collection of essays, The Docile Puerto Rican (1976) is considered an exemplar of Puerto Rican nationalism; it was supportive of the Independista movement and threatening to U.S. neocolonialism. Readers see Nazario's Puerto Rican nationalist, anticolonial rhetoric when he tells Chino that after they take over Harlem, "we'll free our island without bloodshed" (Quinonez 2000: 101). He does not mean Manhattan, which is technically an island; he means Puerto Rico. In her discussion of the Young Lords, Suzanne Oboler describes the political schism between Puerto Rican Nationalists and Nuyoricans succinctly: "Those who became more convinced of the need to focus on the independence of the island clashed with others who increasingly maintained that their struggle should be limited to their barrios in the United States" (Oboler 1995: 58). Their marked difference in class and national allegiance--Bodega to being Nuyorican and Nazario to being Puerto Rican--make them strange bedfellows, if not potential adversaries.
Bodega articulates a Nuyorican perspective just as the poets, Pedro Pietri and Miguel Pinero, did. Nuyorican literary aesthetics are also reflected in the characters' speech patterns. When with Nazario, Chino's narration of his speech matches Nazario's; they both use grammatically correct, standard American English. When Nazario does speak Spanish, Chino translates it completely into English, not Spanglish. When with Sapo or Bodega, Chino narrates their speech as Spanglish. The novel never explicitly states where Bodega or Nazario is born; readers are given clues such as this assertion by Bodega: "They gave us citizenship and then sent us to the garment district," which refers to Puerto Ricans on the Island before their mass migrations starting in the 1930s (Quinonez 2000: 78). This comment by Nazario suggests he could have spent his youth on the Island: "I have an aunt in Mayaguez. She raised me (Quinonez 2000: 147). Their characterization and respective allegiances, Bodega to Nuyoricans and Nazario to Puerto Rico, suggest that Bodega is U.S-born and Nazario island-born. Even if Bodega was island-born, his commitment to a Nuyorican identity cannot be doubted when he asks, "In a few years, why not a Nuyorican president?" (Quinonez 2000: 37).
What I have been describing as the challenge of coalition amongst Puerto Ricans is aptly described in Rafael Perez-Torres' important essay, "Ethnicity, Ethics, and Latino Aesthetics." He asserts, "Ethnic identification plays into the ways Latinos engage with regimes of power, an engagement overwritten with racialized and/or nationalist identities" (Perez-Torres 2000: 538). Perez-Torres' point is especially visible in Quinonez's portrayal of two Latino detectives who interrogate Chino. Chino says, "If you want me to cooperate, answer my question, out of common courtesy, one Latino to another" (Quinonez 2000: 177). Detective Dejesus replies, "You and me having nothing in common; I'm Cuban, you're Puerto Rican" (Quinonez 2000: 177). The other detective, Ortiz, rationalizes his partner's ethnonationalism: "Mira Mercado, I was raised in Jersey but I'm originally from San Juan. I hope you understand that Dejesus is my partner ... I didn't like what he said about us, but right or wrong, I have to back my partner" (Quinonez 2000: 177). Dejesus then antagonizes his partner, and Chino does not rise above the situation; he makes derisive comments about Cubans, especially those who arrived via the Mariel Boatlift: "You're from a monkey island yourself. At least Puerto Ricans leave of their own free will. Castro kicked your ass out!" (Quinonez 2000: 177). Because such identity politics take precedent over pan-Latino identity, coalition becomes increasingly unlikely.
The most compelling evidence of the barriers to ethnonational solidarity is revealed at the novel's climax: the reunion of Bodega and Vera. From Blanca, we understood that Vera was in love with "some street activist or something" when her mother persuaded her to marry a wealthy Cuban (Quinonez 2000: 46). For Bodega, the rejection was painful, not because the other lover was Cuban but because he was not a man of the street: "I tried to explain to her who this guy was, the reason why he was rich. I was telling her that he was not a friend of the people right up to the night of the wedding" (Quinonez 2000: 79). Bodega laments that Vera rejected him for the thing of which he is most proud, being a man of the street: "She said she wouldn't mind being poor for a few years, but since I only had a vision for political stuff, I was going to be poor for the rest of my life" (Quinonez 2000: 79). Trusting Bodega's version of his failed romance, Chino assumed and readers were led to believe the street activist Vera jilted for the Cuban was Bodega.
In the novel's denouement, Willie Bodega is murdered and chaos erupts. When Chino's sister-in-law, Negra, reveals that someone from Loisaida killed Bodega, readers realize the "street activist" Vera loved was actually Nazario. And, as Blanca snidely tells Chino, we realize we, too, "have been played" (Quinonez 2000: 200). Nazario prioritized his national, class, and geographic origins over his cultural identity, betraying Bodega for the wealth of Vera's husband and the power he would usurp from Bodega. Perez-Torres' analysis of the novel form, in particular, supports my claims about the failure of pan-Puerto Rican alliance in light of the hierarchy of differences outlined in the Bodega Dreams: "Within a Latino context, this disjuncture manifests itself along numerous lines of rupture having to do with ethnicity, identity, affirmation and interrogation of tradition, the assertion of citizenship, an imposition of 'alienness' and the vagaries and delimitation of class identity, all negotiated through the creative self-destruction of the novel form" (Perez-Torres 2000: 548). Bodega's dreams are never realized because the geographic, class, and nationality differences between Lower and Upper East Side Puerto Ricans was played out between Nazario and Bodega, long before the bell rang signaling "Round One."
These Dreams Deferred
Readers must surmise Ernesto Quinonez has reserved his praise for another vision of East Harlem. (30) He opens the last section of the novel with a stanza of Miguel Pinero's poem, "La Bodega Sold Dreams," linking Bodega, Chino, and East Harlem in the rhetoric of poetic vision he began with the epigraphs from "Puerto Rican Obituary," Pietri's poem. But this last epigraph, from Pinero, has a positive tone and shifts from Pietri's moribund perspective to Pinero's poetic vision: "dreamt I was this poeta/words glitterin' brite & bold/ in las bodegas/where our poets' words & songs are sung" (quoted in Quinonez 2000: 202). These lines recall the symbolic conflation of a literal bodega, the neighborhood supermarket you went to when you needed something, and Willie Bodega, a man to whom you went when you needed something you dreamed about: a college education for your children; a small business; a decent place to live. In Latino literature more generally, bodegas are meeting places for nostalgia, for connecting to relatives through new immigrants, and for surviving cultural dislocation in hostile cities. (31) Then and today, even in areas with large Latina/o populations, most mercados simply lack what bodegas carry: products such as pasta de guayaba, platanos, and queso blanco. Thus, Pinero's poem, "La Bodega Sold Dreams," is a reminder that bodegas hold vital cultural and economic spaces in Latina/o America. The epigraph also reminders readers that the Young Lords, present in Bodega's noble moments, have a rep: they occupy turf that is the cultural and historical space called East Harlem.
June Dwyer suggests that similar to Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby assuming Gatsby's role, Chino will take up Bodega's role: "Chino, in contrast, not only stays, but as his surname Mercado suggests, will carry on Bodega's aspiration in a more evolved, more assimilated way" (2003: 171). She follows that assertion with this definition of a bodega, linking Bodega and Chino: "In name and in purpose, bodega (Spanish for those little grocery stores, often associated in the barrio with the selling of drugs) become Mercado (a larger, more legitimate American market)" (Dwyer 2003: 171). While some stores--bodegas, botanicas, or any other business in a neighborhood--could be fronts for drug sales, to assert bodegas are de facto associated often with drugs seems racist stereotyping. While Bodega does sell drugs, his profit is respect.
Dalleo and Machado Saez offer this additional critique of Dwyer's assertion about bodegas: "Still the differences between bodega and mercado are hard to reduce to this formula; to begin with, to say that a mercado is an 'American market' obscures the fact of linguistic difference. Furthermore, the final scene in which Chino becomes confused with Bodega in the minds of the newcomers to the neighborhood suggests that the mercado has become 'bodega-fied' as the novel's protagonist has gone from an atomized individual looking to make it on his own to a politically conscious representative of the community" (2007: 69). Regardless of Quinonez's intent, his portrayal of Bodega renders any image of him as a selfless activist unstable, if not moot. The respect Bodega seeks is based on illegally acquired wealth, not cultural or national pride; when others stopped caring about the people, his altruism became a means to his individual social mobility. Yet, his dreams may yet be realized because he has indeed "bodega-fied" East Harlem.
Of El Barrio Chino predicts: "Tomorrow, Spanish Harlem would run faster, fly higher, stretch its arms out farther and one day those dreams would carry its people to new beginnings" (Quinonez 2000: 213). I do not have sufficient space to adequately discuss religion in the novel, but readers should note Quinonez's use of Judeo-Christian allusion and how the efficacy of religion is questioned as ethnic minorities are sacrificed to urban renewal nationwide. Bodega sets up this context: "When the spoils of the father are being divided, I better get some or I'll have to take the booty by force. East Harlem, East L.A., South Bronx, South Central, South Chicago, Overtown in Miami, they're all the same bastard ghetto" (Quinonez 2000: 26). Chino echoes his sentiments: "They nailed his left hand to East Harlem, his right to Watts, his feet to Overtown Miami (Quinonez 2000: 139). Finally, two moments of apotheosis occur toward the novel's close. On one occasion, Bodega pretends not to be himself and tells Chino, "If you see God he won't seem that powerful anymore" (Quinonez 2000: 111). A few pages later, Chino describes Nazario's Pentecostal appearance to the people of East Harlem: "Someone appeared. Someone who looked like he came out of the fire itself. Slowly like a mirage form a desert sandstorm, a figure emerged walking toward the people. A tall, elegant man came into focus with his arms outstretched and a face of pure empathy" (Quinonez 2000: 145). This, like so many of Nazario's appearances, though, is more dream than reality.
While readers may not view any of the characters, including Bodega, as a sacrificial lamb, this variation in Chino's language obviously evokes images of Jesus Christ on the cross. In this metonym, East Harlem's outstretched arms resurrect it to "new beginnings," bringing the leitmotif of Christian suffering to its pinnacle. (32) Finally, the recurring trope of "newness" returns us to the novel's start, where Chino confesses how changing schools exposed him to modernist aesthetics: "I now left East Harlem every day and without my quite knowing it, the world became new" (Quinonez 2000: 13). Quinonez reminds readers Chino has always been more interested in language and its potential to transform.
R.I.P., Willie, a.k.a Willy, a.k.a William, Bodega
The novel closes with a beautifully literary sequence in which Chino's engagements with Modernist and Nuyorican aesthetics are united. Bodega's ghost appears to Chino in a dream, showing him the future: "You will use a new language. Words they might not teach you in that college. Words that aren't English or Spanish but at the same time are both" (Quinonez 2000: 212). I concur with Dalleo and Machado Saez's final assessment of Chino and his generation, which asserts the significance of language to the future of East Harlem: "Community is still a work in progress, under construction by these individuals when the novel ends, expressed in the metaphor of Spanglish" (Dalleo and Machado Saez 2007: 69). Because Quinonez ends the novel with a dream sequence, not a deus ex machina, we understand East Harlem will not change until Latinos enact what Spanglish enacts: a blending of Boricua and Nuyorican experiences and perspectives. The blending is critical: Chino suggests code-switching, even when perfectly fluent, makes one suspect: "It was the first time I heard [Vera] speak Spanish. It sounded as natural as her English. Like she was two people" (Quinonez 2000: 125). Vera and Nazario are the only two characters that do not speak Spanglish in the novel. Chino's comment reminds us their betrayal manifests Bodega's early warning to Chino: Nazario and Vera forgot where they came from.
It would be comforting to read the respect of Spanglish as a prophecy that Chino will realize Bodega's dreams, but the religious and cultural allusions in the final chapter, "Eulogy," suggest otherwise. Quinonez suggests community empowerment, as represented in Holy Communion, the consumption of the Eucharist, has ended: "Bodega was gone and his dreams had dissolved like a wafer in the water; his buildings would be reclaimed by the city" (Quinonez 2000: 205). The more feasible hope Nuyoricans have to avoid being a little people lies in Sapo, who believes Bodega's "underground empire was still there for the taking (Quinonez 2000: 205). Initially drawn to a 'green light of hope,' Quinonez seems to suggest Nuyoricans will fare better by rejecting neoliberalism's bait of social mobility and retaining their cultural practices: "It was a game of chicken, and after the smoke cleared, all the cocks would fight for Bodega's spoils" (Quinonez 2000: 205). (33) Chino rallies the reader, though, by exclaiming, "my money was on Sapo. Because Sapo was different" (Quinonez 2000: 205). My money is on Sapo, too, for several reasons.
Quinonez opened his novel by discussing Sapo, not Bodega. Chino repeats that he loved Sapo because he loved himself within Book I (2000: 3, 4) and Book II (2000: 85, 92). Unlike Bodega, Sapo did not need others to make him feel he was respected; unlike Chino, Sapo did not need others to feel valuable (Quinonez 2000: 11, 18). Recall, last but not least, that unlike Chino and Nazario, who code-switch between English and Spanish, depending upon their companions, Sapo "was the same around everybody, it didn't matter if it was the president of the United States or some junkie. Sapo was himself" (Quinonez 2000: 8). Thus, while Blanca and everyone else think Sapo is a valueless street thug, it is Sapo who articulates the broadest vision: "I don't wanna be some manager of a few crack houses; I wanna be part of history" (Quinonez 2000: 41). When Chino doubts him, Sapo foreshadows the novel's events: "Bodega is going to own the neighborhood. Legally. And I want to be part of it. Maybe someday, take it over when he's gone or somethin'. You too happy with your alleluia girl to understand" (Quinonez 2000: 41). Sapo combines Bodega's desire for legal acquisition of the local neighborhood and Nazario's desire for nationalist recuperation that could get Puerto Rico, to use boxing taxonomy just once more, off the United States' neocolonial ropes.
Bodega's street education and desire for social mobility made him vulnerable to betrayal by Nazario, whose sweeping vision was to redefine national boundaries, not local ones. Willie Bodega becomes Willy Loman, Arthur Miller's quintessential self-made salesman whose dreams also brought about his death. In Death of A Salesman, Willy Loman could not survive the industrialization and youth culture obsession of post-war 1950s America. In Bodega Dreams, Quinonez foreshadows Willie Bodega's fall, replacing Loman's happy delusions with Bodega's tragic memories: "Bodega's eyes ... were pools of ghosts and sadness" (Quinonez 2000: 98). Willie Bodega could not survive the newly mean streets of post-Civil Rights 1970s East Harlem.
Once Nazario is arrested for Bodega's murder, Sapo might just be able to jump-start Harlem. Chino uses the same language to describe his R.I.P.s at the novel's start: "I painted dozens of R.I.Ps for guys in El Barrio who felt small and needed something violent to jump start their lives and at the same time to end them" (Quinonez 2000: 6). Chino notes this about the R.I.P.s: "It was guys like these who on any given day were looking to beat someone up, so it was up to me to either become like them or get the shit kicked out of me" (Quinonez 2000: 6). I prefer to read Chino's portrayal of Bodega as an extensive R.I.P. In contrast to Bodega's expectations, "... no cars were overturned. No fires were set. No cops were conked" (Quinonez 2000: 204). At the funeral, the "entire barrio was there" and Quinonez catalogs East Harlem's literary, cultural, and political greats (Quinonez 2000: 206-8). This passage, if not the whole novel, ought also be read as a R.I.P. for the social activists of Piri Thomas' generation.
In the chapter, "Eulogy," Chino states, for the third time and most emphatic time, Willie Bodega's given name: "When I go back to Spanish Harlem, the sun had set. It had set for the first time on the remains of William Carlos Irizarry" (Quinonez 2000: 211). In the moment Willie tells Chino Spanglish "is a poem," Quinonez transforms Willie Bodega into the important American poet, William Carlos Williams, whose free verse made poetry a new language (Quinonez 2000: 212). Readers might especially appreciate this conflation, as Williams was also a "halfsie:" his father was British and his mother, Puerto Rican. (34) Quinonez has masterfully united the literary, visual, and musical aesthetics of Modernists and Nuyoricans. Because R.I.P.s are respected and not painted over by rival graffiti artists, unlike 'tags,' Bodega Dreams is an exquisite R.I.P., memorializing Nuyoricans' place in East Harlem.
The author (email@example.com) is Assistant Professor of English at University of South Florida. Her research areas include Chicana/o, Latina/o, and Hispanic Caribbean Literatures. Her work has appeared in Hispanic Caribbean Literatures of Migration: Narratives of Displacement (2010) and journals including Antipodas (2009), Contemporary Literature (2007), and Comparative American Studies (2006).
This essay is dedicated to my father, Raymond Joseph Irizarry, an East Harlem Nuyorican who "missed the movement" but never forgets where he comes from, Fox Street. I would like to thank my colleagues and the Anonymous Reviewers for Centro, whose generous comments improved this article substantially.
(1) This essay is a revision of a portion of my forthcoming manuscript, Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction: The New Memory of Latinidad (University of Illinois Press, 2016). The manuscript performs close, comparative readings of Cuban, Dominican, Mexican, and Puerto Rican American literatures, illustrating the literatures' central concern to be empowerment within ethnic communities, not the Anglo American mainstream. The chapter this essay is drawn from analyzes two Puerto Rican texts that challenge static notions of ethnonationalism: Judith Ortiz Cofer's The Latin Deli: Telling the Lives of Barrio Women (1993) and Ernesto Quinonez's Bodega Dreams (2001).
(2) My project in this essay is not to perform a close comparison of the two novels; rather, I wish to illustrate what I believe to be Quinonez's larger project in relation to Nuyorican literary aesthetics. For extended discussions of Thomas' novel, see Caminero-Santangelo (2004) and Sanchez (2005).
(3) I am using the term ethnonationalism as discussed extensively by political scientist Walker Connor (1994). For scholarship particular to Puerto Rican ethnonationalism, see Negron-Muntaner and Grosfoguel (1997).
(4) See Arreola (2004) for a discussion of the shifting Latino populations in New York and other major urban areas.
(5) In his "Overview to Hispanic American Literature," Kanellos (2003) argues that Puerto Rican writers espouse Native perspectives in narratives that demand civil and cultural rights. This is explicit in the work of Nuyorican Poets, who articulate distinct Nuyorican, not Puerto Rican, identities.
(6) See Baribeau (2011) for a discussion of the shifting Latina/o population in Florida. One statistic Baribeau reports: "Florida Puerto Ricans, moving from the island and other mainland enclaves, grew 50.7 percent statewide from 2000 to 2009 to 726,637, or 4.5 percent of the total, the census community data show, while Cubans rose 30.7 percent to 1,088,747, or 5.9 percent." See also Jorge Duany's case study, "Mickey Ricans? The Recent Puerto Rican Diaspora to Florida," (2012).
(7) This is also true of the Nuyorican author, Edward Rivera; in a posthumous special journal issue devoted to the author, Lyn Di Iorio Sandin asserts, "this type of repression among Latinos leads to a rejection of solidarity among ourselves" (2002: 109). Moreover, Di Iorio Sandin's connection of these ethnonational politics is helpful in understanding the challenge Quinonez faces: "Such insidiously varied fetishization goes a long way toward explaining why this wonderful book has been overlooked by Nuyorican and Puerto Rican writers and critics for such a long time" (2002: 109). Bodegaa Dreams has suffered a lack of attention akin to Rivera's Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic (1983).
(8) Chango's Fire (2004), Quinonez's second novel, examines gentrification and forcefully indicts Puerto Ricans for losing Thomas' hard-won turf. This novel was out of print as early as 2010.
(9) I retain the geographic and taxonomic distinction of "East Harlem" to be consistent with Bodega. See Sharman (2006), who delineates East Harlem's boundaries as 5th avenue to the West, 125th Street to the North, the East River to the East and 96th Street to the South.
(10) For recent discussions of urban renewal specific to East Harlem, see Davila (2003). See also Chapter 8 of Sharman (2006).
(11) This term refers to one's "authentic" Puerto Ricanness.
(12) Thomas referred to it as an "autobiographical novel." See Thomas' website: http://www.cheverote. com/.
(13) Jumping-in is the process where a prospective gang member gets beaten up by the rest of the gang members.
(14) Because I focus on a shift in hierarchy in Quinonez's text, I will not repeat a review of race theory on Thomas. See Caminero-Santangelo (2003) and Sanchez (2005) extensive critical discussions of race in Thomas.
(15) For a review and comparison of US Latino and Caribbean Hispanic writers of Thomas' time, including Pietri and Mohr, see Luis (1997).
(16) For a discussion of the relationship between The Great Gatsby (1925) and Bodega Dreams (2000), see Dwyer (2003).
(17) See Dalleo and Machado Saez (2007) for a detailed analysis of the poems' roles in the novel.
(18) I do not have adequate space to discuss the significance of music in the novel. Bodega's cousin, Nene, is often singing fragments of hit songs. Nene functions as a Greek Chorus often revealing information to the reader that Chino cannot determine on his own.
(19) For a close consideration of how gender constructs relate to ethnic identity in Thomas, see Caminero-Santangelo (2003) and Sanchez (2005).
(20) Bodega Dreams draws surprisingly little on the religious practice of Santeria. When Sapo, Chino, and Nene go to a Santera, Dona Ramonita, Chino describes her as having "strong African roots from Puerto Rico's Loiza Aldea" (Quinonez 2000: 51). She shares her vision of Vera as "coming with a lot of trouble" (Quinonez 2000: 53). In Bodega's refusal to heed her warning, he symbolically rejects Puerto Rican identity.
(21) Pedro Pietri (d. 2004) was an important Nuyorican poet and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe. His work is widely anthologized for its value as protest poetry, bilingual expression, and stylistic innovation.
(22) "Operation Bootstrap" was the name of an initiative began during the administration of Governor Luis Munoz Marin. It altered the economic and cultural nature of the Island, resulting in mass migrations increasing the Puerto Rican presence in Harlem after 1952, when the Island officially became a "free associated state" of the U.S.
(23) The trope of the "ethnic gaze" Sollors articulates about resonates clearly in this novel. Drawing on WE.B. Du Bois' concept of "double consciousness;" Werner Sollors asserts, "Double consciousness characters may be attracted to mirrors, reflecting windows, or smooth surfaced ponds" (1986: 249).
(24) On July 18, 2013, as I edited revised this essay, one of the lead stories about social media was the report that more than twenty individuals tweeted racist comments when Nuyorican superstar Marc Anthony sang the national at the 2013 MLB All Star Game in New York City's Citi Field. The tweets included ignorant assumptions about his ethnicity (he is Puerto Rican); his nationality (he is an American citizen because he was born in the United States and he is a Puerto Rican born after 1917); his linguistic ability (he is fully bilingual and sung the anthem in English). This is a perfect example of the lack of respect Nuyoricans often face.
(25) Blanca's physical representation twins the appearance and character of Maria, as portrayed by Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Chino makes several references to the film. For an excellent discussion of the radicalization of Puerto Ricans in the film, as well as a discussion of the character named Chino in it, see Negron-Muntaner (2000).
(26) This is the first of three mentions of Bodega's full, given name; given Chino's discourse on the Futurists, I can only surmise Bodega's given name is a variation on the modern poet's, William Carlos Williams.
(27) The place name Loisaida is derived from the Spanglish pronunciation of the Lower East Side or someone from it: a Lower East Sider. There is also a Puerto Rican coastal city named Loizaida, associated with African cultural expression and resistance to U.S. neocolonialism, from which the neighborhood name may have developed. See Hickman (2008) for further discussion.
(28) For an extensive discussion of gentrification in East Harlem, see Davila (2003).
(29) Chino describes R.I.P.s as graffiti memorials to men killed because of criminal activity. For a discussion of R.I.P.s, see Chapter 1 of Sharman (2006).
(30) This section title is drawn from Langston Hughes' terrifically important poem, "Dream Deferred." The poem was originally titled "Harlem 2" in Montage of A Dream Deferred (1951); in the Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1959), the title was changed to "Dream Deferred."
(31) See Rhina Espaillat's poem, "Bodega," and Judith Ortiz Cofer's "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica" for examples.
(32) For an extensive discussion of religion in Quinonez's work, particularly in Chango' Fire, see Mendez (2011).
(33) Quinonez is making a reference to the illegal sport of fighting roosters (cocks) typical in Caribbean culture.
(34) For all three literary/visionary men present in Bodega Dreams--Piri Thomas, Julio Mercado, William Carlos Williams--the men's Puerto Rican identity is derived matrilineally. This resonates in the discourses on the oral tradition of storytelling in much Latina and Latino literature.
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|Publication:||CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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