The novel was hailed as a "new immigration classic" when it was published in 2000. Now, author Ernesto Quiñonez reflects on how the industry has remained stuck in time for too long.

By Rosy Cordero
March 23, 2020 at 02:42 PM EDT
Scarlet Quiñonez

It's been 20 years since Ernesto Quiñonez released his highly praised debut novel Bodega Dreams. The Spanish Harlem neighborhood where the author grew up, and where the book takes place, has changed quite a bit — much to his chagrin. And then, other things in much deeper need of change have remained frustratingly stuck in time.

Bodega Dreams tells the story of a dreamer named Willie Bodega and all the lives he touched, including Chino, a scrappy junior high school student at Julia de Burgos, and his best friend Sapo. The story follows the pair into adulthood when Chino is married to his school crush Blanca, who becomes pregnant while working towards her college degree. And Sapo, now a career criminal and employee of Bodega, who knows how to guilt trip his best friend into doing most anything.

Bodega dreamed of a cultural renaissance for his predominantly Latino neighborhood by lifting up its economically challenged citizens like Chino, investing in their education, and teaching them the importance of paying it forward. The novel received widespread praise when it was release in 2000, with The New York Times going so far as to hail it a "new immigrant classic."

Vintage

But what would Quiñones' hero think about his neighborhood, now heavily gentrified, today? "Willie Bodega would be heartbroken, and his dreams would be crushed," Quiñones tells EW. "He had a wonderful idea and it didn’t even have a chance to grow. But he did plant the idea in the young people and there’s a lot of young professional Latinos who are doing absolutely wonderful things. Latinos who believe in upward mobility and not just being victims. Yes, the man is real, and the man is out to get me. But we don’t stay with that victimization, we continue on and fight twice as hard so we can get our share of America."

No matter how the neighborhood has changed, Quiñones remains dedicated to Spanish Harlem. And although he's moved on from the world he created in his novel, he will never give up on Bodega's dream.

“I visit the world in the sense that I go to Spanish Harlem 'til this day. I’m part of the community," Quiñones says. "I was just at the East Harlem School recently and I spoke about me growing up and how with good luck and good parenting you can stay out of trouble. And about loving yourself and loving art. In that way, I do visit the book’s world but not the characters, really. Like every other artist, you want to do different things. I’m not Hollywood, I don’t do sequels. That’s just the way I am.”

Quiñones may not be Hollywood yet but he's already dipping his toes into feature writing. Actor and comedian Luis Guzman is currently working on adapting the novel for the big screen, and he went directly to the source to help him bring this story to life in a very big way.

“I'm writing the story," Quiñones reveals. "I'm collaborating with the screenplay writer. Luis understands the story really well, he really loves it and is going to do a wonderful job. He loved the idea of having JLo play Negra at first. But he said that Rosario Dawson really loves the part, so he says he’s going to ask her to play Negra."

Since his debut, Quiñones has published follow-up novels Chango's Fire (2004) and Taina (2019); he's currently finishing up a new story he's really excited about. He's currently in a moment of reflection, too, on the two-decade anniversary of his groundbreaking first book. He remembers how challenging it was for a Latino author to get published back then, and what challenges they still face today.

"I mentioned this back in '99 when I was just getting published and Memoirs of a Geisha had just come out. That was written by a white man in the first-person as if it was a Japanese woman. And that book got pushed, I mean 75,000 copies hardcover right off the bat, with a lot of backing and a lot of attention and a lot of hype," he says. "I always wonder what would happen if a Japanese-American would have written that book, would they have backed it up the same way? And that's what we have in publishing still today. If you want to say that that is not systematic racism, I don’t know what is.”

He adds, "They’ve opened up a bit when it comes to publishing Latinos, they are publishing more of our stories. But no book, that I can remember from when I was growing up to this day — not even Sandra Cisnero’s Caramelo — got anywhere near the attention or the backing that the publishing houses have given a book like American Dirt."

In the end, what matters to Quiñones is the difference he can make in the lives of those like Chino and Sapo. Bodega may have been a fictional character, but a lot of his dreams are shared with his creator.

"When I see students reading Bodega Dreams, it makes me happy," Quiñones says. "Students come up to me and say, ‘You know, I went to college because of Bodega Dreams. I'm like, that's it. That's my Pulitzer right there. And it happens pretty often.”

Although Quiñones prefers not to dwell on the characters he created all those years ago, he shared an update on where he imagines they'd be today in honor of the book's big anniversary: Chino and Blanca never broke up; their kid, Woolfie (short for Wolfgang), is running for the Senate in Florida. (He hates Marco Rubio.) Blanca has freed herself from the constraints of her old beliefs, now thriving in a powerful DC job working on behalf of women. Sapo has moved from drug dealing to insider trading; he's a white-collar criminal, now. Claudia and Roberto are in DC, too, lobbying for open borders and helping immigrants who’ve come to the United States undocumented.

Quiñones' passion for these lives, and these dreams, shines through as he imagines their lives now in more and more detail, mentioning more and more characters from his sprawling ensemble. The book feels bigger than its namesake now, in fact. Says Quiñones, "You can see how Bodega’s dream is still very much alive in them, regardless if they met him or not."

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