“Taina,” Vintage, by Ernesto Quinonez
It’s been 15 years since writer Ernesto Quinonez has released a novel. His 2004 “Chango’s Fire” served as a protest novel for Latinos in a post-Sept. 11 New York still struggling with poverty and discrimination. And his 2000 “Bodega Dreams” of a Puerto Rican-style “The Great Gatsby” remains a classic in U.S. Latino literature.
With his latest work, “Taina,” the Spanish Harlem-raised novelist takes a big swing to pay homage to Puerto Rican literature and Nuyorican history while crafting a captivating tale amid gentrification, perseverance and inequality set in one of the most famous Latino neighborhoods in the world.
The novel centers on Julio, a 17-year-old high school student who regularly experiences visions and who has fallen in love with a 15-year-old pregnant neighbor, Taina. The young girl and her mother tell everyone they have no idea how she’s gotten pregnant and even make their case to their Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation. However, the elders of the congregation don’t buy the story and kick them both out.
Julio, however, is convinced Taina is telling the truth and wants to do everything to get close to her. To do that, Julio must figure out why Taina, her mother and a mysterious tall man in a cape called “El Vejigante” only go out at night and sit in silence all day in their tenement apartment.
He soon gets drawn into a risky hustle to earn money and help Taina with baby supplies. Taina’s mother also needs money for a spiritual leader to visit her daughter and find out how this pregnancy occurred.
Like his main character, Julio, Quinonez is the son of an Ecuadorian father and a religious Puerto Rican mother who lived in Spanish Harlem during the rough 1970s and 1980s that saw the big blackout, heroin and crack epidemics and the rise of hip-hop and slam poetry. So, it’s easy to trust Quinonez’s voice about the struggles and changes of those living in Spanish Harlem.
But the power of “Taina” comes from Quinonez bringing to life characters from previous work of Puerto Rican literature and popular culture in a new work. For example, “El Vejigante” is the reincarnation of Salvador Agron, the Puerto Rican gang member convicted in 1959 of killing two white teenagers in a Hell’s Kitchen park. Yes, Agron was resurrected in a 1998 musical “The Capeman” by Paul Simon and Derek Walcott. In “Taina,” Agron is a broken ex-con struggling to make amends and find forgiveness.
Quinonez also plays homage to Pedro Juan Soto’s “Usmail” — a 1959 novel about life on the small Puerto Rican Island of Vieques centered on a boy fathered by an American. Taina stares at the mailbox from her apartment and wants to name her baby Usmail.
And of course, much of the action takes place when Julio and someone are down by the schoolyard (think Paul Simon song).
In his own way, Quinonez is connecting Nuyoricans to a Puerto Rican artistic diaspora and yelling, “we matter, our stories matter.” He’s right. These stories matter. So does this one.