Chango's Fire by Ernesto Quinonez is a rather unusual type of story. It centers on a Puerto Rican man who works two jobs: one in construction and another in insurance fraud. Julio’s job is to burn down buildings in his neighborhood of Spanish Harlem so that people can collect the insurance money and use it to build nicer pieces of property, thus creating upscale neighborhoods that weren’t there before.
Quinonez’s story doesn’t focus totally on the arson issue. It’s really a story filled with race issues, religion, and the reality of illegal immigrants trying to start a new life in what they thought was this wonderful country called America. Most of them find out that their dreams don’t come true, and that their lives don’t turn around just because they crossed the border.
Interspersed throughout the novel, colorful characters make this book even more interesting, including Maritza, an extremely radical woman who runs a church in order to spout off left-wing political "propaganda". Her goal in life is to "save" people. In one scene, she is taking a pregnant girl to a clinic to "revirginize" her, since she is getting married the following week,and her husband will kill her if there is no blood on the sheets that wedding night. The outcome of this situation is even worse than anticipated, a shame that will follow this young girl and her family for the rest of their days.
Another interesting character is Papelito, a very gay dark skinned Santero priest who mixes Catholicism and African mysticism to create a different type of religion. He also is trying to “save" the people in his neighborhood, doing what he feels is his part in the community by befriending those who need help.
And poor Trompo Loco, who spins out of control when he is upset, who cannot get his own father to acknowledge his existence, is yet another wonderfully created character. His history is a mystery, and his future is very unclear. All he wants is to have his father talk to him, to admit that they are related. Trompo may not have all his marbles, but the reader will see that he has his heart in the right place and means no harm to anyone.
The main character, Julio, is born into this interesting neighborhood filled with immigrants and various persons of diverse ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. But a part of him is trying to rise above the ghetto, so he goes to night school in an attempt to better himself by getting a degree. He tells his "boss" Eddie (the so-called father of Trompo) that he wants out of the insurance fraud scam, but Eddie won't let him go. Eddie feels that Julio is his best employee, but Julio cannot live with the guilt any longer and does not want his parents ever to know where the money comes from that feeds them and gives them shelter.
One key person who comes into Julio’s life is Helen, a white woman not from this neighborhood but one of many who move into Julio’s territory and threaten to change the status quo in Spanish Harlem. Julio has conflicting feelings for Helen and feels an attraction for her, as she does for him. Theirs is a complicated relationship, a relationship this reviewer had a somewhat difficult time understanding, a feeling that was probably shared by Julio. Why was he spending so much time with Helen? They had a sexual attraction between them, but it was the mix of two worlds that seemed to be on the verge of colliding with very bad results. Helen can never know about his secret life as an arsonist, and this is yet another person Julio must lie to in order to save the relationship.
I have to confess that Chango's Fire was not an easy read. Although looking back, this book was excellent in terms of the message it told and the way the novel was laid out, in some ways readers may find themselves feeling somewhat detached from the characters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but Chango's Fire overall is not a feel-good type of story. While some of the characters are fun and outlandish and stand out like sore thumbs, the main characters are people who don’t seem true to their natures, and this reviewer had a hard time feeling sympathy for Julio, at least in the beginning. It may be hard for some to understand why a man would choose to destroy in order to make a living, and how one could live with that type of guilt for so long. However, I give Chango's Fire four stars, for being a story that goes outside the box.