LAWRENCE — Growing up in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, Ernesto Quinonez said it was thought there were only two ways of leaving the “hood” — dead or joining the Army.
But he found another way. He got an eduction.
Quinonez, author of “Chango’s Fire” and “Bodega Dreams, “ spoke to Lawrence High students yesterday about activism in today’s world as part of the White Fund lecture series.
”Activism today is bettering yourself. When you read and write, you better yourself, then you get what you want and what you need. That’s the power of education,” he told them.
”Bodega Dreams” was selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title; Borders Bookstore Original new selections; New York Public Library, 25 Books to Remember and the New York Times, Notable Books.
Quinonez was born in Ecuador to a Puerto Rican mother and Ecuadorian father and grew up in Spanish Harlem.
Living next to the Upper East Side and seeing youngsters his age attend private high schools and colleges, Quinonez said his major obstacle was low self-esteem and not believing he could go to college.
”It was only when I realized that I’m just as good as they are, or better because I didn’t have to buy it, I can create it,” Quinonez said.
During his talk, he encouraged the students not to be “overwhelmed with what you see or hear, you’re just as good as they are, it’s inequality of income,” he said. “You get it back through education, which is the most non-violent way of fighting back.”
”The opportunities are there, you just have to take them. You go out and do something amazing. It starts with caring, education and knowing what you want,” Quinonez said.
Quinonez told students his first job was as a bicycle messenger earning $3.35 an hour. He worked alongside men who were older than him and had families.
”I didn’t want to be doing this when I was 30,” he said. He attended City College of New York for data processing, but after taking an English course fell in love with it. After getting a degree in English and Latino studies, he taught fourth grade in the South Bronx in the 1990s.
Quinonez said he was inspired to become a writer out of his desire to tell his life story.
“I wanted to tell the world about my dreams, hopes and fears. It was like being in a field surrounded by nothing and yelling, ‘I exist, this is what I believe and these are my dreams.’” he said.
Quinonez told aspiring writers to read, to visit museums, listen to music and watch movies.
“By reading you live through other people’s stories and learn about plots, in museums you get color, through music you get rhythm and in movies you learn about dialogue and characters,” Quinonez said.
Among the people who inspired him was his mother who brought him groceries when he lived on his own, his sixth grade teacher who took them on field trips so they could experience life outside Spanish Harlem. His middle school teacher, the late Jose Tapia because of his teaching style. Quinonez memorialized Tapia in “Bodega Dreams.”
Singer Marc Anthony also had Tapia as a teacher and after reading the book invited Quinonez to dinner to talk about their teacher.
Quinonez said “Bodega Dreams” is a retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” but instead of selling alcohol during Prohibition, Bodega sells drugs.
”He’s not just making money, he is trying to create a Latino professional class in Harlem,” Quinonez said.
Other than the first chapter, the story of “Bodega Dreams” is not autobiographical.
”I’m sprinkled over the book. I was a Christian growing up so my philosophy and traits are all in there,” he said.
Students like Junior Cruz, a senior in the Performing and Fine Arts High School was impressed by Quinonez.
”I liked the message that no matter what race you are, you can make it. It won’t be easy, but if you believe in yourself and God, anything is possible,” Cruz said.