SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
JOHN HICKEY: Hi, I'm John Hickey. I'm a lecturer in the English department. I teach freshman writing seminars. I'm honored and privileged to introduce to you Ernesto Quinonez. I've never taken any of his classes, but I still consider myself a student of his. And not long ago I was reading aloud to him, for the fourth time, an early draft of a short story of mine he'd already read previously. Five different drafts, different orders and incarnations of the same story I'd worked on for two years. This draft had only changed only a few choice passages, some paragraphs here and there, phrases.
Halfway through my reading, I looked over to seeing him deep in thought, nodding, mentally arranging words here and there, stopping me from time to time to give his advice. This should sound like this, just cut that. And after I read my last line, after he finally said, this is a story, this is a real story, I thought I might have something worthwhile. At the same time I thought, Ernesto, what is wrong with you, man? What is wrong with you? Why subject yourself to this, the ninth readthrough of a poor short story? Why put yourself through so much pain and so much labor?
At the time I wasn't able to make the distinction between compulsion and dedication, and what I was really witnessing was Ernesto's dedication to the teaching of the art of fiction. He lives for the moments when he's able to tell a student, this is a story. This is happening. Finish this. Anyone who knows Ernesto knows his commitment, his love for the development of student fiction from his beginning 280 students to the graduate seminars he's teaching this spring.
Ernesto is the author of Bodega Dreams, published in 2000, which earned a selection to the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers program, also a New York Times notable book, an LA Times notable book. In 2004 HarperCollins published his second novel, Chango's Fire. Both works are emotionally honest recreations of his home in Spanish Harlem, celebrations of the neighborhood that raised him, a place that exists now in memory, a culture in a losing battle with gentrification. He strives to connect this culture to the American experience. He blends the traditions of F. Scott Fitzgerald, JD Salinger, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Walter Mosley, Helena Viramontes, Nuyorican poetry, and others to keep his history alive and culturally significant.
Talent, determination, dedication, loyalty to the work of his students, Ernesto brings all of us to our little community of writers here at Cornell. Despite his proclivity for groan-inducing jokes-- some of us know what we're talking about== we're all very lucky to have him around. So ladies and gentlemen, please help me welcome Ernesto Quinonez.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: So I'd like to thank John for that great introduction. There was always beer in your house, so I'll listen to stories if there's beer.
I'd also like to thank the other lecturers and I'd like to thank the Cleveland people, my colleagues as well as students, and also my colleagues-- and I'm reading [INAUDIBLE], who's as beautiful on the page as she is walking down the street, and John, who is beautiful on the page.
And this is an excerpt of a novel. This is basically a rewriting of a universal myth. Every culture seems to have one. This version belongs to Spanish Harlem, New York City. It's called [INAUDIBLE]. This is the first book of Julio, chapter 1, verse 1.
"It had worked for Mary, and so when at 13 Taina Flores got pregnant, she declared that it had been an immaculate conception, that someone or some force had entered her project, had taken the elevator, punched her floor, and then stepped off, only to dematerialize its body so as to drift into her bedroom like smoke or mist and change Taina's life forever. Of course, no one in the neighborhood believed Taina, though every Sunday everyone believes Mary.
The elders in our Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses didn't believe Taina. Time and time again they sit her down, pleading with her to confess her sin, but Taina stuck to her story. The elders even questioned Taina's mother, Sister Flores, and she vowed in Jehovah's name that her daughter had never been with a boy or a man, that she had taught her daughter well. [SPEAKING SPANISH], she said.
Sister Flores continued to tell the elders that she kept so close an eye on her daughter that she was sure that Taina didn't even masturbate. Her reply had made the elders a bit uncomfortable. They slouched in their chairs a bit, and one of them, Elder Miguel Vasquez, went on a long speech about though a sin, that couldn't have made her pregnant. But the ice had been broken and so the elders inquired about Taina's cycles, was she late, early, did they vary, what type of pads did she wear, the inserted ones shaped like a man's body part or the adhesive ones? By this time, all the air had gone flat in Taina's life, so deflated and broken, that it was Sister Flores who answered all the questions.
The trial went on for weeks. Every Sunday after service, the two women were called by the elders to come into a small cold room and talk things through. Though heartbroken and embarrassed that the entire congregation was now laughing behind her back, Sister Flores stood by her daughter's story. The elders went so far as to agree to accompany Taina and her mother to Metropolitan Hospital so Taina could see a doctor who would confirm that she was no longer a virgin. But Taina and Sister Flores refused. Time and time again they refused.
'I have told the men of God the truth,' she said. 'My daughter is pure.' This left the elders with no choice but to expel Taina, certifying her no longer a Jehovah's Witness and therefore not worthy of receiving eternal life. That day, Sister Flores cursed at the elders in the street. Sister Flores spewed out so many curses, it was as if she was exorcising all the anger felt by all the women in the third world.
[SPEAKING SPANISH] she pleaded with God and men. They play us like dominoes, like dominoes, they play us with no love at all.
For her public show of ingratitude, the elders kicked Sister Flores out of the truth as well. In fact, she had disrespected men appointed by Holy Spirit, men who had been chosen by Christ himself to take care of His sheep. It was from then on that Sister Flores and Taina became an odd sight in the neighborhood, because they never spoke much after that, to each other or to anyone. In the street they walked hand in hand, mother clutching daughter, and only made customary visits to places like the supermarket or the check cashier. In fact, I believe that there were places in Spanish Harlem that the two had never been to or would ever visit, like a movie rental, a beauty salon, or a cafe.
The two women were always alone and it seemed that even among crowds nothing ever disturbed them. Not catcalls from the corner boys directed at Taina, not gossip from hair salon women directed at Sister Flores. At school Taina was no different. She sat alone, rarely spoke, and got lost among a sea of teenagers. She never cared for new clothes, makeup, music, or anything of the sort. Like her mother, she would smile when smiled upon, but would not talk, as if her smile was telling you she was not your enemy, but she did not care for your friendship.
The boys liked her. They all fell in love with her, but soon they lost interest when Taina would not respond. Instead she stared straight ahead at walls or anything in front of her as if the person talking to her did not exist. She wouldn't talk to the girls either, and if I remember this well-- it had been a long time-- Taina had been in one of my classes. It was biology. And I think all she ever said was "rabbit".
Shame, they said that it was a shame that had turned these two women to become like monks, as if all their lives would be spent in a room by themselves doing penance. They said it was a shame, a truth that the entire neighborhood knew, but the two single women were afraid to face, and therefore shut the door on everyone and everything.
They said Sister Flores had been the worst of mothers. They said Sister Flores should have known better, that even as a child, any mother could see that Taina Flores was going to be beautiful and therefore bring trouble. And now at 13, when her eyes sparkle like lakes, and when her breast have gone from these things that boys made fun of to things that boys now wanted to hold in the dark, this sort of disaster was certain to have happened.
And so after the tragedy, counselors from school and public services were sent to call upon 1829 on Lexington Avenue, Apartment 5B. Detectives made visits to ask to take the reports, but Sister Flores never opened the door, and soon to cut down on these unwanted observations, Sister Flores pulled Taina right out of school. No papers were filed, no home schooling was used as pretext, Taina one day just stopped attending.
Sister Flores would now be the only one of the two women you would ever see on the street, and she was either carrying groceries or going to cash a welfare check at the [INAUDIBLE]. In time, when the gossip was no longer fresh or biting, the entire neighborhood found better things to do and started treating the two women the way they wanted to be treated and left them alone.
I once entered Sister Flores' project. I took the elevator and punched Taina's floor. When I stepped out, my heart was racing as if I was about to disturb an infant child that should be left sleeping. Still, I stealthily walked towards the door, apartment 5B, and when I got close enough, I placed my left ear next to it. What I heard was complete silence, as if the apartment was empty and ready to be rented out. I kept my ear glued to the door for a long while, and when the neighbor in apartment 5A caught me, she said that she had done the same and that I wouldn't hear a thing. She said that no sounds escape from underneath the door of 5B, as if not even dead people live there, she said, for even dead people, she said, make noises.
It was on that night that I had this glorious vision of people from all over the world making pilgrimages to Spanish Harlem so they might get a glimpse at a pregnant virgin. They placed their ears to the door of 5B like I had, and if they were lucky, they might be blessed by hearing a sigh escaping from Taina's lungs. I was so sure this was going to happen, this miracle was bound to reach the faithfuls, I thought. In El Barrio the word had already started to spread. It was heard by everyone. Some had shrugged, some had laughed, but it was only a matter of time before 5B in 1829 in Lexington Avenue would be known as the project that housed a living saint.
But this didn't happen, at least not that way. I mean, not a single tabloid TV show from Telemundo ever came by, not even a reporter from El Vocero, not even a fucking public access cultish program from cable, nothing. Instead, everyone believed in the unfortunate shame that had befallen Taina. The man who had done this to her was probably the same man who had been going around the neighborhood stalking young girls. This man would be bargain shopping for women on the street like one bargain shops for a dress or shoes at department stores. This man was known to follow his prey all the way to their apartment doors and come up behind them with a knife, demanding your life or your eyes, and this man had done great harm and many believed that he was the father to the child.
But I didn't. I believed Taina. I believed in Taina so much that when the man who many said was the father was caught and sent away, I took all the money my mother had given me to buy new jeans and sneakers and caught the Metro North train to Ossining. I had remembered his name from reading [SPANISH]. And though I had never visited a prison before, I naively thought that since I knew his name I could show up like it was a hospital and say I'm here to visit Orlando Castillo and be let inside.
I was 15 at the time, and so I was underage and the fat guy at the front gate wouldn't even let me sign in. He told me that I needed an adult who was family to this man, this Orlando Castillo, and then I could only come when the inmate was scheduled to receive visits. I said to the guard that I just wanted to ask the man one question, just one question, and that it will not take long, but the guard had no time for me. There were tons of families waiting in line to sign in so they could then hop on a bus that would take them to the compound, and I was holding up the line.
I left angry because it had been a long and expensive trip, a train and then a bus to get there. But most importantly, I had no answer to my question, did you ever visit apartment 5B in 1829 Lexington Avenue. I was sure that that man would have laughed at me, or most likely, he'd say that he couldn't remember, which I would have taken both as a no, and therefore Taina's story would be proven to be true. I wanted this answer more to convince other people, those that were still skeptical, those that did not believe. I wanted the answers for them, for the unfaithful.
So angry was I that the next Sunday after our Kingdom Hall meeting was over, I voiced my beliefs to the elders. I told them that I thought Taina was telling the truth and that the elders had done an injustice. I said to these elders, these wise men of God, that Mary was raped too, that I had read all the gospels and never did God ask for Mary's permission, that all that happened was Gabriel had appeared during the annunciation and said you will have a child and he will bring peace, end of discussion. I said that Mary was never given a choice. She had no choice but to accept God entering her. Was there really a difference between what had happened to Mary and what had happened to Taina? In fact, I said, if it is true that we are all God's children, then what we are talking about in regards to Mary's case, it's not only rape but incest as well.
For this, the elders call me an apostate and my mother beat the shit out of me.
Later, they spoke privately to her. But in tears, I began to question why I had taken so much interest in Taina. Why couldn't I sleep at night, eat much, or believe in anything that contradicted my true hope, that Taina had been visited by some divine force or thing? Was I in love with her? Was it me believing that she was still a virgin, in some way, my idea of keeping her all to myself? Of course I was in love with her, but even at 15, if I remember well, something deep inside me, in a place that I hardly knew was there, told me that this love for Taina was more than just some silly crush. It was more like a sadness once feels for neglected children or flowers.
It was this love that on that day led me to believe that I had not been called to do great things, but rather, everydayness, simple and direct actions that will help propel a historic story.
It was not long after my examination that I began to worry about Taina's unborn child, as if the baby needed me. I started to save all my allowance, which wasn't much, just $5 a week for my mother, and I began buying gifts for Taina's child. I bought shoes, clothes, Pampers, cream, talc powder. One day while walking down the street. I saw a secondhand crib on display in a window of Tonito's pawn shop on 112th. It was a beautiful dark wood with angels carved on the headboard, and the crib was a bit expensive, and I saved enough to buy it. And though it was a pain to carry it by myself, I managed.
I hauled it all the way up to her project and into the elevator, all the while wondering if Taina was getting fatter, was she showing, was her stomach round as the moon? Like all my gifts before, I placed the crib quietly, leaning it in front of Taina's apartment. I then would ring the bell and hide, as if I was a Halloween prankster. I wait and wait and nothing would happen until I had to go home.
And like the crib, like all my gifts, it was never accepted. When I'd check, I always found my gifts in the trash compactor or outside in the street with the rest of the piles of uncollected trash bags or junk furniture. Still, either Sister Flores or Taina had to have touched my gifts with their saintly hands, and this brought me some comfort and joy.
At school, I began to defend Taina's story. The other students would laugh at me. 15 and you don't know how babies are made? Of course I knew. I say it was a miracle. They still laugh. The only virgin here is you, they say. And though I was a virgin, I responded by telling them that sex had nothing to do with it. What about that man who had been in a coma for 30 years, and one day woke up asking for a Pepsi, huh? What about that found baby that floated in the waters for hours during that tsunami tragedy, huh? What about people surviving airplanes falling from the sky, about the gold crosses they carry, about their stars of David? What about those things that can't be explained, only felt, like air, hope, or love?
But few talked to me, which was hurtful, to be carrying alone a truth that no one wanted. But later this burden became a gift, and I did not care because I began behaving like the two women were. I had joined their way of dealing with the world of unbelievers. I had embraced silence.
At home my mother was always angry at me because I had insulted her elders, and my father, who never believed in religion, having been a communist in the past century, thought that I should be left alone or see a doctor. My father said that all those people, all those saints had mental problems, they were all crazies, and he would never have guessed that his own son would be one of them.
[SPEAKING SPANISH] he'd say, and sadly shake his head, because there were no crazies from his Ecuadorian side of the family, so I must get my mental problems from my mother's Puerto Rican side. Mom would strike back, telling Papa he had been a bad father, who instead of always being out there organizing unions and trying to save the world, should have been at home taking care of his son, that if my father would have spent less time in dead manifestos, less time in trying to change the world by out-arguing his commie friends in cafes, this would have never happened. She blamed men always screwing up their lives.
I didn't know if she was right. All I knew for sure was that Sister Flores and Taina were still alone, as if living in a universe of two. Yet I held hope, that the way a chicken sits on its egg, to safeguard them, and not out of shame, that Taina and her mother were not sad at all. That instead, they were protecting something good, something wonderful, and I wanted in."
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Ernesto Quiñonez is the author of the novels "Chango's Fire" (Harpercollins) and "Bodega Dreams" (Vintage), which was chosen as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title as well as a Borders Bookstore Original New Voice selection. His work has been published in various magazines and periodicals. Quiñonez is an assistant professor of English at Cornell University.
The event is part of the Creative Writing Program's spring 2008 Reading Series, which features established and emerging artists.