It is said that reality often surpasses fiction, but they are deeply intertwined in Taína by Ernesto Quiñonez, a coming-of-age novel that examines the forced sterilization of women in Puerto Rico that took place in both the 1930s and the 1970s. It is estimated that, in those decades, about one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized—one of the highest rates of sterilization in the world. Given the recent revelation that U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is performing mass hysterectomies on detained immigrants at a private detention center in Georgia, this horrific practice is no mere historical footnote.
Taína is the story of Julio, a teenager living in Spanish Harlem who becomes involved with Taína, a pregnant 15-year-old from his high school who claims to be a virgin. Julio chooses to believe her and agrees to work with his ex-con uncle to support her. Taína, Quiñonez’s third novel, was published by Vintage late last year. PW spoke with Quiñonez from his home in Ithaca, N.Y., where he is an associate professor at Cornell University and teaches creative writing, Latino fiction, and magical realism.
How autobiographical is this novel?
Somewhat, as my father was a communist from Ecuador and my mother is Puerto Rican. However, my ties are stronger with the Puerto Rican community, as I arrived in New York City when I was 18 months old and was raised in El Barrio, East Harlem. We didn’t live in Queens, N.Y., where the Ecuadorian community has a strong presence.
How close is the story of Taína to the biblical story of Mary and Joseph?
The novel does have religious undertones, but it is more about the sterilization of women in Puerto Rico. It’s been done for decades and it’s so terrible. It shows how much hate exists towards poor women, as this was a common practice not just in Puerto Rico but also in the barrios in the U.S. It was often financed by companies to ensure their female workers would not miss work; the government also wanted to make sure women with disabilities would not procreate.
How do you introduce the darkness of Taína to your readers?
I deal with it with a bit of comedy and urban magical realism. My goal, in all three of my books, including Chango’s Fire, is to bring magical realism to the barrios, make it more urban. That’s where these stories take place and that is why students connect with them. They’ve all had classmates that were pregnant, but usually the boy doesn’t take responsibility, whereas in this book Julio falls in love with Taína and does anything, even commits crimes, in order to provide for her and the baby.
For me, magical realism takes place in urban settings, not just in the villages of Latin America. Where do you see a large group of Tibetan monks trying to figure out how to buy MetroCards while a Mexican mariachi band is playing music? In the New York City metro.
Bodega Dreams celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Is it still very popular among high school students?
Yes, and I wish that weren’t the case. It’s the story of Willie Bodega in Spanish Harlem. He helps everyone in exchange for loyalty—and an income from the drugs he pushes. I wish it weren’t relevant today, but Spanish Harlem hasn’t changed—poverty and drug use are still the norm. I would be happier if things had improved and the novel no longer felt relevant.
You had not published a novel in quite a few years. Were you taking a break?
Not necessarily a break from writing, but my daughter, Scarlet Esther, was born, and I just love spending time with her. I wanted to really enjoy her and dedicate time to her. Now she is a young teenager and spending time with her father is not as much fun, so I started to dedicate more time to writing. You know how teenagers are.
What are you working on right now?
I’m actually working on two different books. One is a detective novel and the other is an homage to my father and Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa—the greats of magical realism.