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'Chango's Fire' is a lyrical novel about a neighborhood in flux

Chango’s Fire, By Ernesto Quiñonez, Rayo, 276 pp. $23.95

Gentrification brings change -- and most times a name change. In Ernesto Quionez's ''Chango's Fire," the place is Spanish Harlem, and its yuppified name is Spa Ha, a source of irritation to residents. Quionez, whose first novel, ''Bodega Dreams," also dealt with life in ''El Barrio," revisits familiar territory with this love story, between a man and his neighborhood. He does so with a depth of emotion and poignancy that is a tribute to the immigrant experience and life in the inner city.

The protagonist, Julio Santana, is a 29-year-old construction worker and a part-time arsonist who's no hardened criminal. He's studying toward a degree, and thanks to the extra money he makes from burning down homes for the insurance money, he bought the Spanish Harlem apartment that he shares with his parents. Julio is earnest and well-intentioned, driven by a need to survive and a frustration with not having a better way outside of crime. Spanish Harlem is as much a part of him as his family, and as it changes he is forced to confront his powerlessness.

Quionez writes lyrically, blending cultural influences with even and entertaining storytelling. His voice is rich with inflections of longtime and new Latino immigrants who stake a claim to communities that may seem to be deteriorating to outsiders but that are alive and vibrant within. At one point, Julio laments the changes in Spanish Harlem: ''El Barrio was no longer my barrio, and the past seemed irretrievable. White people living on many blocks. Some had money, some didn't, but we were supposed to leave them all alone. We were supposed to accept them moving into our neighborhoods, as opposed to when blacks and Latinos started entering their suburbs. . . . They never warmly welcomed us into the American Dream." But even with this lament, Julio finds out that the problem is not as black-and-white as it seems.

His new neighbor is Helen, a white art gallery owner from Wisconsin, one of the very people Julio believes is sucking the breath from Spanish Harlem. Yet he cannot ignore the fact that she's trying, very hard, not to seem like an outsider and to respect the culture of El Barrio. Julio approaches his feelings for Helen with as much trepidation as he views the change encroaching on the neighborhood.

With Helen in his life, he sees new possibilities for himself, beyond setting fires for Eddie, his at times benevolent and at times exacting boss. But there's still the neighborhood to contend with, and Julio believes that this is where his loyalty lies.

Quionez portrays Spanish Harlem as an organism, full of interdependent characters and structures that cohere into a community that is tightly knit yet fragile, because outside forces have so much power over its destiny. Most of the characters are well drawn, though Quionez displays a tendency not to reach more deeply than stereotypes with characters such as Helen and Greg, an ardent white liberal who has fought his own battles gaining acceptance in black Harlem.

Religion plays a dominant role, and Quionez demystifies the religion of Santeria, explaining its rituals and even its parallels with Christianity.

The two churches in the neighborhood couldn't be more different. One is run by a Santero priest to whom Julio owes much, and as his relationship with Helen develops, he finds himself leaning closer to Santeria, eschewing his Pentecostal upbringing.

''Papelito's religion is a religion of survival. One that took certain steps in order to keep itself alive," he reasons, comparing it to the fire-and-brimstone faith to which his parents subscribe. Papelito promises that initiation into Santeria anoints Julio as the son of Chango, a god representing fire and lightning. But to Julio's parents, Santeria is not only a false doctrine, it is frightening, and Julio in his bid to reinvent himself faces off against their beliefs.

The other church is run by Maritza, arguably the most interesting character in the novel. Maritza is an idealist, a pastor of a progressive church who's in it to save lives, not souls. Her church serves mainly new illegal immigrants who are highly skeptical of Maritza's socialist persuasion, so she uses God as bait, dotting her political rants with biblical references.

''Nothing is too doubtful or unimaginable if God is deftly placed into it," observes Julio, who maintains a fearful kind of love for Maritza. He watches from a safe distance as she blazes trails to try to save the indigent, from handing out stolen US citizenship documents to HIV-infected illegals to bringing a frightened young bride-to-be to be surgically ''revirginized" before her wedding.

But hulking amid such a lively community is the real estate and the promise of big money for developers and building owners. As Julio begins to look to a better future, Eddie asks him to do his most important job: to burn down his own building. It is clear that as tight as the community seems, its inhabitants own it only in a spiritual sense. And in New York, a city hungry for real estate, Quionez shows that the battle between material and spiritual is ongoing.

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