Many have taken on the task to articulate the complexity and harm of gentrification in immigrant, mainly Black and Latinx, communities. In just the past few years, the big and small screens have attempted to take on these narratives through movies like “In the Heights” and shows like “Gentefied” and “Vida.” Most of these stories did not understand the assignment. But Cleivys Natera did.
Natera, a Black Latina from Washington Heights, always knew she wanted to write. She studied creative writing as an undergrad and then enrolled in New York University’s MFA program. However, the reality of coming from an immigrant family did not afford her a financial safety net to write full time, like some of her peers. But Natera made peace with the fact that she would not have a traditional path into publishing and that it would also be a slow journey. While writing her debut novel, Neruda on the Park, Natera worked a corporate, full-time job in insurance. But right before the pandemic hit, she betted on herself, quit her job, and sold her novel in three months.
Natera spent 15 years writing Neruda on the Park — and her care and thoughtfulness shows. The novel takes on the issue of gentrification with grace and refreshing truth. She intentionally dives into the lives of Luz and Eusebia, a daughter and mother duo, dealing with the conditions of gentrification in the upper Manhattan neighborhood. While Luz deals with being fired from her corporate job and searching for her life’s purpose, Eusebia cares for everybody around her and grows determined to keep her home under any means necessary. In the background, The Tongues, a trio of elder sisters, fill the reader in with all that comes up in the between.
“There can’t be enough of these stories,” Natera tells Refinery29 Somos of narratives on Black and Latinx neighborhoods and the growing tensions and violence of gentrification. “Enough of these stories haven’t been told.”
Here, Natera talks with Somos about character development, the tension of being a so-called successful person in a low-income immigrant neighborhood, what it means to be home, Dominican beauty standards, and more. Neruda on the Park is now available where books are sold.
I was intrigued by the friendship and tension between Luz and Angelica. Luz is the high-achiever who stuck to the goal of getting into college and reaping the “benefits,” and Angelica’s life changed due to an unexpected pregnancy with twins. It spoke to a heavy aspect of our lives in neighborhoods dominated by immigrants, where some of us “make it” and have to deal with the judgment from a community that is proud of you but low-key begins to feel farther and farther away. I’m wondering how you felt about writing that relationship and dynamic?
There is a lot of tension that arises in our relationships between women in our communities. They’re fueled by competition and the judgment happening in the background about what is the “right” life and what is the “right” road to success. In my perspective, I think there is a lot of judgment around what it means to be successful within an immigrant community. More often than not, within my lived experience, it aligns with these American dreams of success, which is to have these elite educations, to have these kinds of jobs, and to wear these kinds of clothes. And so it was really important for me to be truthful about how much hostility there is for people who are able to accomplish that, even when it’s from the people of the community who are proud of you. It emerges as you are ascending. And whether that ascension is considered to be good or not, a lot of times there’s a lot of distrust, like you sold out in order to achieve said success.
I wrote this book over the course of 15 years. Part of the reason why it took me so long was because I was trying to tell so many different stories about the community. In earlier versions of this book, there was actually a group of five-to-six friends that included Angelica, Luz, Franchesca, and the brothers. And I had to say: “Calmate, there are going to be other books.” In my neighborhood, there were absolutely lots of people who got college degrees and lived with this tension, but for the sake of fiction, I decided to write against that because I thought it would make for a better story.
Eusebia, the mother in this story, was my favorite character. She had so much depth. How did you construct Eusebia? What parts of Eusebia were pulled from your family?
I grew up in a family with women who suffer from really severe pain, constant pain that they have to struggle with daily in order to just function. I wanted to honor the experience my family has had with chronic pain, and I think it’s completely tied to the fact that we live stressful lives as women of color and as immigrants in this country. That said, I wanted to create a character that had physical pain, pain that would awaken this buried trauma that she would not allow herself to deal with. I went down a deep rabbit hole researching. I have a really good friend who is a psychiatrist, and I asked what kind of injury would cause this kind of concussion in a realistic way. I wanted Eusebia to fall while doing a domestic task. When it happens, she was doing laundry and hurrying, and she’s really stressed out and distracted because she’s worried about everyone in her community. The seed of this woman is she’s a caretaker, but loving people and taking care of people is what has kept her from being healthy.
Constructing Eusebia was such a trip. It was so, so difficult. It took me 10 years to let her into the book because I was determined that she would take over, so I wouldn’t let her have a point of view. The book started with just one person’s point of view, Luz, with Eusebia in the background creating chaos, but it didn’t work out. Then I had The Tongues telling the story. Four years ago, when I came back to writing, I was just like, this woman has to have a perspective. Deciding that Eusebia was going to be the heart and plot machine of the story, that she was going to carry the action, was a really big part of the book. It was also about giving myself permission to go into this deep and sad place of releasing rage as a caretaker. At the end, when everything is said and done, I love Eusebia. She is a complicated character. It was really hard to write her. I cried a lot with her; I laughed a lot with her. But it was worth the pain to write her.
Another interesting aspect about Eusebia is that she is an immigrant who is not longing for home. I feel like that’s actually the only story I know in my family. There is no one in my family who is like, “I wanna go retire in DR.” Everyone is like, “this is where I’m staying.”
I know a lot of immigrants that do not long for home. They love their country, but home is here. To clarify, Luz was born in DR and she is also an immigrant. She came when she was very young. For me, it was important to show the difference. It was also important to show home isn’t even a concept for Luz. Luz is completely assimilated. Her mom is very Dominican in every way, but she is also claiming the United States as home. For me, that was a revolutionary act that I don’t think I have seen in a lot of books about our immigrant community. The United States is our home. It is ours, period. We don’t have to take being pushed out; we don’t have to bend down to this idea of being grateful and behaving for the sake of not overstaying our welcome. Our hard work and the sacrifices we’ve made for this country give us ownership. That was so critical. That rage of “uh-uh, not on my watch” was really important that it stemmed from Eusebia because she felt like the neighborhood was her home and not that she was a guest in it.
We’re not here renting; we’re here to own long-term. I think that’s something that corrupts the mind of dominant culture: this sense that we’re temporary people, and we’re not temporary.
Vladimir, Eusebia’s husband, doesn’t feel the same, though. He was definitely one of the characters who was like, “Ya yo luché y ya estoy listo para irme.” Throughout the novel, we see how his desire stops him from seeing Eusebia and what she wants at some point. Why did you want to complicate their relationship?
In the context of the relationship with Vladimir and Eusebia, there were a few things I knew going into it: they deeply love each other, but also there are lots of things they haven’t been able to tell each other. Eusebia, for example, hasn’t been able to tell Vladimir about the trauma she experienced to the point that Vladimir doesn’t know that it’s something that hurts her till his day. For Vladimir, he is miserable in his job. He is someone who has been miserable all along. He’s an artist. He’s a writer. He wants to be an architect. But he’s never been able to do it. There is not an easy way to talk about sacrifice. Anyway you look at it, they have all sacrificed a great deal for one another. It’s tough. It was important to show in this relationship that they love each other deeply, but that they are also at fault for not being honest. Because for both of them, their life would’ve been so different had they just been honest with one another.
I want to pivot to the character Cuca. As part of Somos’ Cuerpo series, I talked about how our communities push curvy beauty ideals on us but then are hard against people who are honest about their surgeries, which we see in Cuca’s experience. Talk a little bit about including body image and beauty standards in Neruda on the Park.
Being Afro-Latina and being a darker complexion, I feel like this idea of what it means to be valuable as a woman has been top of mind since I was a child, way before it should have been. So I became aware of beauty standards before I even understood why they were important because I didn’t fit into them. I got picked on a lot as a child. My older sister is very light-skinned, and my younger sister es un bonbon. Y a mi me decian la Negrita feita, and I grew up always looking around and thinking something wasn’t quite right with me. Something I wanted to tackle through Cuca was the prevalence of violence against women’s bodies. For example, if you’re Afro-Latina, you’re just disappeared from what Latinos deem Latino. And now, we’re standing up as Black women, like claiming it for ourselves that we are Black immigrants, that there are Black people who speak Spanish, but we’re fighting from every angle just to take up space, to be seen.
I really wanted this standard of beauty to be an important theme of my debut novel. Cuca is very adamant and will not be shamed for her primary reason for wanting surgery: because she loves her husband, and her husband has a wandering eye, and she has a feeling that her life will be better after. Part of the reason I was committed to making this part of the book is because I think it’s a never-winning battle for women; it’s like if your ass isn’t big enough, then there’s something wrong. If your ass is too big, then there’s something wrong. The standard of beauty now, which has somehow morphed into a body that I align with a Black body, is still marked with whiteness. Like you still have the white skin, you still have the straight hair, and the white teeth. For me, it’s more important for the conversation around beauty to be a conversation where we’re having and recognizing the systems around it that act as a way to distract us. If all of us are busy starving ourselves, or cutting into our bodies and recuperating from surgery, then we are not focusing on other ways in which violence is being done in our community. It’s important that we recognize that these pressures were created intentionally in a patriarchal society.
Love that. At the very least, I also loved that Cuca was like, “I don’t give a fuck. I love this body.”
Among all the things I love about being Dominican, one of my favorites is our pursuit of pleasure. The pursuit of pleasure is also really important in this book. It was also really important that Euesebia is going through everything she’s going through that she feels this sense of power and happiness that she hasn’t had. Even though it’s corrupted, it still feels good to be strong. At one point, she’s walking through the park and she feels she’s made out of steel. And for Cuca, she wants to feel pretty. I want the reader to think about the conditions that led to these pressures, but I also want to acknowledge that when she’s wearing that bodysuit, she’s feeling good.
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