By Amaris Castillo
On the very first page of Neruda on the Park, debut author Cleyvis Natera drops readers into the boom and crash of a demolition. Fractured brownstone, shattered glass. A wrecking ball, mid-swing. Change is coming to the fictional, predominantly-Dominican neighborhood of Nothar Park. An aged tenement building being torn down in New York City is a telltale sign that gentrification will soon sweep in. But is it a threat? It depends on who you ask.
Ask Eusebia Guerrero, an elder in the community, and she’d likely tell you the world is ending. She receives each construction blow in horror. With growing distress, she asks herself more than once, “How to fix this mess?”
Or ask Luz Guerrero, Eusebia’s daughter. A rising associate at a top Manhattan law firm, Luz seems ambivalent about her neighborhood being at the cusp of gentrification. She never felt like she belonged there, anyway.
“When they first arrived in this country, Eusebia had insisted Luz not forget their true home had been left behind, that this new place, with its hard ground and impossible language, was hostile,” Natera writes. “But over time, Eusebia had created an entire new world in it. Listening to her now, Luz marveled at the change, wondering exactly what it was about this place that had won her mother over.”
Luz claims to know how her neighborhood’s story ends – with change, yes, and yoga and endless mimosa brunch spots. But with Neruda on the Park, out on May 24, readers have no idea how this story will end, or could end, or should end. Natera brings us an intricate novel about a Dominican mother and daughter who step into markedly different paths when faced with gentrification. Fueled by anger and the fear of her community’s displacement, Eusebia concocts a crime ring to try to stop the luxury condo building from going up. And Luz – freshly-fired from her firm – finds herself in a sizzling romance with the white developer of the company her mother fervently opposes. This is a story about family, sacrifice, loyalty, the meaning of home, and how far one is willing to go to protect it.
Natera, herself born in the Dominican Republic before migrating to the United States at ten years old, wrote Neruda on the Park over the course of fifteen years. That she tended to this story for so long is evident by her gorgeous prose, the novel’s myriad of characters and the ways their lives interconnect, and the many pressures she layers onto Eusebia and Luz. In the background, we sympathize with Eusebia’s husband, Vladimir, who has been secretly plotting with Luz to build a dream home back in the Dominican Republic. His job as a police detective has worn him down, but he maintains a determined eye on retirement.
At the heart of the novel is Luz and Eusebia, and the ways in which their relationship is challenged and reshaped as a result of this looming threat in the shape of concrete beams. The chapters alternate between their points of view, giving us an intimate look at their internal struggles and the growing rift between them when Eusebia finds out Luz is dating the man behind the development.
On the page, Natera takes extra care in breathing life into the women. In Eusebia, for example, I saw a hard-working Dominican mother who prides herself in putting her daughter and husband first – at the detriment of herself. There’s no better demonstration of this than our introduction to Eusebia in the second chapter. Natera opens up with Eusebia making breakfast for Luz and Vladimir. She starts by setting the greca on the stove, then sliding pieces of bread into the toaster. Then, Natera writes: “Removed eggs from the refrigerator and put three in a small pot filled with water for Luz, who would only eat the egg whites, and left three on the side for Vladimir, who would only eat his fried over hard. Vladimir’s eggs needed to reach room temperature before she dropped them in the pan. Later, she’d place each fried egg on top of the not-too-toasted bread.”
It’s not a far stretch to say that Eusebia’s caretaker role brings a bit of discomfort to the reader, and it’s clear early on that there’s a codependency between mother and daughter. Eusebia loves her family, and that love will push her to take drastic action.
To make her crime spree happen, Eusebia enlists the help of The Tongues – her bingo-playing triplet friends who are also community fixtures in Nothar Park. “What if we just scare everyone into thinking this neighborhood is really bad?” she asks them. The women come up with a list of fake crimes and promptly get to work.
In Neruda, Natera does an effective job at making you care for not only Eusebia, Luz, and Vladimir, but for the rest of the cast. One of the most delightful parts of the book, for example, are the carefully crafted interludes by The Tongues. There’s one that made me literally laugh out loud, in which the triplets described the sheer ridiculousness of one of the fake crimes gone wrong. Their short chapters are a welcome respite from the escalating drama and tension between Eusebia and Luz. We also grow concerned for the future of Angélica, Luz’s childhood best friend and a mother of twins whose family is likely to get pushed out by gentrification. And then there’s Cuca, Eusebia’s sister, who traveled to the Dominican Republic for a full-body cosmetic renovation to keep her husband from cheating on her again. These additional characters provide a richer portrait of a community of people with individual struggles and hopes.
As I read chapter after chapter – and as the story marched along – I found myself feeling on edge. I wondered how far Eusebia would take her plan. Who else would get hurt? And, most critically, how would this affect the already strained relationship between mother and daughter? Will mother and daughter get back to how they were before, or will their dynamic be irrevocably changed by the story’s dramatic climax?
After finishing Neruda on the Park, Eusebia and Luz lingered in my mind for days. I thought about what home is, and how it can hold different meanings for people – even members of the same family. I was also left with so much gratitude to Natera for not giving up on her book – a story told with so much love and care for a community of immigrants and their children, and the life they’ve managed to stitch together in the face of so many obstacles.
About the Author:
Cleyvis Natera is the author of the forthcoming debut novel Neruda on the Park which will be published on May 24, 2022 by Ballantine Books. She was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Skidmore College and a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. She’s received honors from PEN America, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA). Her fiction, essays and criticism have appeared in Alien Nation: 36 True Tales of Immigration, TIME, Gagosian Quarterly, The Washington Post, TheKenyon Review, Aster(ix) and Kweli Journal, among other publications. Cleyvis teaches creative writing to undergraduate students at Fordham University and graduate students at the Writer’s Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. She lives with her husband and two young children in Montclair, New Jersey.
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Fantasy Anthology. One of her short stories, “The Moon and the Sun,” was longlisted for the 2021 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival. Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo and read her stories from the colmado at bodegastories.com.