Latina Author Cleyvis Natera Explores Gentrification In Her New Novel and How it Disproportionately Affects Our Community

Latina Author Cleyvis Natera Explores Gentrification In Her New Novel belatina latine

As you may know, we’ve been featuring talented Latine authors that are participating at this year’s Miami Book Fair 2022. 

The Miami Book Fair is taking place on November 13 to November 20 at Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus – and we have yet another Latina talent to showcase. Today, we’re featuring Cleyvis Natera’s “Neruda on the Park.”

“Neruda on the Park” is a fiction novel that tells the overlapping story of gentrification and mother-daughter conflicts – two commonalities that affect many of us in real life. 

The inspiration of the novel comes from Natera’s first-hand experiences of gentrification in New York City. Curiously, through the literature she’s consumed, she noticed how gentrification is pinned as “inevitable.” These texts failed to explore how resilient the Latine community can actually be, especially while facing it. This is why Natera decided to write about it.

To get more insight on the novel, BELatina News recently spoke with Natera about her novel’s inspiration, how people classified as “minorities” like the Latine and Black community are constantly neglected, and how she hopes that her words spark a conversation about historically excluded communities.

Here’s how the conversation unfolded.

Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer.

I had a rather non-traditional journey toward becoming a writer. Although I attended graduate school and got my MFA a few years after I earned my bachelor’s degree, it wasn’t in the cards for me to sell a novel or become a writer as a young person. I wrote my novel over the course of fifteen years. During that time, I worked a corporate job for two decades. I married the man I adore and became the mother of two terrific and smart kids. We all know publishing in the United States is devastatingly white and that oftentimes our stories have a hard time making it through the gatekeepers. But I was fortunate that I persisted through decades of efforts to bring “Neruda on the Park” out into the world. It has been such a joy to join such an incredible cadre of debut novelists this year. We’ve all written the hell out of our books! It is such a great time to be a reader because of that. 

Why do you think it’s important for people to understand the perils of gentrification? 

My novel introduces readers to Nothar Park, a fictional neighborhood in northern Manhattan composed predominantly of a Dominican immigrant community on the cusp of great change. The gentrification that has altered neighborhoods all around New York City has somehow missed this community. The plot revolves around how my two main characters react to this great change once the gentrification of the neighborhood arrives.

Luz, a young upwardly mobile lawyer, sees the coming change as inevitable, while her mother Eusebia sees it as an opportunity to fight. The inspiration for this book came from my own lived experience. 

Growing up in New York City in the 1990s, primarily in Harlem and Washington Heights where my family still lives, I witnessed first-hand how quickly people are displaced by the forces of gentrification. 

Gentrification, a force of erasure and of displacement, affects people who already occupy the most vulnerable places in societies across the globe. Because I’m an avid reader, I found that many books that explore this topic often took the change as inevitable. Yet, what I witnessed in my own community – what is evident to this day in all gentrified neighborhoods – is that there is a great deal of resistance. I wanted my novel to explore and celebrate the love of home and community required to fuel such resistance.

Do you think predominantly Latine/Caribbean communities in the United States are being affected by gentrification at an alarming rate at the moment? 

Marginalized communities in lower-income neighborhoods are often the target of revitalization and development efforts at alarming rates specifically because it is our Latino, Caribbean, and Black communities that often lack resources and are neglected of services. Since I grew up in a community that faced the force of gentrification, I remember the brutal underhanded maneuvers by landlords to get people out in service of upper and middle-class tenants who could pay higher rents.

In my situation, what our community members lost is literally their homes. By centering “Neruda on the Park” as a community under the threat of gentrification, my hope is to create a space for contemplation and conversation. I hope to reveal the anguish and rage that exists in a community that occupies a vulnerable place in our society. As immigrants, we’re often presumed to be yearning for our birthplaces, to be temporary fixtures in the United States – and that is a dangerous presumption. It justifies the horrifying treatment of our people. We’ve seen it happen all the time, as recently as at the heels of the Pandemic exodus when landlords lowered rents to hold on to tenants.

Then, when the pandemic numbers skewed toward affecting mostly our community members, and those who had left began to come back, we again saw landlords rush to underhandedly remove tenants again in favor of those who can pay higher rents. I believe that this capitalist greed is always disguised as a focus on progress – cleaner, quieter, better-served communities on the other side of change. We don’t usually consider what is sacrificed in the pursuit of such progress. My focus in this book was on the fight – and in so doing to showcase the love required to stand up for that which is worth saving.

How will your book resonate with the everyday Dominican/Latino?

“Neruda on the Park,” at its heart, is a celebration of what it means to be a fierce Dominican woman at various stages of life. Take Luz, who is an upwardly mobile attorney in her late twenties. Through her experience, we see how the pursuit of the American Dream leads many of us through a path that isolates us from our communities. It often happens so naturally we may miss how numbing and depressed we become as we are forced to develop survival habits focused on upward mobility through the relentless competition inherent in toxic workplaces. It isn’t until Luz’s life shatters when she loses her job that she begins to understand how so much of what she’s been promised (by way of the pursuit of the American Dream) has been a lie.

I believe many members of our Dominican and Latine communities working in corporate America will find resonance in Luz’s storyline. Additionally, so many of us are caretakers who often put everyone’s needs before our own. We lack societal support and carry incredibly heavy loads. That weight has caused a crisis of mental health issues within our communities and this novel also addresses that through many of the characters but most explicitly, Luz’s mother, Eusebia.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

The most challenging part of writing “Neruda on the Park” was being truly honest about what motivated my characters to take actions in the book that seem insane. For example, the seed of the motivation for Eusebia’s scheme to stop the gentrification of her neighborhood via a crime spree is that she had unresolved grief and trauma due to a big loss in her life. It is that unspoken grief that fuels what ends up being a monstrous rage that ultimately puts her community at greater risk. It’s a provocative and difficult issue to tackle on the page – how sometimes we are complicit in doing the oppressor’s work because of pain and loss and trauma brought about because of systems put in place through oppression itself. 

Do you think being displaced from your community or neighborhood is a form of exile? 

I love this question so much. I have often thought of the isolation and separation I faced from my family through immigration as very similar to what I saw as the force of gentrification. Both ultimately result in the erasure of the bonds of families and homes. Being displaced from our communities and neighborhoods serves the same mechanism as being exiled from home. People in exile are forced to give up bonds of family and home by systems that usually benefit those in positions of dominance and power.

What do you hope your readers take away from your book? 

My ultimate hope is that readers understand my novel is a call to action toward solidarity with members of our society who have been fighting for freedom and liberation. As members of the Latine and Hispanic communities, it is dangerous to align ourselves with white supremacy. Yet, many of us come from countries where racism and colorism mean we benefited from our proximity to whiteness. Here, now, we must reject it outright and fight for the freedom of marginalized communities. It is thanks to the hard work done by Black Americans during the civil rights movement that many of our families were able to travel to the United States, to begin with. As the Caribbean writer Elizabeth Nunes often says, “without the work of Civil Rights activists who fought to remove racists quotas from the immigration act in the 1960s that favored white countries over non-white countries, many members of our communities wouldn’t have been able to enter the United States.” 

We must align ourselves to social justice efforts that aim to affect equality issues and confront the climate crisis, the ongoing attack on Black Americans and immigrants, women’s rights to autonomy, the physical violence against members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and religious freedom. 

Let’s stop our complicity with white supremacy. We must be intentional in aligning ourselves with a movement toward equality for all of us.

Anything you’d like to share with the BELatina News audience? 

I hope BELatina readers pick up my novel “Neruda on the Park,” and invite me to talk on their campuses, chat with their book clubs, and organizations! I’d love a chance to connect. Please reach out to me via IG: @CleyvisNatera. My DMs are open!