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"Neruda on the Park" is a Dominican abolitionist text.
Cleyvis Natera's novel is a look into the organizing of Dominican women
Natera, a Dominican-born, Washington Heights-raised essayist, novelist, critic, and short story writer, arrived in New York City in the late 1980s. In the more than 30 years since her family first arrived in NYC, the city has transformed, with Dominicans and other immigrant communities pushed out of neighborhoods they have called home for decades. After 20 years working in corporate America, Natera, who has spent years writing on and off, decided to become a writer full-time just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Neruda, published last May, is her debut. The novel, written over 15 years, describes a fictional neighborhood but pulls from the author's lived experiences, her family, and their community. In an interview last May with Lorraine Avila, a writer and the author of the upcoming YA novel, The Making of Yolanda La Bruja, Natera discussed Dominican women and how we define success, the connection between physical pain and unreleased trauma, beauty standards, America versus the Dominican Republic as home, gentrification, and how these show up Neruda. "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," she told Avila.
For weeks, I read Neruda slowly, writing the first drafts of this review in the margins. I underlined quotes that I couldn't get out of my head for days and listed the themes that felt intimate and familiar, particularly the way Natera describes the anxiety of Luz and her mother, Eusebia, how often we worry for our safety and that of our loved ones, and how hard we work to repress how deeply this worry/anxiety impacts us physically.
It is organized into three parts—"Demolition," "Excavation," and "Grounding"—and tells the story of a community reacting to gentrification in the fictional Nothar Park. We follow the Guerrero family throughout the construction of a new residential building. An older tenement building, ignored for years, is demolished to create space for construction. In these depictions of an immigrant community once again faced with displacement, Natera's book adeptly captures the violence of gentrification, from the daily noises of machinery to the intimidation of landlords with lease buyouts to the presence of police during protests. In chapter one, Natera describes the noises, writing, "The wrecking ball had finally broken through the stubborn wall—the fracturing now complete."
I love how Natera describes how Dominican women, particularly mothers and caretakers, build power while also carrying their own suffering and how often this pain is guarded, closed off, and kept away from those around us. I was drawn to the relationship between Luz and Eusebia, the relationship between Eusebia and The Tongues, and Angelica and Luz. I think a lot about the relationships of and between Dominican women and how we relate to each other—our mothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, lovers. How we talk and support each other. How we love and hurt each other. How we struggle, amid our own trauma and experiences and healing, toward collective and transformative accountability. How we organize.
For me, Neruda is an abolitionist Dominican text.
The novel describes a world in which the women elders of a community push back against their displacement. Vladimir, Eusebia's husband, is a police officer, and the NYPD is often called as part of the community's resistance tactics. Yet despite this, the text offers readers a way to think about abolitionist community work among Dominican women. Their work, Eusebia's and the Tongues', is undeniably feminist, undeniably rooted in the collective over the individual. No matter what it takes, Eusebia believes that their community doesn't deserve to be treated like its people are disposable. We read as an empowered Eusebia brainstorms with the Tongues and how she recruits other women into her plans.
Natera doesn't shy away from the line Eusebia toes, either. She wants to save who and what she loves and will control and manipulate to make her allies and those she loves align with what she believes is correct and safe. She is powerful, enraged, and stubborn. "Maybe they were beginning to feel the rage she felt…Collateral damage was to be expected." Neruda feels like a fictional manual that shows the intimate, chaotic, powerful, and sometimes destructive ways Dominican women organize and how, in particular, our elders strategize and execute solutions to keep our homes and communities safe. Like Angie Cruz's Dominicana and Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X, Natera shows the complexities of Dominican women from a place of love, compassion, and understanding.
Neruda feels like a fictional manual that shows the intimate, chaotic, powerful, and sometimes destructive ways Dominican women organize and how, in particular, our elders strategize and execute solutions to keep our homes and communities safe.
She told Avila about the decision to make the mother "the heart and plot machine" of the novel. "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," she said. "It was also about giving myself permission to go into this deep and sad place of releasing rage as a caretaker."
Towards the end of Neruda on the Park, Eusebia tells her daughter, "There was such a force in your spirit. And I thought, The world will break you. I thought, Better I do my job to contain you. I thought I was doing the right thing, trying to make you more cautious, to be wary of the world."
Throughout Neruda, we notice the chasm between mother and daughter. Eusebia, a mother who has spent a lifetime pleasing and sacrificing for others, is confronted with a daughter unwilling to make the same choices. We see the pain they cause each other. They are so similar, both strong-willed, loving, and loyal, but unlike her mother, Luz refuses to repress her pain/tears/needs/wants in favor of familial obligation. She chooses herself.
By the novel's end, the women still do not fully understand each other or how to communicate, but they both accept: love cannot come from a place of control.
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