In the political maelstrom that has become everyday life under this current administration, the national conversation regarding undocumented immigrant populations has been, and continues to be, omnipresent, and, for the most part, devoid of any trace of individual humanity. The conversation, no matter which side, continues to generalize the narrative, always opting for issues regarding borders, economic impact, and resources while sequestering identity and humanity to the shadows cast by countless debates, media frenzies, and political mudslinging. Melissa Rivero‘s debut novel, The Affairs of the Falcóns, out now from HarperCollins, hones in on one Peruvian woman’s plight to forge a better life for her and her family in the United States, and reminds us to look closer, to listen.
Ana Falcón, along with her husband, Lucho, and their two young children, flee economically and politically turbulent Peru to start life anew in New York City in the 1990s. Life in a new country, however, bears more challenges than opportunities as Ana and her husband try to keep afloat while trying to find financial stability and securing a place to live, all while living under the constant fear of deportation.
Rivero was kind enough to answer my questions over email. We discussed her own and her family’s experience growing up undocumented in the 1980s, the danger of generalizing the undocumented immigrant experience, and tension within immigrant communities.
The Rumpus: Our national conversation, now more than ever, largely focuses on who is welcome, who is not, who is worthy, who is not, all under the guise of border security and economic impact. Why did you choose the 1990s as the backdrop to this story?
Melissa Rivero: There are two reasons for that. First, there was no chance Ana and her family could benefit from some sort of amnesty for undocumented immigrants in the early 1990s. The Reagan administration’s Amnesty Act was signed into law in late 1986. Under the Act, if you had entered the US before 1982 and met all these other requirements, you could become a US resident and eventually a US citizen if you chose to do so. Ana and her family arrive in the US in the late ‘80s, so the Act didn’t apply to them. It was also unlikely the US government would pass a similar law so soon after the Act had been passed.
The second was that the New York of the early ‘90s had more grit in some ways than it does now. Brooklyn certainly did. Despite all that, Ana and Lucho still chose to come. It’s a questionable choice, but I think it shows just how much they were willing to give a new life in the US a shot.
Rumpus: I think one of the (many) shortcomings of our national conversation as it relates to the undocumented immigrant narrative is that it generalizes it, which can have a slew of negative consequences, like fanning the flames of xenophobia. Why was it important, to you, to individuate the narrative and experience of Ana Falcón?
Rivero: For that very reason: we don’t see the complexity of the individual experience. It’s much easier—lazier, really—to discuss immigration and legislate based on generalizations. I tried to show Ana for the whole person that she is. She’s someone with her own aspirations, with children to care for, a marriage she’s working on, a job she needs to hold down. She’s a friend and a member of a family and a larger community that is very much woven into the fabric of this country. In other words, she is a human being and not a caricature.
Rumpus: I haven’t read a novel that has thrown me through such a loop in a while. Truly, I had to, like, lie down on the floor after I finished it, so bravo. Without giving anything away, were the various twists there from the beginning, or did they come together draft by draft?
Rivero: Thank you so much! The twists came together draft by draft. I basically followed wherever Ana led. I’d write a scene, then another, and slowly start piecing them together. The very first scene I wrote was actually one of those twists toward the end of the novel.
Rumpus: Aside from the threat of deportation, overwhelming economic hardship, and struggle to maintain identity, you also shed a light on the tension within the immigrant community between those who are documented and those who are not. Why was that important to depict?
Rivero: Because having US legal residency or citizenship within the immigrant community is a powerful thing. It puts one in somewhat of a “safe” zone. For the most part, you don’t have to worry about someone deporting you or separating you from your family. You can go back to your home country to visit family, you can apply for better-paying jobs, financial aid, scholarships, etc. It puts one on a more solid economic and social footing within the community, which some may take advantage of. But taking advantage of one’s power isn’t something unique to immigrant communities. It’s just that having documents is one way to have power within it.
Rumpus: There’s also a lot of tension between Ana and her husband’s family because of the difference in class. Ana isn’t from the capital, Lima, and Lucho’s family always, directly and indirectly, likes to remind her of that. Why did you choose to include this dynamic in the story, and how does it buoy your message to readers?
Rivero: It was important for me to show some of the ugly remnants of colonialism—racism, colorism, classism, sexism—that still impact communities in Latin America today, including Peru. And when people immigrate, they don’t always leave those beliefs behind. Growing up, I remember hearing that if you had a last name that’s European, for instance, that was “better” than if you had one that sounded indigenous. Same if you’re more white-presenting: that is viewed as more desirable and the world, for the most part, certainly treats these folks better. I don’t think many people feel comfortable discussing these issues or seeing them on the page. I certainly didn’t grow up with many people talking about it. It’s an important one though that I think needs to be discussed and addressed within the Latinx community and other communities of color.
Rumpus: I find the character of “Mama”—the loan shark Ana borrows money from—especially intriguing. How did her inclusion in this story come about?
Rivero: Mama was based on a family friend who helped my parents during tough times, but she was nothing like Mama the character! She was supportive, and more my mother’s adviser than anything else. Growing up, though, I knew that going to the bank for a loan was not something my parents or others in our community did. You went to the elders for help, that’s always how it was. For the story, I did research on prestamistas, or neighborhood lenders, to get a better sense of the power dynamics involved. I decided the loan shark in the story had to be a woman who believed she was doing some good but who, at the end of the day, was still a business woman.
Rumpus: What do you want your readers to take away regarding undocumented immigrant life in America?
Rivero: That it is complex, and that while being undocumented is one aspect of the lives of Ana and other immigrants, it is not the defining factor. I think if readers look beyond someone’s immigration status, they can see the drive, joy, and aspiration that propels so many immigrants to take a chance on this country.
Rumpus: It’s unequivocally clear that you’re a voice to watch. Is there anything else up your literary sleeve that you can share with us?
Rivero: Yes! I work at a start-up, and it’s already inspired a character or two. I’ll leave it at that for now.
Photograph of Melissa Rivero by Bartosz Potocki.