Inside the immigration experience of Melissa Rivero and ‘The Affairs of the Falcóns’

Melissa Rivero was a lawyer in New York City unsatisfied with how her career was not fulfilling her soul’s needs. She knew she wanted something different when she started writing scenes influenced by an incident that happened to her mother.

The result became The Affairs of the Falcóns, a study into how immigration policies effect us all. The characters in the book are Peruvian, just like Rivero and her family. However, the family’s story in her debut novel is not a retelling of her life. Instead, she took information from her mother’s life and reimagined it into a bigger story that reaches beyond her singular experience.

I spoke with the lawyer-turned-writer about Peru, growing us as an “other,” and how the Falcóns came to be.

I wanted to start with your background a little bit so readers could get to know you. Your bio in the book mentions you were born in Peru and moved to America.

I was born in Peru and my parents brought me over when I was about a year and a half years old. The majority of my life was growing up in Brooklyn. Quite frankly, if you ask where I’m from, I will say I am from Brooklyn. I didn’t go back to Peru until I was nine.

What was your relationship with Peru growing up then?

I grew up with Peru very much alive in my home. The food that I ate was Peruvian. The language I spoke was Spanish. I grew up in a very Peruvian home. I didn’t have any extended family in America, so there were a lot of phone calls to Peru and lots of photos sent to my grandparents back there.

There were a lot of stories told from my parents about what it was like to live there. I grew up always with a sense that it would be great to go back so my family could know me and meet my brothers who were born here. Peru was always a place I  dreamt of going as a kid. It was magical in many ways going for the first time.

What was Peru like during the time your parents left?

They left because it was difficult for them financially. Because of a recession and inflation during that time, it was difficult to afford anything there. My parents decided that the only way to have a future was to immigrate. My father went to Ecuador first to try to find work. It wasn’t better there so he came back to Peru. They knew someone who knew someone who as able to get us visas to the United States.

The economic hardship was what made it a necessity for us to leave.

What was your first reactions to school in America since you grew up in a very Peruvian home?

I learned to read and write in Spanish before I went to kindergarten. Learning English was a very interesting thing for me to experience. I remember having to learn the word fee and thinking it should be spelled fi. I remember language being something I had to have some acrobatics with.

I would bring Matla to school and kids would think it is beer. I would struggle with lunches because my mom would pack me full meals of chicken and rice. I remember being self-conscious about what other kids were eating. I would leave my lunches in my bag. A teacher recommended to my mom that she make me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and my mother responded something like “what is that?”

There were little instances of things like that where I had trouble acclimating to this culture.

When did you start coming into your own and having that Brooklynite identity?

Well, I don’t even think of myself as American necessarily. When I think of America outside of Brooklyn, it feels very different. Brooklyn is so rich in culture. There is so much diversity here and so much grit. I feel like so much of that is a part of me. When I went back to Peru, I felt I didn’t belong there. I feel Peruvian; I am Peruvian. But I feel worried about owning too much of it because I didn’t grow up there and I don’t have the necessary education that many Peruvians grew up with learning the history and cultural and social nuances of the country.

Growing up in the United States, there is an otherness here. I don’t necessarily feel American. But in Brooklyn. I fit in. Nearly everyone here is from a different part of the world. My husband is an immigrant from Poland. My kids are trilingual because of that. There is an universality here. I don’t feel like an other here. I feel like I am a part of a world here.

I remember being very afraid as a child coming home and my mother not being there. I was aware immigration might come and get her at her job. I worried about what would happen to my brothers.

What are some other examples that stand out of that feeling of otherness you remember growing up with?

When we came, we overstayed our visas and were undocumented until around 1987 or 1988, which was six or seven years. I remember being very afraid as a child coming home and my mother not being there. I was aware immigration might come and get her at her job. I worried about what would happen to my brothers. I was always conscious that I wasn’t supposed to be here, but my brothers were born here so they were allowed. I felt that other kids at school were safe and I wasn’t. That definitely affected me growing up and is infused into the novel. I didn’t actually realize that it stuck with me so much until I was writing the novel. It was a like a wound that didn’t heal. 

After the time when you became documented, was immigration and those concerns something on your mind?

Always. If you ever turn on a Spanish language news program, immigration is a topic that will dominate the news. I always saw it on the news growing up. It was something my family talked about; it was always at the forefront of our conversations.  

Flashing forward to The Affairs of the Falcons, when did this enter your consciousness?

My mother had told me about something that happened to her very early on in America. About eight years ago now, this incident became a preoccupation. I thought about what would have happened if I were in that situation. I started imagining what someone in her shoes would feel. I just started writing and wrote a scene. I liked it. 

I liked the scene and the character that was coming across on the page. I would go back and follow where ever she would take me. I didn’t write the novel in any chronological order. I just wrote scenes and then other people would pop up to interact with her. It didn’t start putting the puzzle pieces together until I got the fellowship at the Center for Fiction.

Did you talk to your mom or other family members to get a sense of their history?

My grandmother is going to be 100 in August and I spoke to her about the particulars about sensory details. I spoke to her and my aunts. I spoke with friends who have had similar experiences. In terms of place, I would go to Queens a lot to get a feel of it. I visited the parts of Brooklyn that I knew were factories back in the day. That’s where I got a feel for the novel.

What was the narrative that you were looking to stitch together after having all of those scenes?

Part of that fellowship includes working with a freelance editor. I met the editor and they basically said that I had them for X amount of months and she gave me deadlines. Once she gave me those deadlines, that was all I needed. I remember taking all the scenes I had and put them on index cards all over my living room floor. I would move them around on the floor then go to my computer to reorganize it and then print it out. Once I had deadlines, that was all I needed.

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