At the age of four, Natalia Sylvester came to the U.S. with her parents and sister and landed in Miami, where her aunt, uncle, and cousins welcomed her family until they were able to get on their own feet. Her father, a pediatrician, had to get re-certified, learn English, complete a residency (again), and mostly start anew. It is not lost on Sylvester that her family's hardship was different from other immigrant families like those in her sophomore novel Everyone Knows You Go Home; nonetheless, hers wasn't necessarily a stable and well-off life.
Because of the complexity of working, studying, and living in the U.S. as immigrants, her family was nomadic. She recalls a moment when her family was moving to Buffalo with their belongings entirely packed. Years later, her mother revealed that she was shielding them from the truth, and that they never had the intention to move to Buffalo but were actually packed with the intention of returning to their native Peru. At the last minute, they learned of a way to stay in the U.S. and moved to McAllen, Texas, on the border with Mexico.
Contrary to her family’s immigration story, several protagonists in Everyone Knows You Go Home experience some form of trauma or death—rape, physical or sexual abuse, heartbreak, ailing health, loss of a loved one, death, murder. But Sylvester says that she doesn’t want the characters to be defined by it. “I want the characters to be seen thriving and in a joyous light and in everyday, ordinary ways, because I feel it's something that gets lost in common conversations when people talk about immigrants,” she says. She adds that even the most well-meaning conversations surrounding immigrants today are broken down to statistics or significant, historical facts—they contribute X amount to the economy, pay back X amount in taxes, invented this or that—when in fact, there are many immigrants trying to live ordinary lives. She adds: “I don’t think we have to be exceptional to justify our own worth.” Sylvester urges readers to see beyond trauma and respect the ordinary.
There is a magical, unapologetic fluidity throughout the novel encircling geography, language, metaphysical, and past and present borders. Sylvester inserts a deceased father’s appearance and conversation in the novel (though she doesn’t believe she’s ever encountered a spirit in real life). Fluently bilingual, Sylvester dips in and out of English and Spanish; chronicling stories of immigrants, she toggles back and forth between Mexico and Texas.
The trajectories of some of Sylvester’s characters are shaped by real experiences, whether they are Sylvester’s own or happened to people she knows. And her research encompassed educating herself about the amnesty program in the U.S. in the 80s, scouring immigration laws, talking to psychologists and school counselors, hearing accounts from a large immigrant population, and yes, gathering stories from people who themselves had crossed the border.
The book is dedicated to Sylvester’s mother, who she sees reflected in the novel. She believes that immigrant mothers sacrifice a lot, though they often don’t get the credit. Their sacrifices simply go unsaid or unremarked; at times women don’t share their sacrifices out of protection for their loved ones, “especially with a family like mine,” Sylvester says, “where we have more traditional gender roles—working dad, stay-at-home mom—and it may be more visible to see the male’s contribution to the family.” She learned that the role of women are less visible or not as easily recognized. “Or maybe they’re like my mom, not interested in getting credit. Or perhaps maybe there was something they…didn’t need to know happened.” What goes unspoken is one of the most powerful tools in Everyone Knows You Go Home.
Sara Ortiz is the program manager for the Believer Festival.