AT A TIME WHEN THE UNITED STATES
is wracked with debates about what
constitutes a ‘real’ American,” wrote
Refinery29’s Elena Nicolaou, “this
rendering of the immigrant experience
couldn’t be more important.”
Nicolaou was referring to The Affairs of the Falcóns (Ecco/ HarperCollins, 2019), the debut novel by Melissa Rivero ’08, a successful lawyer and writer who is also an immigrant. The Washington Post called Rivero’s book “a beautiful, serious and life-affirming book,” and the New York Times interviewed her in the spring. This fall, the book won the 2019 New American Voices Award, given by the Institute for Immigration Research. The award recognizes a novel that “illuminates the complexity of human experience as told by immigrants.” It was also on the long list for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.
Rivero wrote her critically acclaimed book after hearing about an incident that happened to her mother in the early years of their life in the United States. She worked on the novel for more than six years—stealing time to write after her two children were asleep or during her commute to work as the assistant general counsel at Boxed, an online seller of discounted bulk items. The result of her hard work was an incredibly moving story with insightful commentary on the current political climate.
The Affairs of the Falcóns tells the story of Ana, an undocumented Peruvian immigrant living with her husband and two children in 1990s New York City. After Ana’s husband loses his job at a meatpacking plant, the family is left living in a single room in a cousin’s apartment in Queens. As Ana’s unceasing factory shifts become the family’s sole form of financial security, her struggles to keep her family together become a tale of resilience.
Rivero’s own story is also one of resilience. Born in Lima, Peru, she moved to Brooklyn when she was very young and still lives there today—now with her husband and their two sons. After living as an undocumented immigrant for most of her childhood, she became a U.S. citizen in her early 20s. Then, after graduating from New York University and Brooklyn Law School, she got a coveted job as an associate in the corporate law department at Proskauer Rose. But on her first day of work, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the financial crisis began to worsen.
Many of her colleagues and classmates from law school were laid off. Rivero kept her job, but around the same time, her father started to lose his battle with cancer. Needing more time to help care for her father and reassess her career goals, Rivero took advantage of a one-year opportunity from Proskauer to work on-site at a nonprofit. Rivero worked at the Martha Graham Dance Company, which she found incredibly inspiring and sparked her creative ambitions.
After her year at the dance company ended, Rivero pivoted to in-house work in tech companies and began to seriously pursue writing.
Her training as a lawyer, she said, has been indispensable to her success as a novelist. “What I’ve found extremely helpful from my legal training is the discipline,” she said. “You’re always reading or writing [in law], and you have to get things done in an efficient and timely manner. That discipline is what helps me to actually sit down and write and finish the novel. I certainly feel like Brooklyn Law School gave me those skills.”
After publishing a successful debut novel while maintaining a vibrant legal career, Rivero hasn’t abandoned that discipline. She’s still finding time on the subway and during her children’s naps to type observations and characters on her phone, knowing all those moments will eventually become her second novel.
—by Dominick DeGaetano