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“Clap When You Land” is a Touching Tale of Family and Betrayal

Two sisters grapple with their circumstances after the death of their doting father.

Clap When You Land Intro image of Morningside Heights and Puerto Plata Dominican Republic
Clap When You Land Cover

Title

Clap When You Land

Author(s)

Elizabeth Acevedo

Genre

LGBTQIA+ | Young Adult

The first time I flew to Puerto Rico, I wasn’t expecting anything special from the routine landing in San Juan. But when the landing gear touched down on the tarmac and that first bump on the ground jolted us in our seats, the passengers on the plane exploded in raucous applause. Eyebrows cocked, I curiously peered at my now wife for an explanation. Since she grew up in San Juan, she’d know why these boricuas were so delighted. She smiled, welcomed me to her hometown, and said, “People clap when they land here.” She explained that, for a superstitious people, it was a way of celebrating a safe homecoming.

I’ve wanted to read Elizabeth Acevedo’s work for a while.  Her YA novel, With the Fire on High, has been on my Kindle reading list for a while, but I never got around to buying it. Then Clap When You Land was released during the pandemic, reminding me of those whimsical touchdowns in Puerto Rico; when my local library offered it, I scooped it up and devoured it in a few hours.

Written in verse, Clap When You Land has a rhythmic flow evocative of rap lyrics. It’s a poetic tale of two sisters, separated by three months and the Atlantic Ocean. The twist is that neither sister knows the other exists until their father’s death causes their worlds to collide. 

Camino Rios lives in Soúa, Puerto Plata, República Dominicana, with her Tía Solana. Yahaira Rios lives in Morningside Heights, New York City, with her mother, Zoila. Burying clues throughout the story, Acevedo magically transforms a sullen landscape of loss and desperation into a vividly sentimental and thrilling vignette about a family grappling with the absence of their patriarch, the complicated Yano Rios, and the legacy of deception left in his wake.

The story begins with Yano’s plane crashing.  He’d been on his way to the Dominican Republic for a summer pilgrimage. The daughters he leaves behind use their voices to paint a delicate, yet intricate, portrait of their magnanimous Papi. They tell of his gold-toothed smile, which the airline later uses to identify his remains. That he’s “the big hot boiling sun we all looked to for light” and “a no-nonsense street-smart guy” who could “sell a lit match to a burning gas station.” 

A man who “loves to be loved,” Yano marries Yahaira’s mother, then, a few months later, marries Camino’s mother in the DR. Acevedo creates intrigue by leaving some details off the page. Curiously missing is Yano’s reasoning. He’s dead, so he can’t tell his daughters why he married one of their mothers and then illegally married the other. With no concrete timeline, Acevedo leaves us to wonder if he married them both because he got them pregnant or because he was simply un cabrón

In writing the sisters’ voices, Acevedo separates their environments within the text into two extremes––developed and developing worlds––drawing stark contrasts between them physically, emotionally, and circumstantially. Yano spends summers with Camino but is in New York City the rest of the year with Yahaira. In the DR, Camino and her Tía received money from Yano for indoor plumbing, a generator, tiled floors (their neighbors have dirt floors), a TV, and Wi-Fi. Notably, these are all things Camino’s sister in New York takes for granted. Yano teaches Camino to swim in the soothing waters of the Atlantic Ocean and teaches Yahaira to play chess. Camino attends an international high school and dreams of applying to Columbia University and someday living with her father in the States. Meanwhile, Yahaira, with ambiguous plans for her future, repeatedly skips classes and quits the chess team. Camino is in a dire situation. Her life is:

dirt-packed, water-backed, third-world smacked:
they say, the soil beneath a country’s nail, they say.
I love my home. But it might be a sinkhole

trying to feast     quicksand

mouth pried open; I hunger for stable ground,
                                                                   somewhere else.

 

Her father did his best to shelter his headstrong eldest daughter from a dour existence in the DR, going so far as paying off El Cero, the neighborhood pimp, with a yearly stipend to leave her alone. But after her father’s death, Cero creeps about, following Camino, watching her swim in the warm ocean water off of her white sandy beach. Yano was her salvation, future, and a ticket to a better life. Now, she must rethink her strategy. 

Yahaira—every bit her father’s daughter, down to her dark skin, tight curls, and facial features—has been angry at Yano for a year, before the plane crash. On the chess board, he taught her the strategies to defeat her opponents and the humility to lose with pride. But nothing, not even all Yano’s love and devotion, could erase her devastation upon discovering that Papi had another wife. And Yahaira, weary of hurting her mother with the discovery, tells only Dre, her girlfriend.

While her existence in Morningside Heights is not as bleak as her sister’s in the DR, Yahaira’s life is a blend of her American birth and her familial roots on an island she’s never set foot on. Regardless, she views the world as both a Dominican and the daughter of immigrants. 

Can you be from a place you have never been? You can find the island stamped all over me, but what would the island find if I was there? Can you claim a home that does not know you, much less claim you as its own?

For many reasons, I found Yahaira the most relatable. She’s a first-generation American with Caribbean-steeped roots. Spanish is her first language, yet she struggles to speak it with the same fluidity as her parents. She’s also queer. However, Camino stole my heart. She’s feisty, generous with her friends, understands hurricane preparation, and is anxious to glimpse a better life––but feels guilty leaving behind her home. Each sister is a strong woman in her own right, but Camino’s circumstances compel her to be demanding, relentless, and a survivor.

Full of charming insights into Dominican culture and lore, the novel reveals Acevedo’s immeasurable talent and wizardry by transforming her verse into descriptive storytelling. In sparse words, she treats us to delicious food, rich ethereal rituals, soulful bachata, and heartbreaking moments of agony, along with a robust helping of compelling characters and their tense relationships. Even in seamlessly introducing Yahaira’s queerness to the fold, Acevedo tackles a complicated issue within the Hispanic/Latinx community, however superficially.

This story reminds us that families are complicated, parents keep secrets, children are our legacy, and that love is the fabric that cloaks the family. In Clap When You Land, the Rios family’s reverence for Yano, despite his betrayals, builds a connection that eventually leads to a fiercely unbreakable bond.

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About the author(s).

Elizabeth Acevedo is the author of Clap When You Land, With the Fire on High, and The Poet X, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and the Walter Award, amongst many others. She is a National Poetry Slam champion and holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland. Acevedo lives with her family in Washington, DC. Released in 2023, Acevedo’s latest novel, Family Lore, is her first for adults.

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