by Steve Cole
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Citizen Cárdenas is a story about people caught in the cross-hairs of gentrification. On the one hand is the protagonist of this story, Cuban immigrant, Vietnam veteran, and ex-gang member Jesus “Gato” Cárdenas, who at times becomes homeless through no fault of his own. Others, like second generation Greeks, George and Alexia Demas, homeowners with professional careers, can afford to stay but are torn because many friends were forced to move and the newcomers are harder to get to know. During one bout of homelessness, the Demas’s let Gato stay in their home until his government assistance is reinstated. Later they help him through a serious of crises involving his housing, health, alcoholism, and lack of identification. Eventually their attempts to help Gato obtain identification reveal a mystery about how he came to the United States. Told through alternating voices, and literary devices such letters, documents, and transcribed tape recordings, some surreptitiously, the story reveals the depth and interpersonal coincidences in the relationship between the Demas’s and Gato and the mystery of Gato’s true identity.
Readers may ask, what motivates the Demases, to help a man so different than themselves. Is it because their own parents were immigrants and struggled to make ends meet? Is it the religious values of their Greek Orthodox upbringing? Is it their involvement with the politics of empowerment when the disparity of Chicago’s have and have-not communities led to the election of that City’s first African-American mayor? Or is it the very human need to build family and community?
Reviewer Gary Joenz writes, “The narrative is well described by George, Alexia, Gato and others – with each chapter in a different voice. With a lesser author this technique could easily fail, but in Citizen Cárdenas it succeeds entirely convincingly. Perspectives shift, facts can seem elusive, aspects of the human condition maddening – yet in this wonderfully crafted novel thoughtful truths emerge, poignant and meaningful.
“A moving social saga of compassion and connection” – Kirkus Reviews