The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

unknownI read this book right after reading Americanah, and both provide a fascinating, though different, perspective on the immigrant experience in the United States.

Sometimes a book makes you take a second look at the people you encounter every day. Makes you think beyond whether the person behind the counter can understand your sandwich order, to what they may have faced just getting where they are, and the daily challenges they probably encounter. This is that book.

Unknown Americans is set in an apartment complex in Delaware that is mostly home to Central and South American immigrants. There are residents from Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Paraguay. The story centers around two families, one from Panama and one from Mexico. Alma and Arturo left Mexico because their teenage daughter Maribel suffered an injury causing serious brain damage. They’ve given up a pretty good life because there’s a school in Delaware that they hope will help her. Both are devastated with guilt over their daughter’s accident and are in some ways grieving the daughter they feel they’ve lost.

Celia and Rafael Toro left Panama because of the destruction caused by the U.S. invasion in 1989. They’ve raised two sons in Delaware and are fairly well-settled in the community. Their eldest son is on an athletic scholarship to college, but their younger son Mayor is having trouble. He’s bullied at school and doesn’t meet any of his father’s expectations.  Celia misses her family and longs to return for a visit.

I worry what it would be like after all this time. We thought it was unrecognizable when we left, but I have a feeling it would be more unrecognizable now. Sometimes I think I would rather just remember it in my head, all those streets and places I loved. The way it smelled of car exhaust and sweet fruit. The thickness of the heat. The sound of dogs barking in alleyways. That’s the Panamá I want to hold on to. Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it. That’s how it works.

When Mayor meets Maribel, he falls in love with her beauty but gradually they become friends. Everyone else sees only a damaged person — Mayor is the only one who talks to her like she’s a thinking human being.

Which would all be great if he wasn’t a teenage boy with raging hormones, full of anger and insecurity.

The story Henriquez tells is a compelling one, and she deftly shows us the many challenges that immigrants face in this country while making us care about the characters and the story. There are clear messages in this book – she wants us to know that Spanish-speaking immigrants in this country come from a diverse range of countries and very different situations. Many of them are here legally and for very good reasons. The one constant, perhaps, is that all are looking for a better life, and that better life doesn’t come easy.

While the book focuses on the lives of these two families, sprinkled throughout are stories from the other residents of the building. I felt a little mixed about these stories – on the one hand they detract from the main story, and they don’t provide much of a sense of who these characters are. On the other hand, Henriquez doesn’t want us to see one “face” of immigration in this community, she wants us to understand the complicated stories of the many people who come here.  I appreciated that, even if it felt like an interruption at times.

I really struggled with Mayor’s character. He has so much good in him, but he also does things that are horribly selfish and thoughtless – and dangerous. But I have to admit that even though his actions make me furious, he’s a troubled teenage boy, not the person I might want him to be. He’s genuinely torn between friendship, attraction, love, and loneliness, and like a teenager he acts on those emotions. I think to write him any other way would be unrealistic.

This book kept me thinking well after I put it down. It reminded me of the importance of having a better understanding of the struggles of people who come to this country.  I definitely recommend it.

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