Cristina Henríquez’s newly published The Book of Unknown Americans, is not about immigrants’ relationship to white people. Ideally, this would not be unusual in a novel, but in a literary landscape that is still struggling with diversity, it’s refreshing to read her insightful take on the American Dream.
And what is the “American Dream,” anyway? Different economic classes might answer in specific ways, but at the root of every response is the wish, “Can life be a little easier?” The goal posts keep changing, and Henríquez writes about the struggles and victories experienced by a group of Central and Latin American families.
After traveling from Pátzcuaro, México, the Rivera family have arrived at an apartment building in Delaware that is populated by other immigrant families. After their daughter Maribel’s head injury at a construction site, her parents, Arturo and Alma, want her to attend a good school that can give her the care and education she needs. Arturo received sponsorship from a mushroom farm, and although he was the owner of his construction business in Pátzcuaro, here he is just another non-English speaking employee expected to work in poor conditions. Still, they came so that Maribel could get better, and he’s willing to keep at it.
One afternoon at the Dollar Tree, they meet their neighbors, Celia Toro and her son Mayor. Celia’s husband, Rafael, is a line cook at a diner, and they also have a grown son, Enrique. The family left Panamá during the Noriega era when the children were small. Celia now takes it upon herself to be friendly to the Riveras, and for Mayor, it’s love at first sight:
Maribel, I said to myself. Forget about how she was dressed — white canvas sneakers straight out of another decade and a huge yellow sweater over leggings — and forget about the fact that her black hair was mussed like she’d just woken up and the fact that she wasn’t wearing any makeup or jewelry or anything else that most of the girls in my school liked to pile on. Forget about all of that. She was fucking gorgeous.
My heart was jackhammering so hard I thought people from the next aisle were going to start complaining about the noise. Then I remembered the package of underwear I was carrying. In case there was any question, across the front of the plastic in big, black letters, it was labeled “Boxer Shorts. Size X-Small.” I shuttled the package behind my back.
Within a few minutes, he discovers that she goes to what the other kids call the “Turtle School,” the mentally handicapped school. “I never would have guessed it,” he thinks. Still, Mayor is transfixed by her and the two soon strike up a friendship-turned-romance.
Interspersed throughout the main story of the Riveras and Toros are short chapters from the perspective of other residents in the building. We see them mentioned elsewhere in the book, either in passing or as a supporting character, but Henríquez wants to give them a moment to speak. Some stories are tragic, others are peppered with arrogance or gossip, but the point remains: There is no one immigrant story.
Between job struggles, health issues and ideas of what one is “supposed” to do in terms of family and raising teenagers, the two families’ relationship is wonderfully complex and grounded. Henríquez uses the multiple points-of-view excellently and without confusion, which gives a more personal, detailed view of the larger cast of characters. I appreciated that she did not over explain or italicize the Spanish words peppered throughout. If these people had to be thrust into the English-speaking world, why should the Spanish be made more comfortable for non-Spanish speaking readers? Though the characters experience racism — both casual and overt — their existence does not function as a learning opportunity for white people. They are just living their lives, working with what they have and trying to do right by each other. This book is infinitely better than some of the other “Mexican family comes to the U.S.” stories I’ve read. (For instance, the authorial-masturbestion-fest that was Tortilla Curtain by T.S. Boyle, a book I hated so much, I didn’t fully write about it. I didn’t want to spend any more time with it.)
So when we talk about reading more diversely, about seeking out narratives that are different from our own, The Book of Unknown Americans is one of many books where we might do so. This isn’t a Savior story, and this isn’t poverty tourism either. Cristina Henríquez’s characters are among us, and they contribute to our national conversation. Listening is only the beginning.
Full Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy from Knopf, so my pull quote may differ slightly from the finished edition. I thank the publisher for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.