The Book of Unknown Americans
By Cristina Henríquez
Vintage: 304 pages
Teaching literature at a university is a dream that I’m fortunate enough to have realized. I get to spend my days discussing books, which I still think is wild in the best way possible. There is nothing like standing in the classroom, watching students delve into a novel to unpack it, dissect it, uncover its meaning, and see why the work continues to resonate with us, years, decades, or even centuries after its publication. Moreover, each semester produces new opportunities for students to offer up unique insights and readings of texts I’ve read dozens of times.
But sometimes I get burnt out reading the same novels and poems over and over again, semester after semester. Yeah, sure, it makes prepping for class easier because I already have my notes, PowerPoint presentations, and notable quotes to discuss at the ready. From a practical level, it makes sense to tread the same literary ground over and over again. However, sometimes I need a break. Then, I get the overwhelming urge to share in the excitement my students might feel coming to a text for the first time, the joy of entering a new narrative world, and capturing the feeling of the first read that we only ever get once with a book.
That’s exactly what I’m doing this semester. I’m bringing in novels that have been on my extremely long “to-read” list, but which, for some reason or another, I hadn’t made the move to actually pick up and crack open.
The first of these is a novel that got tons of positive press and buzz—even being named novel of the year by The Daily Beast—back when it was published in 2014: The Book of Unknown Americans. Panamanian American author Cristina Henríquez’s novel tackles immigration issues that still have valence today, but complicates the stereotypical narrative of Mexican immigrants crossing into the U.S. illegally that often dominates Latinx immigration stories in popular media. The Book of Unknown Americans acknowledges the diversity of immigrants that come to the U.S. from all over Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, reminding its readers, and us, that there isn’t just one migrant experience.
The Book of Unknown Americans centers on two families: the Riveras, recently arrived from Mexico, and the Toro family who migrated to the U.S. from Panamá years earlier. To give us insight into each family’s narrative, Henríquez tells the story from the perspectives of Alma, the matriarch of the Rivera clan, and teenager Mayor, the youngest of the Toro family. This slick narrative move not only situates us in the different stages of the immigrant experience, but also provides us with a generational gap that asks to consider how the second generation has responded to the groundwork laid by their parents in the quest to build a new life in a new country.
This use of multiple points of view is also interspersed with one-off chapters from other characters, such as Benny Quinto, an aspiring priest from Nicaragua who had to sling drugs in order to escape being involuntarily imprisoned in Arizona by the coyotes who brought him. He ended up escaping, and now works at a BK.
Or Gustavo Milhojas, who fled constant discrimination in Mexico because he was half Guatemalan, eventually landing in the States to work two movie theater jobs to help his kids get through college, before he heads back to his homeland.
Henríquez counters the demonizing stigma and stereotypes that blanket media representations of Latinx immigrants: that they’re all from Mexico, drug dealers, here to steal jobs and take over, or that they’re all illegal. The Riveras are fresh from across the border, but arrive with visas, much to the surprise of even their Latinx neighbors. This revelation stuns the hood as they run through their own stereotypes of Mexican migrants:
We heard a lot of things, but who knew how much of it was true? … They had tried to come into the United States once before but had been turned back. They were only staying a few weeks. They were working undercover for the Department of Homeland Security. … They had connections to a Mexican narco ring.
There is a national, racial, and ethnic hierarchy that exists in the minds of not only white folks, but also amongst many Latinx people. Henríquez is not pulling punches here, reminding us of how we so easily demonize others whom we share struggles with in order to delude ourselves, often in vain, that we are closer to the vision of American success. We put down members of our own community, arguing how we are “better” than them because of where our parents are from—if we’re citizens—or how much money we make, and so on. Instead, we should be building up our community, lifting up those who need it, and working to make sure that we don’t replicate the patterns that have marginalized us and project it on to others.
The Book of Unknown Americans also hit me on a personal level, specifically Mayor’s character, how he is struggling to live up to both Panamanian cultural expectations imposed by his father Rafael, along with the pressure to be “American.” When talking about whether he felt Panamanian or American, Mayor delivers a statement that many of us who grew up biculturally can relate to:
“The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim.”
Any Latinx kid who was born and grew up in this country knows the struggle. What stands out to me in Mayor is how real his experience feels through Henríquez’s writing.
The novel also tackles experiences of overt racism, like Mayor’s classmate Garrett, a poor white kid who spouts off the expected anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx rhetoric to Mayor, but who also sexually assaults Maribel, impaired by brain injury after falling off a ladder back in Mexico. Henríquez shows that white supremacy spares no one, and that it remains unquestioned through generations.
In the end—spoiler alert—tragedy befalls the Rivera family as Garrett’s dad shoots and kills Arturo Rivera. As a result, Alma and Maribel return to Mexico. Yet, in this tragedy, the neighbors gather up funds to help pay for Arturo’s body to be returned to Mexico for interment.
I can see why this book was such a hit: it gives us voices from the Latinx diaspora that at the time, and even now, we don’t get often. At the moment, I’ve spent two days discussing it with my Latinx Literatures class, and the number of students wanting to chime in, to discuss the novel’s impact on them so far, has surpassed what I usually experience in the first week of classes. Usually I’m pulling teeth, begging someone to say something to a room full of people who are mostly still strangers to each other.
But The Book of Unknown Americans has proven that stories like these are just as needed as they were back in 2014.
Featured image: Author Cristina Henríquez