“I just stood there, staring at the flat cast-iron pan, feeling homesickness charge at me like a roaring wave, filling my nostrils and my ears, threatening to knock me down.”
The Rivera family has a happy life in Mexico, until a terrible accident sends them north to Delaware, where they hope to enroll their fifteen-year-old daughter Maribel in a special needs school that will help her recover from the trauma. With barely a word of English between them, Alma and Arturo Rivera leave behind their comfortable home in Pátzcuaro in order to give their daughter her best chance at a normal life. The somewhat rundown apartment complex they move into in Delaware is inhabited by a motley crew of Hispanic immigrants from all over South America, each of whom has also had to start over from nothing in a new country. Their neighbours include the Toro family from Panama, and when Major Toro meets Maribel, he soon becomes taken with her, striking up a friendship that will quickly become central to both their lives. The two families become fast friends, but the Riveras’ desire to protect their daughter soon complicates Major’s relationship with Maribel.
The central plot of The Book of Unknown Americans is carried by Mayor, and Maribel’s mother, Alma. Though many voices speak, the narrative is passed back to them again and again. Shy, and unpopular, Mayor is struggling to live up to the legacy of his older brother Enrique, who was a popular soccer player at their high school before he left for college. Once Major sees past Maribel’s differences, their relationship quickly becomes the most significant one in his life. For Maribel, Major is the only person who treats her like she is more than her disability, and doesn’t underestimate her. Meanwhile, Alma is mainly concerned with protecting her daughter, and figuring out how to navigate their new life in America. Alma is carrying a heavy burden of guilt surrounding the accident in which Maribel sustained her injury, and tends to overcompensate as a result. While Arturo is working grueling ten hour days in the dark at a mushroom farm, she tries to protect him from her worries and concerns, and facing these challenges alone. Unfortunately, the thread of the story never passes to Maribel, who doesn’t get a chance to speak for herself.
Interspersed with Mayor and Alma’s narrations are the stories of the other immigrants who populate the apartment complex where they live. From Nicaragua to Puerto Rico to Guatemala to Paraguay to Venezuela, these neighbours have come from all over Latin America, and now relate what brought them to the United States. They tell their stories in short chapters that are little slices of life, glimpses of other situations and possibilities. Nelia Zafón came from Puerto Rico chasing the dream of being a dancer and actress. Adolfo Angelino left Mexico in hopes of training as a boxer with a famous coach. The Toro family fled the chaos and poverty that attended the fall of Manuel Noriega in Panama. These accounts often have little bearing on the central narrative, and sometimes even distract from it, but they serve to emphasize the variety of immigrant experience, and the many different roads that eventually led them to Delaware, where they form a supportive community for other newcomers.
Although simply told, Henríquez’s narrative is suffused with the sympathy and detail that is missing from much of the public discourse about immigration in America. While some of the characters are illegal immigrants, most are not, and the Toro family members are all American citizens. Major can barely even remember Panama, and struggles with the fact that he feels more American than Panamanian, but is constantly subjected to racial slurs at school. One and all, Henríquez’s characters come in search of a better life, if not for themselves, then hopefully for their children. Their voices are hopeful and seek out moments of happiness and success, even as they highlight the struggle to be accepted into American society, where they are “the ones that no one even wants to know, because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them.”