I read The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez as a part of #NoBanNoWall here at Imaginary Book Club.
This book describes the struggles that Latin American immigrants face. The main families in The Book of Unknown Americans were documented immigrants, but they faced racism and assumptions that because they were Hispanic they were here illegally. Only one of the main families was from Mexico; other families were from Panama, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, etc. But because they looked Hispanic it was assumed that they were all Mexican.
The Book of Unknown Americans focuses on two main families, the Rivera’s and the Toro’s. The Rivera’s came to America to find better schooling for their daughter after she had a traumatic accident. The Rivera’s story is told from the point of view of the mother, Alma. The Toro’s story is told from the point of view of Mayor, a first-generation teenager. Henríquez also adds in the points of view from other characters about how they got to America.
When talking about why immigrants come to America, Henríquez writes
“I mean, does anyone ever talk about why people are crossing? I can promise you it’s not with some grand ambition to come here and ruin everything for the gringo chingaos. . . We’re talking about people who can’t even get a toilet that works, and the government is so corrupt that when they have money, instead of sharing it, instead of using it in ways that would help their own citizens, they hold on to it and encourage people to go north instead.”
When we read stories about immigrants and refugees that have a failing government and need a way to a better life it reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Parable of the Sower.
In those stories it’s the United States that has fallen and U.S citizens are trying to cross borders to find a better life. We shouldn’t think of immigrants and refugees as “those people” who are different than us because in a different era it could be us seeking refuge in a foreign country and having to face the same struggles immigrants and refugees coming to America have to face now.
My favorite parts about this book were the relationships between parents and their children.
How families sometimes don’t take the time to understand each other. The relationship between Mayor, the youngest Toro son, and his father was heartbreaking to me. His father wanted him to be someone he wasn’t and didn’t accept who his son was. Alma’s relationship with her daughter, Maribel, was also complicated, as she wanted her daughter to be the girl she was before the accident. No one was able to see who Mayor and Maribel really were.
What I liked about Henríquez’s writing was that she made these characters real. From losing their jobs and visas to struggling with English, I felt as if I was right there with them. One criticism that this book gets is that the point of view from the other members of the community feels too robotic, that their stories are told in similar fashion. I also felt this book was slow and didn’t grab my attention like I thought it would.
Overall, this book has a good message.
It shows how we need to embrace immigrants, instead of making assumptions about them.
We should make them feel like they belong in our country while also not taking away their culture and heritage.