The first thing I have to say about The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez is that it’s absolutely unputdownable. If I had started this on a weekday and not the weekend, I would have been in agony, counting the minutes until I could pick it up again. Luckily, I started it on a Saturday night and read until 4 in the morning until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and picked it right back up on Sunday morning.
After a life-altering injury, Maribel Rivera’s parents decide that moving from Mexico to the United States is their best shot at giving her a good education and fulfilled life. What they don’t expect is the hardships they would face in the land that promised white picket fences and success as long as they worked hard. In their “new” apartment in Delaware, the Riveras join a mosaic of immigrants from all over Latin America with one dream: to live a better life. Each person has their own backstory: dreams, ambitions, things they’ve left behind… Collectively, they are the “unknown Americans.” In their apartment complex, the Riveras meet the Toros and they quickly become friends. As the Riveras work hard to help Maribel recover from her injury, Mayor Toro, the weak, second child of a “manly man” father from Panama just wants to get through school without being bullied. Soon, a strong bond develops between Maribel and Mayor…
This novel broke my heart. Seeing the bond grow between Maribel and Mayor was incredibly heartwarming, as each teenager feels in their own way that they do not fit in. They find solace in each other’s company and speak freely when others can’t seem to listen or understand them. I imagine that the adults in the complex feel the same way about America; they are constantly trying to fit in but remain in the margins no matter how hard they try. They even resort to driving extra slowly on the highway to prevent being pulled over by the police due to racial profiling.
Alma (Maribel’s mother) Rivera and Mayor Toro are the main voices of the novel but, between their perspectives, other residents from the apartment complex get their own chapters (I like to call them vignettes) to introduce themselves one by one. At first, I was a little nervous that there were so many characters to keep track of but then I realized that these were sort of one-off stories that provided the characters’ backgrounds that you could read and appreciate. These are the “unknown Americans.” I liked and appreciated that so many people were given a voice in the novel. One resident, Adolfo “Fito” Angelino from Paraguay, says, “Many people think we’re trying to take over, but we just want to be a part of it… This is our home too.” As a daughter of an immigrant family, I get it. There have been times where people have told me straight to my face how they think immigrants are taking over Canada and swiping up all the jobs when they can’t even speak “our language” (English)… It’s heartbreaking to hear this perspective and I’m so glad that books like The Book of Unknown Americans exist so maybe more people will come to understand the immigrant perspective. The novel doesn’t blame anyone for their views; it merely shows them a different side of America – one that is perhaps less talked about. Again, in Angelino’s words, “If people want to tell me to go home, I just turn to them and smile politely and say, “I’m already there.””
I didn’t really expect to cry when reading this book but I did. The tears weren’t from sadness – I was simply moved by how supportive the residents at the apartment complex could be and it reminded me of how wonderful we can be if we all just accept each other for who we are.
Verdict: I wish I could put this book into everyone’s hands. This is an important read, and a beautiful one at that. I loved this book.
Read if: You’re interested in hearing a different perspective and are looking to read more diversely, want to read a book that will touch your heart and stay with you for a long, long time. I can’t recommend it enough.
Have you read The Book of Unknown Americans? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?