The Book of Unknown Americans
286 pages (hardcover)
When I was twenty years old, I headed to Japan for my first semester abroad. My Japanese was rudimentary, at best. I had taken two semesters of college Japanese, so I knew the basics (the two phonetic alphabets, how to count, a smattering of basic vocabulary, and a handful of useful phrases).
My first week there, my host mother showed me the route for the commute from my new home to the university. The trip took over an hour and involved a bus, multiple subway lines, and about a half-mile walk from the subway stop. I wasn’t worried about the subway—there were lots of signs in Romanji (Japanese words written in Roman letters) and a few in English, and I had a subway map that I could easily follow.
But the bus was a different story altogether. My host mother had pointed out to me the kanji (the most complicated of the three Japanese alphabets; it’s the alphabet that uses Chinese characters) that I needed to look for on the bus signs. I couldn’t read them; I had just memorized them by sight . . . and, to my untrained eye, they looked very similar to the kanji on all the buses going other places.
For at least a week, every morning when I boarded the bus to go to the subway station and every evening when I boarded the bus at the subway station to head for home, I was terrified. What if I got on the wrong bus? When would I know? I didn’t yet know the neighborhood or the bus route well enough to know what we should be passing. If I got on the wrong bus, I could be on it for twenty minutes going in the wrong direction before I figured out I wasn’t in the right place. And then what would I do? I couldn’t just get off the bus at a random stop. My Japanese definitely wasn’t good enough at that point to allow me to explain where I was trying to go or understand if someone told me how to get there. Would people even want to try to help me?
Each day I would get on the bus with my heart racing and fingers crossed. And, for the whole bus ride, I stared out the window, trying to memorize the houses and landmarks we passed . . . and praying that the bus was actually taking me where I wanted to go.
This feeling of terror and helplessness came back to me in full force as I was reading The Book of Unknown Americans. Alma has recently moved from Mexico to the States, and she doesn’t speak English. After her first English class at the community center, she boards a bus:
Outside, the light rain had begun to fall, and after a few minutes I closed the dictionary and watched the drops of water skid diagonally across the window as I listened for the drive to announce “Kirkwood,” which was my stop. But after a while—longer than it had taken on the way there—he still hadn’t said it. I sat up in the seat and looked around. Were we on a different route? I rubbed my hand over the foggy window and peered out. But of course I didn’t recognize anything. Relax, I told myself. The only reason you don’t recognize anything is because you don’t know anything here yet. I stayed put for a few more stops, fixing my gaze out the window while the bus rumbled along. I watched people get off, still more people get on. The driver shouted other words, but never anything that sounded like “Kirkwood.”
Finally, Alma pulls the bus cord and gets out on a strange street. It’s pouring rain and she has no idea where she is. She wanders down the road until another bus passes her. She flags it down frantically, and when it stops, she asks the bus driver the one word she knows: “Kirkwood?” Luckily (and despite all odds, really), the bus driver nods.
The Book of Unknown Americans, a book about Spanish-speaking immigrants who all live in the same apartment building in Delaware, is filled with these day-to-day fears and concerns. Some, like finding the right bus home, are seemingly small, while others are weighty:
When I walk down the street, I don’t want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up. I want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who’s just trying to do the right things. [. . .] We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?
The book largely alternates between the perspectives of Alma and Mayor. Alma is married to Arturo, and they have a daughter, Maribel. In Arturo’s words:
Other people from our town had gone north. Most of them left because they wanted a better life. That’s what they said. A better life. But it wasn’t like that for us. We had a good life, a better life. We lived in a house that I built. We married in a town square when Alma and I were young, when people told us we didn’t know anything yet about the world. But we knew. Because the world to us was each other. And then we had Maribel. And our world grew larger.
But Alma and her family have come to Delaware for a very specific reason: so Maribel could attend the Evers School. As a result of a horrible accident, Maribel suffered some brain trauma and has become a shell of her former self. The doctors in Mexico have told Alma and Arturo that she could improve significantly with the proper help and schooling . . . but that simply isn’t available in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. So, they spend a year finding a company that will sponsor Arturo (he owned a construction company in Mexico, but he will work at a mushroom farm, picking mushrooms in the dark, in Delaware), pack up some of their belongings, and head north.
The first family Alma and her family befriend is the Toro family: Rafa, Celia, and their son, Mayor. The Toros are from Panama. They moved to Delaware when Mayor was only a baby, after the invasion, when the Panama they knew and loved was destroyed.
Mayor doesn’t have many friends, he gets bullied at school, and he does not have his brother’s skills on the soccer field (his brother is now on a soccer scholarship to the University of Maryland). But when Alma and her family move to Mayor’s apartment building, his life changes drastically. When he sees the beautiful Maribel, it is love at first sight. He doesn’t care that she is somewhat broken; he loves her for who she is. And she feels like he is the first person who has actually seen her since her accident. As their relationship grows stronger, she begins to show improvement.
Interspersed between Alma’s chapters and Mayor’s chapters are chapters told in the first person by and about their neighbors in the apartment building. There’s Benny Quinto from Nicaragua, who was studying to become a priest and stole money from the church to come to America illegally. And Quisqueya Solis, who moved from Venezuela to California at twelve, after her mom met and married a rich white guy. There’s Micho Alvarez, a news photographer from Mexico, who now works with a group in Wilmington that advocates for legislation reform for immigrants. Each person has a unique and interesting story and perspective. Their stories are very brief (usually only a couple of pages long), but they add depth and color to the book as a whole.
The book offers multiple perspectives from what are usually silent voices, but it doesn’t come off as preachy. It is a book about immigration, yes, but it is also a book about community and love and family and hope and struggle.
To me, the book feels a little safe, like Henríquez is treading a little too carefully, like she’s trying not to be overly political or in-your-face. I, for one, like in-your-face. It’s honest and real and unapologetic. Nevertheless, a safer approach is more palatable to a wider audience, and this book offers a perspective that should be widely read, so I understand and can appreciate the tone.
This is a good book, and I would recommend it. I don’t say that very often, so take that for what it’s worth.
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month for June 2014
Who should read it: This is a book for people who have experienced both the joys and hardships of living in another country (Danielle, Shana, M.E., you guys would like this). And, if you appreciate the history, culture, and perspective that immigrants to the United States bring, you will love this book (Heather C., read this book immediately. It should go at the very top of your library list. It may even be worth purchasing!). It would also be a GREAT book-club book (although, if there are varied political perspectives in your book club, I imagine this book could result in some heated and passionate discussions . . . but, in addition to the wine, that’s what book clubs should be for, right??).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon: