Arturo Rivera, his wife Alma, and their daughter Maribel arrive in the United States with close to nothing. Unlike many immigrants, who come to the United States out of poverty and desperation, the Riveras have arrived in the hopes of getting Maribel into a special school for children with brain damage. Beautiful sixteen-year-old Maribel hasn’t been the same since a terrible accident and Arturo and Alma would do anything to help her recover. They find themselves in an apartment building full of other immigrants. Entwined with the Riveras story is that of the Toro family, whose son Mayor falls in love with Maribel on first sight and only loves her more when he gets to know her better, and snapshots from the lives of other immigrants from all over Central and South America.
I really loved The World in Half, the first novel I read by Cristina Henríquez, so when I was offered The Book of Unknown Americans for review consideration, I immediately accepted. Although I’ve forgotten the details, I still remember how beautiful that book was and how much of an effect it had on me. This book was different, but again had an impact and slightly shifted my worldview.
One of the things that stands out most, again, is Henríquez’s beautiful, clear writing. The very first scenes of the novel, when the Riveras are arriving into their new apartment for the first time, are surprisingly moving. We learn the details of their lives – the cracked windows, the cupboards with bedsheets tacked on instead of doors, the mattress a discarded relic they found on the way – and even when the story gains more heft, we know that this is in the background, not only for the Riveras but for the other tenants in the building.
Their story is interspersed with those of the other people in the apartment building. They all have different reasons for arriving in the United States, some legal, some illegal, and this is what the book is trying to convey. There are so many of these people, all Americans, who are unknown, who don’t count as much because they have slightly darker skin, who slip beneath the radar. Like immigrants in what seems the world over, especially those who aren’t white, they suffer simply for being slightly different and are held accountable for all manner of ills. I found this passage really powerful:
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. People are desperate, man. 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. What choice do people have in the face of that? Like they really want to be tied to the underside of a car or stuffed into a trunk like a rug or walking in nothing but some sorry-ass sandals through the burning sand for days, a bottle of hot water in their hands? (p.241)
I didn’t get tired of these parts of the book, even though I liked the main story too. All of them were different and had stories worth hearing. Although they were brief, and for the most part had settled in that apartment building and left the more difficult parts of their immigration behind, I personally found them really moving and a perspective I hadn’t encountered often enough.
Very highly recommended and I will continue to keep my eyes open for Henríquez’s next book!
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