THEIR BORDER crossing wasn’t dramatic; a mushroom farm sponsored their visas. Cristina Henríquez begins her Book of Unknown Americans in such a simple manner that it’s disarming. Alma Rivera, our first narrator, and her husband Arturo, leave México for America so their daughter Maribel can attend a special school. This, they hope, will help her recover from “the accident,” the specifics of which are left mysterious at first. Henríquez deftly uses this ambiguity to generate suspense, launching us into an intimate, multi-character saga.
Thirty hours after crossing the border, the Riveras arrive in Delaware via the backseat of a pickup. Alma is relieved of her narrating duties soon after by Mayor, a teenager who lives in her Delaware apartment building and eventually falls in love with Maribel. Mayor’s father, Rafael, takes over as narrator in chapter three. Henríquez’s use of multiple first-person narrators calls attention to itself. The technique invokes an interesting literary tradition, from William Faulkner to Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore’s use of this technique in The Home and the World is a revelation, but Tagore stuck to three characters — husband, wife, and friend. In The Book of Unknown Americans, Alma and Mayor are the main narrators, but Henríquez introduces a veritable chorus of narrators, some of whom leap into her book without narrative motivation, and who are bound only by the tie of being immigrants, old and new, who live in the same building as Alma and her family.
On her first morning in America, Alma shops for groceries at a gas station and feels uncomfortable — rightly so — about a skateboarder who stares at Maribel. Alma spends her days struggling with the minutiae of settling into a new country. The reader feels how unfair it is that someone with her intelligence has no real way of engaging with the wider world. Alma enrolls in an ESL class, and you expect it to benefit her, but her domestic worries weigh too heavily. On her way home from class, Alma gets hopelessly lost. We share her fear of not getting home in time to meet Maribel at the bus stop — a fear that has something to do with “the accident.” Alma calls the school to notify them, but she can’t speak English:
The woman said something else that I couldn’t understand and I nearly wept in frustration. They were only words. I had the sense that I should have been able to unpack them, that there was only a thin veneer separating me from their meaning, and yet the veneer was impenetrable.
A hundred pages into the book, Maribel’s accident is detailed. We see it all: Alma’s horror that she unwittingly played a part in it, the great lengths and distances that parents will go to restore a child to health. Henríquez captures the extraordinary yet common sacrifices immigrant parents make and so endears us to the Riveras. She steeps us in their experience.
Mayor’s interest in Maribel helps her open up to the world; their infatuation helps him through his schoolyard woes, dealing with playmates who warp his name. But the real love story here is between Alma and Arturo, who support each other, and Maribel, through tragic setbacks.
Arturo’s work at the mushroom farm is grueling, but a few months into his stay, his way of thinking begins to shift. He says to his wife: “You worry about everything. You are a true Mexicana. A fatalist.” He adds: “You have to think like a gringo now. You have to believe that you’re entitled to happiness.” However, when a neighbor (and a narrator), who we know has a deep mistrust of teenage boys, tells the Riveras that she saw Mayor and Maribel making out in a car, Arturo demands that the young couple no longer see each other. Even in this more permissive culture, the Riveras retain their own values. Knowing this neighbor’s story deepens the narrative, but mostly the new narrators obstruct its flow.
Arturo’s hope for his family’s future is premature. His visa status, granted in one political climate, grows shaky when the government relaxes the pressure to hire workers with papers; his employer is letting workers go on the flimsiest pretenses. Arturo has only 30 days to find a new job, or the family must return to Mexico.
Throughout the book, Henríquez introduces us to an assortment of migrants from Central and South America who have all moved north for good reasons and find themselves in a rocky relationship with their new country — a composite of love, nostalgia, unrealized dreams, and resignation. To the extent that such relationships can be billed as love stories — and love here is certainly never free — Arturo pays the steepest price, though he does get the privilege of having the final word.
It’s a testament to the strength of Henríquez’s writing that when she has you absorbed in one story, another resident of the building with whom you’ve had little acquaintance can begin their tale and, at least temporarily, hold your attention. Nelia Zafón came to New York City to “dance on Broadway,” but never got a role despite all her training.
I killed myself, but it never happened for me. The world already had its Rita Moreno, I guess, and there was only room for one Boricua at a time. That’s how it works. Americans can handle one person from anywhere. They had Desi Arnaz from Cuba And Tin Tan from México. And Rita Moreno from Puerto Rico. But as soon as there are too many of us, they throw up their hands.
Eventually, Nelia moves to Delaware to start a theater company and finds unexpected love. She ends up thinking: “You never know what life will bring. Dios sabe lo que hace.” God knows what he does.
The many voices in Unknown Americans illuminate tough socioeconomic realities: it’s not just new migrant workers like Arturo who lose their jobs during the economic downturn but also old hats like Rafael, who is let go after working at a diner for 15 years. The residents of the building form a wide-ranging chorus, but a reader can’t help wondering what depths could be plumbed if the voices weren’t shifting constantly. Would there be more space to explore relationships? Mayor’s parents Rafael and Celia left Panamá because they stopped feeling safe there, and now they are proud Americans who still fantasize about visiting Panamá. Would their fights be less shrill if their story wasn’t so condensed?
One afternoon, Mayor convinces Maribel to play hooky from school so that they can experience her first snowfall together. This beautiful outing has unintended consequences: another accident. Mayor has his reasons for taking Maribel out — “Maribel and I deserved to be together and she deserved to see the snow if she wanted to and nobody was going to hold us back” — and the fallout illustrates the slipperiness, the impossibility even, of assigning blame. As Mayor says: “It was just what happened.”
In her story collection Come Together, Fall Apart (2006), Henríquez shows she’s so good at whimsical twists and turns that she can employ them over and over to avoid definitive endings. In The Book of Unknown Americans, she handles the ending with maturity and grace. This is a gritty story — the realities of immigrant life, mistakes that can’t be undone, socioeconomic gaps that can’t be bridged — but it isn’t written in a gritty way. Love is present, palpably so, and hearts take refuge in it. Alma finds her ability to love does not help her “control” life. Every turn that fate takes for these characters could lead them to either their rightful destiny or utter destruction, and they never know which is waiting around the corner.
I became curious to know Arturo’s thoughts and I felt a chill when I saw that he would narrate the book’s last chapter. Here he was. He wasn’t gone yet. The same can be said for this remarkable book. After you’ve experienced Alma and Arturo’s optimism in the face of almost mythical turns of fate, their story will inhabit you for long after you’ve closed the pages.
Priyanka Kumar is the author of the recent novel Take Wing and Fly Here, and she wrote, directed, and produced the feature documentary The Song of the Little Road starring Martin Scorsese and Ravi Shankar.