Everytime I go to Barnes and Noble, I take pictures of books I want to read later. I took a picture of The Book of Unknown Americans almost exactly four years ago, and after my favorite podcast mentioned it, I finally got around to reading it.
The book tells the story of the Rivera family, who move to Delaware from Mexico to get medical care for their daughter, Maribel, who had an accident that led to brain damage. In Delaware, they meet the Toros, who moved from Panama and whose son, Mayor, develops a friendship with Maribel. But this book is neither just a love story nor a tragedy about a permanently broken girl. It is an insightful glance into the lives of various immigrants with different backgrounds from a handful of different countries.
Mayor and Maribel’s mom, Alma, are the main narrators, but the other inhabitants of the Riveras’ building in Delaware alternate, discussing their home countries and reasons for moving to the U.S. These parts occasionally felt a bit forced because they read more like personal essays, with the characters addressing the reader directly, but they served their purpose of showing the different ways people end up in the U.S. and their various experiences here.
This book is like a hug. It’s heartwarming without being cheesy or unrealistic. It was honest and relatable and did a remarkable job of contrasting how Latin American immigrants are viewed by some Americans with how their realities look. As someone with Panamanian and Cuban family, I was so relieved and appreciative to see representation from countries besides Mexico, since it’s a clear trend among white authors to represent only Mexico when including Latin American characters.
One of my favorite things about this book was that the Riveras come to the U.S. to find special education for their daughter, but they long for their life in Mexico. The U.S. is not a dream country, and Alma constantly compares the dreary winter and desolate city with the people and smells and sights of the Mexico that they so long to return to. And in a way, this is true for many immigrants.
This is not a perfect book by any means. As you might be able to tell by the title, it focused a lot on people who immigrate the “right” way. While on the one hand I appreciate that it defies the stereotype that Hispanic immigrants are all here illegally, I wish it would have represented undocumented immigrants and their unique struggles as well.
There are also moments where the characters make such silly choices that end up having huge consequences. Of course these moments are necessary to carry the plot along, but I was yelling internally at the characters because these actions just were not justified.
My biggest issue was that Maribel was not one of the narrators, and considering the story revolved around her, it left a notable gap in the narration. This was presumably because of her brain trauma, since at the beginning she was uncommunicative and had trouble remembering recent conversations. It would have been difficult to write her as a narrator. Even so, I think it would have been a great look into how her mind worked and how she improved during her time in the U.S. It felt a bit lazy on Henriquez’s part not to include her perspective, but the rest of the story made up for it.
Despite all this, I promise I did love this book and it is absolutely worth reading. Especially as first- or second-generation immigrants, this story will highlight struggles and joys that most mainstream books rarely do.