Friday, August 15, 2014

The Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

The "Unknown Americans" in this novel are Hispanic immigrants living in Delaware.  The novel mostly centers on Alma and Arturo Rivera and their daughter who suffered a brain injury in Mexico (spurring their journey to the US so she can attend a special school), and a neighbor teenager named Mayor Toro, whose family immigrated from Panama before he was born. But the voices of other Hispanic immigrants in the complex are interspersed at the end of each chapter as well.

Cristina Henriquez deftly weaves a lot of themes into this unfolding story.  Through the characters eyes, the reader experiences the dislocation and confusion of the immigrant experience (not knowing where to buy groceries, having to find new foods to subsist on, not being able to communicate on a public bus, struggling to figure out school enrollment, etc.).  The reader also sees how immigrant children often feel caught between two competing worlds. Henriquez also does a great job explaining how "legal" immigrants can easily be forced to become "illegal" immigrants when they lose the jobs that provided their initial sponsorship.

I learned a lot from reading this novel and I think it does a great job in engendering conversation about the immigrant experience.  I very quickly became immersed in the story and couldn't put the book down. Even now I can recall the unique stories of some of the tertiary stories (for example the young woman who moved at 18 to New York to become an actress). I ultimately found the story of what happened to Arturo deeply tragic and it made it hard for me to continue reading. I'm still trying to decide if I view his tragic story to be a realistic choice. Even though the ending upset me, I found this book to be a truly engaging story of resilience and love and a distinct part of the American experience. I could also imagine using this book as a discussion piece in a high school English class.

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