Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans is the story of a group of immigrants, some of whom came to America legally and some who did not, who live in the same Delaware apartment building. They are from places like Mexico, Guatemala, and Panama, and to each other, they do not always seem to have a lot in common. But what they most certainly do have in common is the single most important thing about them: they are in the United States to create better lives for themselves and their children. They are among the bravest and the most desperate of people.
Henriquez tells their story through two principle voices: Alma, a young Mexican mother; and Mayor, a Panamanian teen who falls in love with Alma’s daughter. In addition to these two narrators, numerous minor characters are given voice in short bursts of first person narration interspersed between the alternating chapters from Alma and Mayor.
Alma and her husband have just arrived from Mexico with their daughter Maribel, a beautiful teenager suffering the effects of a traumatic brain injury she suffered there. Having come to the U.S. legally, they are here strictly to get Maribel the kind of special schooling that is not available to her in their home country. Mayor’s family, on the other hand, left Panama years earlier when his parents decided that Panama was too dangerous a place in which to raise a family. The family has been in the U.S. long enough now that Mayor and his older brother think of themselves as Americans, not as immigrants from Panama.
As different as the residents of the building are, they function more as an extended family than as a bunch of people who just happen to live in the same apartment building. New residents, most of whom barely speak English, are quickly taken under the wings of those who have been in the building long enough to understand all subtleties and shortcuts associated with their shared situation. On weekends, the families sometimes gather for meals where the men tell “war-stories” about their jobs, the women tell stories about their children, and televised soccer matches blare in the background.
The Book of Unknown Americans, while it does effectively put human faces on a few of the often indistinguishable thousands of Latin Americans immigrating to the U.S. each year, paints such an idealized picture of them that it loses much of its impact and sense of realism. Unfortunately, this gives the novel just enough of a one-sided feel that many of its characters become more stereotypical than authentic. Alma, Maribel, and Mayor, though, are such sympathetic characters that their story is an interesting one worth reading.