The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez’s second novel, begins in the voice of Alma Rivera, who has just crossed the U.S.-Mexico border — legally — with her husband, Arturo, and her daughter, Maribel. They are heading to Delaware, where Arturo, a former construction site manager, has taken a job growing mushrooms. He will eventually have to stand in the dark for ten hours a day with no break, in a place where no one stops to eat. He’ll come home each day exhausted. Arturo has taken this job not because his family had a bad life in Mexico but because Maribel was hurt at his construction site, and they are hoping a special school in Delaware can help her. Arturo is sacrificing status and security for Maribel’s health.
The U.S. gives the Riveras hope, but it doesn’t always make the fruit of that hope easy to get. Here is how Alma’s monologue begins: ”Back then, all we wanted was the simplest things: to eat good food, to sleep at night, to smile, to laugh, to be well. We felt it was our right as much as anyone else’s, to have those things.” And the book hits its first ominous note. ”Of course,” she continues, ”when I think about it now, I see that I was naïve.”
Alma’s is the first in a series of vignettes, first in her own voice, then in Arturo’s, then in the voices of the people who reside in the apartment building they come to inhabit, all Latinos in diaspora, with widely ranging stories of arrival and survival in the place they’re now trying to see ashome. As the stories pile up, framing the central action, it’s hard not to think a little of Sarah Jones’s remarkable 2004 play Bridge and Tunnel, which told stories of transit and arrival in quick deft episodes, or of Sandra Cisneros’s groundbreaking The House on Mango Street, a coming-of age-story whose shifting lenses captured both a community’s interconnectedness and a young woman’s maturing.
But in this case, the central character, Maribel, whose illness is key to the Riveras’ immigration, is silent. Her voice is never heard, even though concern for her drives the plot forward. Instead the voices — of Señor and Señora Rivera, of the Toro family, who befriend them, and of Mayor Toro, who falls in love with Maribel despite her illness — frame the silence.
We see Señora Rivera’s desperate search for someone who can speak Spanish when Maribel goes missing from the bus one day, the exhaustion Arturo feels coming home from thankless, barely humane work. In between we glimpse the kinds of occasions that drive people to make the enormous sacrifice that immigration represents, and the hard work newcomers often do to survive. Yet we also see the determination of both individuals and a community to persevere at another, richer level of life. This is a lovingly woven portrait of how friendships sustain people, how people support one another, and how people make a home in unlikely places.
This book drives towards ultimate tragedy, but it also lifts up characters who embody the struggle, and even the sometimes ambivalent process of succeeding as an American, like Fito Angelino, the apartment building’s owner: ” I started off as the manager, but now I own this building. Bought it out almost ten years ago after working jobs on the side, saving up… I try to make this building like an island for all us washed-ashore refugee… I don’t let anyone mess with me. If people want to tell me to go home, I just turn to them and smile politely and say, ‘I’m already there.’ ”
Henríquez offers up stories we need to hear and lets us sit with her characters in communion and even friendship. It’s a lovely, worthwhile summer read- one whose bittersweet end I find haunting me even now.