Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans is a multi-voiced anthem to the struggles and celebrations of immigrant Latinos trying to make it in, of all places, Delaware. Spooking in and out of interior monologues like some Latino USA version of The Sound and the Fury, it reveals the hopes and heartbreaks of the mid-Atlantic Hispanic working class community, and one of the freshest literary voices to emerge lately.
With its emphasis on cultural sacrifices and the social burdens of kids and caregivers alike, the third book from the Iowa Workshop graduate and Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation award recipient offers a non-magical thinking assemblage of street voices that come together to serenade a common conceit: If the idea is that life in the U.S. offers but a chance at a better way, than chance alone is rarely enough.
Employing an adroit prose style that is at turns adolescent, expectant, or simply wry and weathered, Henriquez gets into the heads of anxious immigrants and plows right into the mind of a man who farms mushrooms in the dark, a woman who buys tons of oatmeal because it’s cheap and looks like it could be atole, and a boy falling hard for a girl all logic says he should stay away from. There is a lot of Upton Sinclair beneath the spry prose, a lot of hard questions thrown at the social aspects of immigrant life, like: What right does anyone have to hold on to tradition when striving to assimilate?
The Book of Unknown Americans, engaging as it does a myriad of lives, anchors all characters by going back and forth between two families: The Toro clan from Panama that use their hard won savvy to secure a sense of place for the immigrants they encounter, and the Rivera family who seem doomed to trouble at each turn. La familia Rivera came to the U.S. out of a desperate hope that their daughter, a preternatural beauty named Maribel, would be able to receive help for her handicap.
Maribel, once mischievously bright and gifted, is now, after falling from a ladder, irreparably brain damaged. Her condition as a slow but thoughtful teenage girl has done nothing (in the U.S. at least) to stop the sexual attention she garners from a sweet kid who lives in the apartment and will risk all kinds of punishment just to hang out with her; nor does her disabled state thwart the advances of a dangerous skateboarder dude who lifts up her shirt and threatens her mother with finger pistol bang bang gestures.
The Book of Unknown Americans admits the problem of survival, for the immigrants, is malady that has spread beyond borders; the interconnected ills, money woes and medical dilemmas the immigrants encounter is no less complicated a condition than what they had back home. Now that the Latinos are in another part of America, they have it all again. Only now, regardless of the quick neighborhood associations, manual labor and scholastic opportunities, it feels alienating as well as simply awful. The sickness and insecurity that pervades the lives of these immigrants is dealt out in a leveling manner. Henriquez’s tone, while detailing skipped classes, cold trips to the shore, hospital waiting rooms, and police reports, describes a trapped, windowless world.
In The Book of Unknown Americans, the choir of inertia and neutered cosmopolitanism brings a new dress to the corpse of immigration, to a world where promise often turns to compromise, and dreams are settled before they can be secured.
By Roberto Ontiveros