Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Book of Unknown Americans

Title:  The Book of Unknown Americans
Author:  Cristina HenrĂ­quez
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2014. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0385350848 / 978-0385350846

Book Source:  I read this book based on its description.

Favorite Quote:  "We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?"

This is one of several books I have read recently that addresses the topic of immigration into the United States. GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love looks at the immigrant experience of British women in the 1940s. Americanah is about an immigrant from Nigeria. A component of Island of a Thousand Mirrors encompasses immigrants who came to the United States to escape war. The Invention of Exile looks at an immigrant who unsuccessfully tries to find his way back into the country after deportation. All the books look at different time periods and different nationalities, but all have the common themes of opportunity and prejudice. This book is by far the strongest and most heartbreaking look at the immigrant experience.

This book is about the experience of Latin American immigrants. The Rivera family lived happily in Mexico, doing well financially and surrounded by family and loved ones. Their only daughter Mirabel suffers a traumatic brain injury in an accident. So, the Rivera family leaves all they know and hold dear and come to the United States to seek help and opportunity for Mirabel. Arturo and Alma are trying to do the best they can for their daughter, just like any parent any place in the world.

Interspersed with the story of the Rivera family are short narratives from some of the people who surround them. Immigrants like them from all over Latin America. They come different national backgrounds, different economic backgrounds, and they come for different reasons. All come with one goal - to build a better life. In this new homeland, all find themselves grouped together under one label. All find themselves forced between worlds.

"The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim.” These words come from a young man who feels that America is his home and that he is American. However, his family obligations reinforce a tie to the land he left behind, and prejudice in his adopted homeland forever reinforces that he is different and that he does not belong. "These people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some ***-up ideas about us. About all brown-skinned people..."

The Riveras settle into an apartment complex in Delaware, near the mushroom farm where Arturo has a job and near a school that can meet Mirabel's special needs. They find a community of other immigrants. They encounter difficulties of language barriers, economic hardships, and prejudice. They also find some friendship and support, within the immigrant community and outside of it. Yet, just trying to survive economically and emotionally becomes a daily struggle.

"When I walk down the street, I don't want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up. I want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who's just trying to do the right things. I wish just one of those people, just one would actually talk to me."

No spoilers in this review, but I will say I did not see the ending coming! It hit me hard for being unexpected and powerful. After reading the event, it makes sense in light of the news stories these days. It strongly reinforces the force of the prejudice and hardship immigrants often experience.

This book is a powerful statement in its ending and its characters - people who are just like you and me but who cannot escape prejudice against the way they look, the way they sound, and the place they come from. Strange and heartbreaking in a country that is full of immigrants and that prided itself on being a melting pot and a land of opportunity for all.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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