Brina's Reviews > The Book of Unknown Americans

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
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really liked it
bookshelves: hispanic-culture, coming-of-age

Maribel Rivera is a normal teenaged girl in Patzcuaro, Mexico when one day she goes with her mother to her father's work site and suffers a traumatic brain injury. No longer the prize of Patzcuaro, Maribel retreats into a shell, suffers headaches, and can not complete even the most basic school work. Her parents Alma and Arturo Rivera would do anything for their daughter, look up schools for special needs children in the United States, and leave the only life they knew behind and move to Wilmington, Delaware so Maribel can attend Evers School.
Alma and Arturo have a tough time adjusting to life as immigrants, the primary barrier that they have difficulties learning English. One of the reasons why they do not speak English is that they moved to the Kirkwood Apartments managed by Fito Angelino and all the tenants in the building are Hispanic. Not surprisingly, the primary language of communication is Spanish because it gives the immigrants a safety net where they can be themselves as opposed to the lower class people they now are in the world at large.
The first friends the Riveras meet are the Toro family, who live in the same building. Henriquez tells half the chapters from the point of view of Alma and the other half from the point of view of Mayor Toro, a boy the same age as Maribel who falls for her immediately. While Alma is expectantly overprotective of Maribel, Mayor gets her to communicate and becomes the only person who understands her. As the friendship develops, so does the relationship between the Rivera and Toro families.
Interspersed in the novel are testimonials from all the immigrant residents of the Kirkwood Apartments where the Rivera and Toro families live. All of these people came to the United States seeking a better way of life, and even though they might not have gained the life they originally sought out, for the most part the immigrants are happy they came. The primary example is the Toro family who fled Panama during Noriega's regime and has been living in Delaware for 15 years. The father Rafael works as a line cook in a restaurant, the family becomes US citizens, the older son Enrique receives a soccer scholarship to the University of Maryland, and the family buys a car. They feel that even though Panama has gotten better, they would not have had the same opportunities there as they would have had living in the United States. This sentiment is shared by the other people in their building, the Riveras included.
The people in this book are the Unknown Americans- a photographer, a small business owner, an army vet, a line cook, parents seeking better lives for themselves and their children. Over the course of the book even Maribel improves in both her school work and long term outlook on life while Alma with the help of Celia Rivera learns rudimentary English. Henriquez paints the United States as still being the land of opportunity for legal immigrants in a post September 11 America.
Of course there are still those white supremacists who wish all the immigrants regardless of status would go back where they come from. Henriquez touches on this as a subplot in the novel with the character of Garrett Miller. At first it appeared that he only desired to bully Maribel and Mayor but his character goes much deeper than that. Despite people like the Millers, however, the immigrants in this book appear to enjoy their day to day life as Americans.
I found The Book of Unknown Americans to be from a unique viewpoint. Rather than simply telling a coming of age story of Maribel, Henriquez weaves together the story of many immigrants' experiences. I enjoyed the story of the Riveras and the Toros as well as the other people in the building. I would recommend this to people looking for a short yet poignant read.
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Reading Progress

April 22, 2016 – Shelved
April 22, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
April 22, 2016 – Shelved as: hispanic-culture
April 30, 2016 – Started Reading
April 30, 2016 – Finished Reading
September 20, 2016 – Shelved as: coming-of-age

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

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message 1: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn C. Great review!


Brina Thanks Marilyn. I saw on a friend's shelf and am glad I picked it up.


message 3: by Angela M (new) - added it

Angela M Nice review, Brina!


Brina Thanks Angela.


Taryn Wonderful review! Such a beautiful and heartbreaking book!


Brina Agreed Taryn. I was so upset at the end ( all I'm saying) at many levels. Definitely a poignant book that's a must read in contemporary lit.


Myrna Great review. I gave it three stars because of the ending. I wasn't happy either.


Brina I really did have mixed feelings about the ending. But it was an entertaining read and important too hence the four.


Myrna You need to read The Same Sky, The Distance Between Us: A Memoir, and We Never Asked For Wings. Those are similar to this book.


Myrna Ok, you don't have to read them. LOL. I highly recommend them. (:


Brina Sabah thanks. Myrna I'll add those to my TBR.


Becky Met her at a book reading & she spoke so lovingly about this book...


Brina Wow. Book really seems like a labor of love, end aside. I added her other books to my TBR.


Erica What a fantastic review. I totally want to read this, now. Thanks!


Brina Erica you are in for a treat. Enjoy.


Erica Thank you, I hope to. I'm going to listen to it later this month, as soon as I've finished the other two audiobooks waiting for me.


Brina I know the feeling. I have a lot I want to read but I can only read so fast. So my stack gets backed up.


Ellie Lovely review, Brina, for a lovely book. I didn't love it as much as you did, but I found it quite touching.


Melissa Great review, Brina! What a great book this turned out to be. I agree it was a unique viewpoint.


Brina Thanks, Melissa. Vignette style books just work for me. Leaves me captivated. I enjoyed hearing all of the immigrants' stories, very powerful yet touching.


message 21: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Lovely review Brina!


Brina Thank you Andrea :)


Ellen B I read this book last year for a book club and loved it, though some folks found it somewhat simplistic. Loved, loved, loved Mayor. :)


Brina Ellen I loved for the same reasons. I loved Mayor and Mari's relationship, so touching, and upsetting that their mothers didn't see their connection.


message 25: by Joyce (new)

Joyce Reynolds The audio version is excellent.


message 26: by Karen (new) - added it

Karen Witzler Great review Brina -- I found myself reading lots of your comments from your Hispanic Culture GR shelf. Thanks for introducing me to so many new books.


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