Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"The Book of Unknown Americans": Much needed empathy for the plight of Latino Immigrants

“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?” - Micho Alvarez

We moved from a predominately white, blue collar small town in Pennsylvania to a predominately white, white collar small town in Illinois.  Unlike our small town in Pa, here there is a high percentage of Latino Americans.  We heard reports before we moved about which local schools to avoid because of the influx of Latino immigrants ruining the education at those schools.  We heard that test scores for a few of the local elementary schools are abysmal because of all the non-native speakers, that teachers don't know what to do with all these ESL kids, that THEY are taking over schools that were once top ranked.  I don't know what I believed or thought I believed about Latino Americans, but after reading Cristina Henriquez's second novel 'The Book of Unknown Americans' I discovered empathy for the plight of the Latino immigrants who struggle with different kinds of "moving stress" than my family will ever need to encounter.  

Moving is hard. Regardless of who you are, where you are moving, or even how excited you are about it, the upheaval and strain of uprooting and leaving a home and moving to another takes its toll.  Imagine if you didn't speak the language, or didn't have access to the same kinds of food you were used to, or you were treated like a lesser human being by those around you.  The characters in Henriquez's novel all deal with the stereotypes of Latino American immigrants and all tell their tales of discrimination, hardships and the fight to assimilate for the hope of a better life than the ones they left behind. 

The main story revolves around Alma and Arturo Rivera who immigrate legally from Mexico with the hope to find help for their beautiful, 15 year old daughter, Mirabel who suffered a near fatal fall from a ladder that left her brain damaged.  They move to an apartment complex in Delaware close to the mushroom facility for Arturo's work visa employment and to Mirabel's special school.  The Toros from Panama live in the same apartment complex and their teenaged son, Mayor is immediately taken with Mirabel.  Their star crossed love story falls at the center of this novel.  Even with the chorus of voices (each given their own first person narration in chapters throughout the book), the real power in Henriquez's novel comes from the tentative and awkward moments that Mirabel and Mayor spend together.  She gives him faith that he is not the disappointment his father sees him as (because he doesn't play soccer like his brother, Enrique), and he helps to draw Mirabel out from her disability.

Although many critics argue that the other narrative perspectives sound the same - from Benny Quinto, the Nicaraguan who sold drugs to escape the "safe house" he encountered after crossing the border and ended up working at Burger King to Nelia Zafon from Puerto Rico whose dreams of being a Broadway star ended so she opened up her own theater. The critics also argue that they clutter the main storyline, but they add more "Unknown American" voices and give a broader perspective on the struggles of different Latino Americans.

The overall dismal gray and wintery landscape of the Delaware serves as a backdrop for the isolation and struggles each of the characters face - from job losses, to struggles communicating when they need help from the police, to standing up to creepy teenagers who loom around their daughter. Each character tries to find their own version of the American Dream even if it seems that America doesn't want them to dream here.

Although the ending tragedy is abrupt, I still cried and still found myself really rethinking any preconceived notions I hold about the "Unknown Americans" who reside all around me in my new community.  We're a lot more alike than different as we struggle through our own hopes and fears as we try to assimilate and make a new community feel like home even when it is miles away from where we grew up.  Henriquez succeeds in creating empathy for these Unknown Americans and making their plight more known.

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