In these heady days of immigration non-reform in the United States, it is worth recalling that much of this nation’s territory was once the property of Mexico, and that many immigrants have fled violence whose source can be traced to America, whether through military aid, drug demand and interdiction or flat-out invasion. One such family is the subject of Cristina Henríquez’s illuminating novel The Book of Unknown Americans, a kind of anti-census in which the statistics of Latino immigration are run backward to reveal individual struggles.
The Toro family has fled from Panama, invaded by the United States in 1989. They end up in Delaware, where they help foster a community of fellow Latinos. These include the Riveras, Mexicans who have come north to provide special education for their teenage daughter, Maribel. She had fallen from a ladder back home and was consequently afflicted with brain damage. Her father finds degrading work picking mushrooms, while her mother Alma struggles to learn English and stomach bland American food.
Despite her condition, Maribel manages to charm young Mayor Toro, who finds her beauty reason enough to be patient with her halting speech and unusual behavior. But their parents’ relatively conservative values conspire to confound the young lovers’ devotions, ultimately with tragic consequences for the entire community. It’s less Romeo and Juliet than a post-9/11 Latino American Beauty, set in the thick of the Great Recession, which caused many Latinos to doubt America’s long-term attractiveness. Suffice it to say that gun violence isn’t unique to Latin America, or to Latinos.
While Henríquez’s focus is these two families, each chapter is told in the first person by many individuals, using a technique exemplified by Faulkner. But this is hardly avant-garde literature and is all the more engrossing for that. In its style and themes, it recalls the writings of Jhumpa Lahiri, though from the perspective of a very different class. Clearly Henríquez’s main interest is her characters, all of whom, however officious or self-pitying, are sympathetic. Whether by intention or accident, her only two flat and sinister characters are white. The Book of Unknown Americans is ultimately a hopeful book about the pursuit of happiness, whatever the source of the misery left behind.