I don’t need anyone’s pity. My life has been what it has been. It’s not a wonderful story, but it’s mine. – Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans
How to tell a story: Well, you begin at the beginning and work your way towards the end. Easy. Few stories, however, are as straightforward as they first appear. On the surface The Book of Unknown Americans tells a simple enough story: Arturo Rivera relocates his family from Mexico to the United States so his fifteen-year-old daughter, who sustained a brain injury whilst helping him out on his construction site, can go to a special school.
We had been planning our life here for so long. Filling out papers, hoping, praying, waiting. We had all of our dreams pinned on this place, but the pin was thin and delicate and it was too soon to tell whether it was stronger than it looked or whether, in the end, it wasn’t going to hold much of anything at all.
When they arrive in Delaware (where Cristina Henríquez was born) the girl, Maribel, meets Mayor Toro whose family is from Panama and are well-settled in the States now and it’s love at first sight. Of course the course of true love never runs smoothly and so as life throws obstacle after obstacle in front of them the big question is: Will they beat the odds? It has all the makings of a fairly decent YA novel and, indeed, this is a book that will appeal to a wide age range but it’s better than that. In an interview Cristina talks about the origins of the book:
The novel actually started as a short story told from Mayor’s point of view. Mayor is an outsider in some ways—the kids at school tease him for being a nerd and for being a Pan, which is their slur for Panamanian (and which was the slur used against me when I was in high school); he’s uncoordinated, which makes him a disappointment to his father, who has dreams of him being a soccer star; he only has one real friend; he’s never been with a girl. I thought it would be interesting to pair him with a someone, Maribel, who is an outsider in her own ways, ways very different from his. She’s new to the United States, she doesn’t speak English, and … she has recently suffered a brain injury, which has completely removed her from any normal teenage experience. What might two people like that find in each other? What might they give each other? The fact that it’s a first love for both of them only ups the ante—Mayor feels with absolute conviction that he would do anything for Maribel, but when he does attempt a grand gesture, it’s terribly misguided. The consequences of that gesture alter the fates of all the characters.
What makes the book rise head and shoulders above most love stories is the storytelling because rather than opt for your bog-standard omniscient narrator Cristina has two first-person narrators: Mayor and Alma, Maribel’s mother and so we get to see events from two separate (and very different) perspectives which is unusual and takes a little getting used to at first because you expect the narrative to move chronologically from chapter to chapter and it doesn’t always; sometimes we step back and relive events from the other person’s point of view. But here’s the clever bit: every third chapter the narration is handed over to someone else completely. In chapter 3 it’s Rafael Toro; in chapter 6, Benny Quinto; chapter 9, Gustavo Milhojas; chapter 12, Quisqueya Solís; chapter 18, Nelia Zafón; chapter 24, Micho Alvarez and finally the last word goes to Arturo Rivera himself. This gives the novel the feel of a documentary. The ‘camera’ shifts and they each get a few pages to tell their story before we go back to our love story. It’s a novel and refreshing way of providing us with the bigger picture. And it works. It’s like having half a dozen short stories interspersed throughout the novel. Clever and effective.
I have to wonder what The Book of Unknown Brits would read like. We know—mainly from TV dramas—that in America most of the low-paid jobs go to ethnic minorities. Most New York City taxi drivers, for example, are Indian, Middle Eastern or African these days; if they decided to remake Taxi it would be a very different show. In Scotland 96% of the population is white. In the USA the non-Hispanic White percentage was 63% in 2012 and non-Hispanic Whites are the still the majority in forty-six states; Hawaii, New Mexico, California, Texas, and the District of Columbia are, however, the exceptions. These five jurisdictions have "minority majorities", i.e. minority groups are the majority populations. As a kid I was only ever aware of two ethnic minorities, the Chinese and the Indians (who all worked in restaurants) and that was it. I was a teenager before I met my first black man and even he wasn’t especially black. Now things are changing. The number of foreign-born citizens working in the UK has increased from 2.9 million in 1993 to more than 6 million in 2012.
There was a significant jump in the number of foreign-born workers in the UK during 2006, which coincides with the opening of UK labour markets to workers from the A8 countries … in mid-2004. – Dr Cinzia Rienzo, ‘Migrants in the UK Market: An Overview’, The Migration Observatory, 28 September 2013
I wonder how different their stories would be to the ones in Cristina’s book. Probably not very. I’ve included these details about the UK because I imagine this book is far more relevant to us here than it ever has been before. Instead of Mexicans we have Poles, instead of Venezuelans we have Romanians, instead of Puerto Ricans we have Estonians, instead of Guatemalans we have Latvians, instead of Nicaraguans we have Bulgarians, instead of Columbians we have Hungarians, instead of Panamanians we have Slovakians, and instead of Paraguayans we have Czechs. What do we know of any of these cultures? Oh, we have new weird-looking sausages in Tesco—must try those.
Of course we’re not bigoted—being bigoted is bad—but we are ignorant. There’s a scene in The Book of Unknown Americans that really hits the nail on the head:
We rode the bus to midnight Mass with the Riveras, although Enrique sat all the way in the back, plugged in to his iPod, so it was basically like he wasn’t even there. The bus driver tuned the radio to the all-Christmas-music station, and when “Feliz Navidad” came on, I guess since we were the only people on the bus, he raised the volume and shouted back at us, “Here you go! A little piece of home for you!”
Under his breath, my dad said, “Every year the same thing. If it’s in Spanish, it’s a piece of home. Well, I never heard this song until I came to the United States.”
“And every year, you complain,” my mom said.
“You like this song?”
“It’s like how everyone thinks I like tacos. We don’t even eat tacos in Panamá!” my dad said.
“That’s right. We eat chicken and rice,” my mom said.
“And seafood. Corvina as fresh as God makes it.”
‘Feliz Navidad’ is a Christmas song written in 1970 by the Puerto Rican singer-songwriter José Feliciano. Oh, wait, I know José Feliciano but how many other Puerto Ricans can you name? It’s like Nelia Zafón says:
The world already had its Rita Moreno, I guess, and there was only room for one Boricua at a time. That’s how it works. Americans can handle one person from anywhere. They had Desi Arnaz from Cuba. And Tin-Tan from México. And Rita Moreno from Puerto Rico. But as soon as there are too many of us, they throw up their hands. No, no, no! We were only just curious. We are not actually interested in you people.
I guess José Feliciano took over after Rita Moreno retired. I suppose Ricky Martin will be up next.
This is a surprisingly-optimistic novel. I didn’t expect it to be. I thought it would be all about oppression and prejudice and, yes, there’s some of that here but since the story is told entirely from the point of view of immigrants it’s flavoured by their world view. This line jumped out at me:
Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or of longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And the condition: if only I can get to that place.
Are all immigrants inveterate optimists at heart? It would seem so if this book is to be believed and I found that a little hard to swallow. It smacked a little of propaganda. In every community there’s always someone who’s going to let the side down and yet I didn’t see anyone here who wasn’t fundamentally law-abiding, decent and hardworking which, I agree, most people are. Like Nelia Zafón. This is how her story begins:
I am Boricua loud and proud, born and raised in Puerto Rico until I told my mami in 1964, the year I turned seventeen, that I wanted to live in New York City and dance on Broadway. My mami put up one hell of a fight. You are only seventeen! You don’t have any money! ¡Estás más perdido que un juey bizco! All of that. But I had a dream that I was going to be the next Rita Moreno. I was going to be a star. I told my mami, You can look for me in the movies! And I left.
Needless to say her dreams don’t come true, at least not the ones she had when she was seventeen:
I worked like crazy. I practiced dancing until my feet bled and my knees felt like water balloons. I rubbed Vicks into my cracked heels and took so many hot baths I lost count. I went to a voice coach and sang until my throat was raw. I killed myself, but it never happened for me.
But I’m a fighter. You get me against the ropes and I will swing so hard—bam! So I thought, well, if I’m not going to find it, then there’s only one other option: I will create it.
She decides to go it alone, to set up her own theatre company. Hence the move from New York: “taxes for new businesses were lowest in Delaware”.
Now, twenty years later, I still run the Parish Theatre. We do just one production a week. I act in them sometimes, but the real pleasure for me now is giving roles to other actors, watching them perform, especially the young ones.
A few months ago I met a man who came to the theatre. He’s younger than me, a gringo, an attorney, so young and handsome. ¡Cielos! We have almost nothing in common, but somehow we’re a good fit with each other. He makes me laugh. How can I explain it? He has a spirit. I’m fifty-three years old with wrinkles on my hands. I’ve never been married in my life, and now this. You never know what life will bring. Dios sabe lo que hace. But that’s what makes it so exciting, no? That’s what keeps me going. The possibility.
This is typical of the attitude of everyone in the book. They don’t want something for nothing. They’re willing to work even if that work involves being on their feet for ten hours at a time picking mushrooms out of dirt in a dark warehouse (which is what Arturo ends up doing). Benny Quinto flips burgers. Gustavo Milhojas has two jobs, cleaning bathrooms and movie theatres. Rafael Toro is a line cook at a diner until her loses it and ends up delivering papers in the mornings. José Mercado was a navy man but now his eyes are bad and his wife has to read to him.
These are people like you and me. Impossible for a Scot like me not to recall the words of Robert Burns:
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.
No one in this novel is rich; they all live in honest poverty doing the jobs no one else wants to do. And the same goes for the immigrant workers in the UK. But we’re not comfortable with them. As Micho Alvarez says:
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 is a Mexican. The Mexicans look down on Guatemalans; they believe they’re stupid. I wonder who the Guatemalans look down on. (Apparently Spanish-speaking Guatemalans look down on the indigenous Mayan population. Thank you Google.)
The story of Mayor and Maribel is sweet. They’re both likeable characters, especially Maribel as she struggles to find herself again. We never learn exactly what’s wrong with her—doctors rarely know—but she’s was quite a character before the accident and it’s nice to see that character begin to reassert itself. Mayor’s a bit of an innocent which is perhaps why he’s attracted to Maribel in the first place and he’s as awkward as any sixteen-year-old boy I’ve known. They’re both well fleshed-out; in fact there’s hardly anyone in the book—anyone of the immigrants that is—who’s doesn’t spring to life off the page. What the book is not, however, is a soapbox. You don’t feel as if every character is a thinly-veiled Cristina Henríquez thumping on her tub. In this interview she addressed the issue:
It would be naïve of me to say I wrote a book just about immigrants and there’s nothing political about it. As has been pointed out to me in the past, it’s political to have the last name that I have. There’s nothing that’s not political.
But I wasn’t trying to take a stance one way or another, and I hopefully wasn’t betraying my own political opinions about immigration. The characters weren’t like a mouthpiece in any way, though. I really wanted to fictionalize it, imagine their lives and tell the human stories.
Someone asked me recently why I write fiction, and why I wrote this story as fiction. Why not just write a political treatise about what I really do think? Part of it has to do with the reception that it will get from readers. If you put something out there that’s overtly political and didactic, it turns so many people off. But to say that this is a love story, and a story about parents who are protecting their daughter — it’s so many things, but it also happens to be about the lives of immigrants. I think that makes it a lot more palatable. If you put it in fiction, they’re more likely to read it and perhaps think about it. The highest praise I’ve gotten so far is that somebody living in Delaware told me, after they read my book, they were driving down Kirkwood, which is where the families all live. She was looking at the families waiting at the bus stop, and she saw them differently. That’s my job. That’s my goal.
Of course it’s the 21st century and so there’s a website to go with the book: The Unknown American Project where others get an opportunity to have their say. Here the author writes:
One of my hopes for The Book of Unknown Americans was that it might tell stories people don't usually hear. And now, another hope: that we will all tell our #UnknownAmerican stories. Where did you or your family come from? What is your life like now? We'll create a chorus and make our voices known.
There weren’t many entries when I first checked but here’s how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story begins:
I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States [when] I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.
I enjoyed this book. The writing is clear and unpretentious and suits its subject matter. On the whole, as I’ve said, it’s a little tame but that’s really my only criticism of it. And I say that even when someone gets murdered. But it does what I’m sure the author intended it to do: it opens our eyes. What we make of what we’ve seen is another thing. This book won’t change the world but I would like to see it introduced into schools because it has much to say that people who are going to shape our future need to hear.
Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and AGNI along with the anthology This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers.
She was featured in Virginia Quarterly Review as one of “Fiction’s New Luminaries,” has been a guest on National Public Radio, and is a recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, a grant started by Sandra Cisneros in honour of her father.
Cristina earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has lived in at least seven states and is now based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and young daughter.