“We’re the unknown Americans,” says a character in Cristina Henríquez’s second novel, “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.”
That declaration bluntly articulates the theme of “The Book of Unknown Americans,” as does the novel’s choral structure — made up of first-person reminiscences from an array of characters from Latin American countries including Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Paraguay, Nicaragua and Venezuela, all of whom talk to us directly about their reasons for coming to the United States.
These aspects of Ms. Henríquez’s novel may make it seem like a timely story, given the current debate over immigration and the surge of young illegal immigrants now crossing over the border into the United States. But they also emphasize the novel’s more schematic and tendentious aspects. In fact, “Unknown Americans” is at its most powerful not when it’s giving us a documentarylike look at immigrant life in one Delaware (yes, Delaware) town, but when it’s chronicling the lives of its two central characters: a beautiful Mexican teenager named Maribel Rivera and her admiring friend and neighbor, Mayor Toro. It is Maribel and Mayor’s star-crossed love that lends this novel an emotional urgency, and it’s the story of their families that gives us a visceral sense of the magnetic allure of America, and the gaps so many immigrants find here between expectations and reality.
Using multiple first-person narrators (a technique pioneered by Faulkner in “As I Lay Dying” and embraced in recent decades as an almost signature method by Louise Erdrich), Ms. Henríquez tries hard to speak in the voices of a wide array of immigrants: a would-be priest turned drug dealer turned burger flipper from Nicaragua, a Guatemalan immigrant who sweeps up popcorn at two movie theaters in order to pay for his children to go to college, a dancer from Puerto Rico who dreamed of becoming the next Rita Moreno on Broadway. The testimony of a few of these characters is genuinely moving, giving the reader insight into the reasons so many risk so much to try to come to the United States; but for the most part, these chapters feel more like classroom exercises in ventriloquism than organic parts of this novel.
When Ms. Henríquez turns from such labored efforts to give “Unknown Americans” a panoramic social sweep, and focuses instead on the Rivera and Toro families, the gears of this novel engage, and her myriad gifts as a writer begin to shine. In slowly revealing the back stories behind these two families’ arrival in America and what they have at stake in remaining here, Ms. Henríquez — whose own father left Panama in 1971 to attend the University of Delaware — gives us an intimate understanding of the sense of dislocation they experience almost daily, belonging neither here nor there, caught on the margins of the past and the future. She conveys the homesickness they feel — missing not just family and friends but also the heat and light and rhythms of the places they left behind — and their awareness of the fragility of even their most ordinary dreams of safety.
Both families, we learn, came to America in desperation. Alma and Arturo Rivera left the only home they knew in Pátzcuaro, Mexico, to bring their daughter, Maribel — who had suffered brain damage after a freakish accident — to the United States, because doctors told them that it was only in America, with the right schools and the right medical care, that she might have a chance of getting better.
The Riveras did all the paperwork, waited for the proper approvals, packed up their belongings in plastic trash bags and cardboard boxes, and 30 hours after crossing the border in the back seat of a red pickup truck, arrived in Delaware to begin their new life.
In Mexico, Arturo owned a construction business; in America, the only job he can find near Maribel’s school is on a farm, pulling mushrooms in the dark. Their new home is not the house with white shutters and red bricks Alma pictured from American movies; it’s a small, dingy apartment with dark mustard-yellow walls and reeking of mildew.
As for the Toro family, they left Panama a few years after the American invasion to remove the strongman Manuel Noriega. They were traumatized by the fighting in the streets of Panama City — “We went three weeks without leaving the house. We were eating toothpaste by the end of it” — and they eventually decided to leave for “somewhere better,” which, for Mayor’s parents, “had always meant the United States.”
Mayor now feels “more American than anything,” but says that “even that was up for debate according to the kids at school who’d taunted me over the years, asking me if I was related to Noriega, telling me to go back through the canal.” The truth “was that I didn’t know which I was,” he explains. “I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim.”
Almost the minute Mayor meets Maribel, he falls in love with her — partly because of her beauty and partly because she, too, is an outsider. He doesn’t care that she’s convalescing from a brain injury. He doesn’t care that she attends what he and his friends call the “Turtle School” for slow learners. Mayor is protective of Maribel, and attentive, and she loves that he does not condescend to her, that he treats her like the girl she was before the accident. His love for her will be a healing balm, but it will also become the catalyst for a cascade of traumatic events.
The story of Mayor and Maribel is interrupted by soliloquies from Ms. Henríquez’s chorus of immigrants. These chapters are clearly meant to open out the novel and make it feel like a bigger, more representative book. Too often, however, they feel like unnecessary distractions from the story of the Rivera and Toro families, which by themselves encapsulate both the promises and perils of the American dream.