Struggling to Be Seen

Article by ben

As politicians and political commentators never tire of telling us during election seasons, America’s growing Latino population has become—and will continue to be—a major force in deciding the direction of this country. Of course, it’s hard to deny the gross generalization underlying statements like this. The demonym “Latino” refers to a group of people from a wide variety of different backgrounds, with a myriad of different dreams for/concerns in their lives. But many people still use the words “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and “Chicano” interchangeably.

Or, as Cristina Henríquez puts it in her essential new novel, THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS, “My dad says all you people are from Mexico.”

Focusing on two immigrant families in Delaware, Henríquez’ novel speaks for America’s “Latino population” by, paradoxically, refusing the idea that there is any such homogenous population to speak for. Instead, Henríquez gives us two sets of parents: First, there are the Riveras, former owners of a construction company in Mexico, and recent arrivals to America after their daughter, Maribel, was injured in an accident, impairing her cognitive abilities. In this strange new country, the Riveras struggle to put together a life for themselves, and the loneliness that the mother—Alma—experiences is particularly powerful: “I readied myself to say hola if anyone so much as looked at me, but day after day, people walked by without acknowledging me in the least.” Then, there are the Toros, originally from Panama, pushing their sons toward success in sports and with girls. One of those sons, Mayor, develops a relationship with Maribel, which his father disapproves of: “Why can’t you talk to normal girls?”

The novel’s structure gestures toward something much larger than just these two families; the Riveras’ arrival in America may be the rock thrown into the ocean, but the ripples extend far outward. Henríquez writes from multiple first-person points of view, moving beyond the two families to allow brief testimonials to enter the book—the voices of other immigrants, sharing their early experiences of America, whether fighting on the streets of Phoenix or working in maggot-infested canning factories. Here, Henríquez helps to correct a common misconception—that immigrants are exclusively from Mexico—by giving the reader the experiences of people from Guatemala, Paraguay, Venezuela—in other words, all over the world.

THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS is a work of staggering empathy. By refusing to be about demographics, Henríquez’ novel feels all the more powerful and important, showing the characters, no matter where they’re from, to be searching for the same things that all of us search for—happiness, love, family, and moments of beauty, as when, in one lyrical passage, the Toros stand on a beach in the winter, looking out at the water. “It’s beautiful,” the mother finally says.

The same can be said about this book.

Cristina Henriquez signs THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS at Brazos Bookstore on Thursday, June 19 at 7PM. 

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