If he had disappeared completely, I thought, it might be easier. If I had no knowledge that he had ever existed, no evidence that he was ever a part of our lives, it might have been bearable. And how wrong that sounded: part of our lives. As if he was something with boundaries, something that hadn't permeated us, flowed through us and in us and all around us. I learned something about grief. When someone dies, it doesn't leave a hole, and that's the agony.
What has this book done to me? I've lost count of how many times it has made me cry, and I read it two days ago. Not for a second did I believe this book would touch me like this, would swallow me completely and spew me out all messed up. I want to throw it at people and demand they read it. I'll gladly scream it from the rooftops even if it makes just one person read it. That is how I feel about this book.
This is about immigrants, more precisely immigrants from the Spanish speaking world coming to the U.S. It's about a group of people from different countries in different stages of their lives, all of them living in a apartment complex in Delaware. The main focus, however, is on two families: the Rivera family from Mexico and the Toro family from Panama. The Rivera family, Alma and Arturo and their daughter Maribel, moves to the U.S. after their daughter sustains a terrible injury, leaving her brain damaged. They're wishing it will help Maribel's health if they move to America where there are specialists to help her. Soon a friendship builds between the two families, but also love. Mayor, the Toro family's son, falls helplessly for Maribel's beauty. When they spend more time together, Mayor might be the only one seeing Maribel for who she really is after her injury. But things aren't easy for these families, and some things aren't irreversible.
I'm not that familiar with the immigrant debate in America, but we have our own here in Sweden. We even have political parties that want to shut off more or less all immigration to Sweden because of terrible reasons, so I think I get the gist. But that's not what this is about. The Book of Unknown Americans doesn't take a side in the debate. It presents the stories behind these immigrants, because when everything comes around, these people aren't immigrants. That's not their identity. They are human beings. They are individuals. They have their own stories. No laws about immigration will change that.
'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?'
Henriquez is, in my eyes, a brilliant writer. She's left me with several new favorite characters. Mostly, because they are presented with such honesty. But it's more than the theme of immigrants that touches me so. It's the grief the Rivera family goes through regarding Maribel and her injury. Descriptions of Alma's grief leaves me wide open with emotions. Arturo's struggle with taking care of his family and how he's met by the Americans that aren't immigrants is eyeopening and has my heart hurting for him. And Mayor, with his love for Maribel... well, let's just say it leaves me in a bloody mess. Just like this book does. Because it's not all sobs and horrors. After all, these people have moments of light too. They're people: happy and sad. Even in a new, foreign country, they find hope. Happiness. Love. Friendship.
I'm overcome when I think about this place and about what it's given us. Maribel is getting stronger. I can see it. Every day a little bit more. A safe area to live. Such good friends. It's incredible. One day when we go back to México and people ask me what it was like here, I will tell them those things. I will tell them all the ways I loved this country.
I dare you to read this book. I dare you to not fall in love with this characters. I dare you not to fall in love with this story. But in the end, I'm sure, you will love this. Highly recommended!