THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS gives powerful voice to America’s quiet minority

The Book of Unknown Americans  Cristina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans

By Cristina Henriquez

Vintage: March 3, 2015

304 pages, $14.95

Some books are published at just the right time. While immigration has long been an important and contentious issue in the United States, the current situation with Central American child refugees playing out at our border makes Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans even more timely and relevant than it would have been if it had been published in the last few years. The broader immigration issues remain, and this riveting novel provides some context for moving forward.

Fifteen-year-old Maribel Rivera has sustained a serious head injury and needs special treatment and schooling that are not available in her home state of Michoacan, Mexico. Her parents, Arturo and Alma Rivera have brought her to Wilmington, Delaware — of all places — after waiting a year for Arturo to receive a work visa. They have left most of their belongings behind and come to the U.S. with little more than hope and prayers for their formerly feisty daughter’s recovery. They share a run-down apartment building with neighbors from across Latin America, including the Toro family from Panama. We get to know Celia and Rafa Toro through the eyes of their sensitive teenage son, Mayor (“my-yor”), who is smitten with Maribel from the moment he sees the beautiful but shy new girl at the store.

The Riveras have their hands full trying to adapt to the strange world of the United States, not the least of which is learning English. Arturo works punishing hours in the dark at a mushroom “factory” across the state line in Pennsylvania (it seems he is always crossing a border). Alma has to overcome a few obstacles for Maribel to gain admission to the Evers School for students with special needs. Loneliness and homesickness are her frequent companions.

But the open hearts of a few people keep Alma afloat. She is befriended by Celia Toro, who serves as something of a guide to this perplexing new world — or at least to the neighborhood and Wilmington. Mayor soon realizes that Maribel is not a “normal” girl, but he finds that he likes her nonetheless, and they develop a special friendship as well. The two families become increasingly interconnected, for good and ill.

In addition to trying to make their way in the U.S., the characters deal with problems that are not just limited to immigrants. Alma is punished by her guilt over the accident that led to Maribel’s head injury. Alma and Arturo worry constantly about Maribel’s physical health and emotional well-being, including her friendship with Mayor. Celia wants to work, but Rafa is adamant that it is his job as the man to take care of his family.

A teenage bully with a surly manner and an omnipresent skateboard harasses Alma, Maribel, and Mayor (whom he also bothers at school). A snooty neighbor turns from a friend into a jealous gossip and passive-aggressive backbiter. Everyone is strapped for money during the difficult years of the recent Great Recession. And the relationships among the building’s other residents display the universal characteristics of such relationships anywhere.

Consistent with the novel’s title, the chapters alternate between the first-person narratives of Alma Rivera and Mayor Toro. Short narratives from their neighbors are interwoven to create a tapestry of perspectives through which we experience the dreams and ambitions of these immigrants from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Paraguay, and Mexico. While the details (and the language) may be different from past waves of immigrants, their daily lives in most ways constitute the universal immigrant experience that exists in virtually every American’s family history.

The feeling of being an immigrant, or the American-born child of immigrants, is captured brilliantly in The Book of Unknown Americans. Mayor describes the feeling of being caught between two cultures when he says, “The truth was that I didn’t know which I was [Panamanian or American]. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt [being American] and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim [being Panamanian].” When the Riveras go out to an inexpensive pizza parlor, Alma observes, “[A]round us American couples and families ate slices of pizza and drank bottles of beer. I had the feeling that they disapproved of us being there, drinking only water, taking up space. But when I glanced at the people around us, no one was even looking in our direction, and I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”

As a lifelong California resident, I was particularly impressed by the accuracy of the short narrative of Micho Alvarez. “I came from Mexico,” he begins. “But there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think I crawled out of hell. They hear ‘Mexico,’ and they think: bad, devil, I don’t know. They got some crazy ideas. Any of them ever been to Mexico? And if they say, yeah, I went to Acapulco back in the day or I been to Cancun, papi, then that shit don’t count. You went to a resort? Congratulations. But you didn’t go to Mexico.”

He then addresses the broader, more problematic issue. “And that’s the problem, you know? These people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some fucked-up ideas about us. About all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the Mexicans. You listen to the media, you’ll learn that we’re all gangbangers, we’re all drug dealers, we’re tossing bodies in vats of acid, we want to destroy America, we still think Texas belongs to us, we all have swine flu, we carry machine guns under our coats, we don’t pay any taxes, we’re lazy, we’re stupid, we’re all wetbacks who crossed the border illegally. I swear to God, I’m so tired of being called a spic, a nethead, a cholo, all this stuff. Happens to me all the time.”

When he is watched closely in stores, he says, “I have enough money to be in any store and even if I didn’t, I have the right to be in any store. I feel like telling them sometimes, You don’t know me, man. I’m a citizen here! But I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that. I want to be given the benefit of the doubt….I wish just one of these people, just one, would actually talk to me, talk to my friends, man. And yes, you can talk to us in English. I know English better than you, I bet. But none of them even want to try. 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? It’s fucked up. The whole thing is very, very complicated.”

Cristina Henriquez has produced a powerful and moving portrayal of the lives of people we rarely hear from, the “unknown Americans” (all of the characters are legal immigrants). Her decision to use multiple first-person narrators adds an immediacy to the reading experience that makes this a very fast read. The various voices are idiosyncratic and credible and provide a quick glimpse into the range of life experiences possessed by immigrants. The narratives of Alma and Mayor, which make up the bulk of the book, are especially thoughtful and revealing.

Henriquez has smoothly handled the fact that the characters are obviously speaking Spanish to each other most of the time. In that sense, their narratives have been “translated.” Some speak English well, but others do not (depending on how long they have been in the U.S.). But when it’s clear they are speaking English (either to each other or to English speakers), they make second language errors and use bits of Spanish when they don’t know the word in English, adding credibility to the characterization.

The Book of Unknown Americans is not a polemic dressed up as a novel. It’s a compelling story of sympathetic characters in challenging circumstances, both personal and socio-cultural. They are people you will care about and whom you will miss when you close the book. And they will make you think about the “very, very complicated” times in which we live.

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NOW WE WILL BE HAPPY explores the lives of Puerto Rican-Americans navigating multiple cultures

Amina Gautier   Now We Will Be Happy

Now We Will Be Happy

By Amina Gautier

University of Nebraska Press: Sept. 1, 2014

128 pages, $16.95

One of the most encouraging developments in contemporary literature is the increased attention being paid to Afro-Caribbean writers. Writers such as Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua), Esmeralda Santiago (Puerto Rico), and Tiphanie Yanique (Virgin Islands) are acclaimed for their distinctive contributions to this literature of both a place and a way of being. Amina Gautier now stakes her claim to join this esteemed group of writers.

Gautier, who is of African-American and Puerto Rican descent and who understands both cultures intimately, has published more than 75 stories in some of the country’s most prestigious literary journals. She won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, leading to the publication of her first collection, At-Risk, in 2012. That volume probed the lives of African-Americans in Brooklyn with empathy and passion.

This September saw the publication of her second collection, Now We Will Be Happy, which won the 2013 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction (awarded by the literary journal at the University of Nebraska). This time, Gautier has shifted her focus to the question of what it means to be Puerto Rican in America. Her characters are mainland-born Puerto Ricans (“Nuyoricans”) and native-born Puerto Ricans, including those of African descent, who are often overlooked.

In these eleven finely wrought stories, the characters face questions of identity raised by family members and society but most often by their own divided hearts and minds. They struggle with remaining authentically Puerto Rican while embracing the idea of being an American. Does that require frequent trips back to the island, having a wide circle of PR friends, speaking Spanish (how much?), attending cultural events and waving the flag literally or figuratively? Who decides? How can one be comfortable in his or her own skin when dealing with matters of nationality, culture, race, ethnicity, and language? And these complexities are not simplified by the fact that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.

So the conflicts are compelling and multi-faceted. Gautier elevates these stories to literature through the quality of her characterization and the polish of her writing. Nearly every character is a living, breathing person with idiosyncrasies that are either endearing or infuriating. Gautier’s writing is perfectly suited to the characters and conflicts; her prose style is elegant without being formal; nary a word is wasted or misplaced. The dialogue is Hispanic without coming off as stereotypical or sitcom-level. As a lifelong Californian, I don’t know many Puerto Ricans, but I know countless Mexicans and Central Americans, as well as hyphenated-Americans with a history in those countries, and the dialogue seems just right to me. Gautier’s people are passionate, open-hearted, angry, confused, bitter, and funny.

In the opening story, “Aguanile,” a Puerto Rican-American granddaughter becomes a pawn in a family struggle with the grandfather who long ago abandoned his wife and returned to Puerto Rico.

“They had made a gift of me, sending me to him the summer I was twelve…. I had hoped never to meet him. He was the husband my grandmother had chosen not to remember, the father my mother and uncles refused to claim, the grandfather I knew only through pictures. I was to be a peace offering, an olive branch extended between families, sent across the ocean to knit back wounds whose ragged edges had grown frayed with each passing year. Too bad I knew nothing about peace or diplomacy.”

She learns about her family’s history and heritage and is immersed in her abuelo’s love of Latin jazz artists like Charlie Palmieri, Ruben Blades, and in particular, Hector Lavoe, whose “Aguanile” is a classic of the genre. The only time her grandfather had returned to the U.S. was to attend Lavoe’s funeral in the Bronx; despite the fact that his estranged family lives in Brooklyn, he fails to call or visit them. Although peace is not restored to the family, the music builds a bridge between grandfather and granddaughter.

“Bodega” explores the lives of Nelida and her husband, who run a small convenience store across from the housing projects. They are raising the child of their son, Esteban, who joined the Army six years ago and then fled to Puerto Rico, which they had left when he was 14. He has been stubbornly uncommunicative and appears to have settled on the island, despite his young son waiting for him in New York. They had dreamed of their son taking over the business and perhaps expanding it, opening other stores, and making a good life for himself and his American family. But perhaps, Nelida thinks, they had hoped for this with too single-minded a devotion, suffocating their son until he felt he had to get out. Her husband blames it on ingratitude and overindulgence.

“No, Nelida knew the truth. It was fear, fear that the bodega would consume his life, fear that he would become as old and trapped as his parents by four leased walls and the hope of prosperity. So easily could the store become one’s prison.”

“Muneca” (Doll) finds a young married couple forced to live with her parents in their Brooklyn apartment when their naive ambitions fail to pan out. Rosa views it as a temporary situation, but for Pedro, every day in which he is dependent on the kindness of these strangers is torture. He begins to lash out verbally and physically at his young wife. He views his inadequate job as an insult to his masculinity and is convinced his in-laws are mocking him. Matters are brought to a head when he finds that a girlfriend has given Rosa a muneca; she has no way of knowing that it will stir up a powerful childhood memory in an already angry and resentful Pedro.

“Only Son” is a prequel of sorts to “Bodega,” depicting the childhood and adolescence of Nelida’s only son, Esteban, why she came to bestow all her hopes upon him and why he decided to run. He is impervious to his parents’ hopes and dreams. The seventeen-year-old observes his life and prospects and is not persuaded.

“He wanted nothing to do with them. Wanted no part of this new life they’d forced upon him. He wanted no part of working downstairs and looking every day into the eyes of men who would switch places with him, men who would gladly trade in their daily jobs to be a merchant’s son. The sacrifices meant nothing to him. He was tired of the stories and he didn’t want to be here. He wanted Rio Piedras. He wanted Ponce. He wanted Mayaguez. He would even take San Juan, tourist trap that it had become. He would take any of the places where his voice was one among a crowd, its cadence indistinguishable and indistinct. Instead, he was still naked and new. After three years on the mainland, he still felt stripped of his skin.”

“The Last Hurricane” captures the divide between the island and mainland Puerto Ricans from the perspective of one who has never left Puerto Rico. She feels patronized when her relatives in America call to express concern about the hurricane that has Puerto Rico in its path. “They want to send you and the children things to ease the guilt that they feel as they sit in their safe condos and co-ops with central air and all the other amenities, as they put their feet up to watch the news for the weather report, smug that they are safe and warm you are … not.”

The last hurricane had caused her husband’s death, and she attempted to join him during the next one, to no avail. “Hurricanes know who they want. You could not get the last one to take you. You stood outside for hours, getting drenched…. When you finally dragged yourself back into the house, back to your hijos (sons), you felt as if you had been in a fight and lost. So you decided to wait for the next hurricane. They come every five or six years, so by then the children would be old enough to take care of themselves.”

When her relatives call to say they are worried about the coming storm, she assures them she is fine. “This is the answer you give because they really don’t care aand they don’t know anything about being a Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico anymore. When it is too cold on the mainland, they take paid vacations to fly over. They spend their money in the mall in Isla Verdes, buying clothing that is too tight for them, buying makeup that is now too dark for their wintry-pale Americano faces. They ask you to go to the cine with them and you sit there in the theater in San Juan, watching movies in English with Spanish subtitles, wondering if the very irony of the situation escapes them, sure that it does…. You have become a postcard to them. Beaches and good food, exotic fruit and salsa clubs; they are no better than the turistas. But you can’t tell them so because they are familia.”

The closing story, “Palabras” (Words) concludes the story of Nelida, her unnamed husband, and their lost son Esteban. He sends an occasional taunting postcard, which Nelida rips up. “When is he going to realize we’re Americans?” she asks her nine-year-old grandson, Esteban Junior. “He wants all of the things we left behind. What does he want all these things for?” Young Esteban takes solace in his unrequited love for Rosa, the young married woman in the apartment across the way, whom readers first met in “Muneca.” Her marriage to Pedro remains troubled, and she has sought solace of her own in an affair with Yauba, a cook in the college dining hall where she works (depicted in the title story).

Now We Will Be Happy is as good a collection of stories as I have read in the past year or two. These are powerful, haunting stories that will have you wondering how the characters are doing weeks after you’ve finished reading it. Anyone interested in how immigrants and their descendants navigate multiple cultures is advised to pick up a copy without delay. And keep the name Amina Gautier on your radar; I suspect we will be reading many more impressive stories and novels from her in the coming years.