Few could dispute that immigration reform is one of the most turbulent issues of modern American society, but what’s often forgotten or ignored in political debates and ideological discussion is the tangible effect that these policies have on millions of real people, many legal citizens. Cristina Henríquez’s latest novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, tells that story on an intimate level, from the perspective of two immigrant families—the Riveras from Mexico and the Toros from Panama—and a select few of their close neighbors.

It’s not a narrative of a broad scope, but its’ meaning is layered. The novel is divided into chapters, mostly told from the perspective of either Alma Rivera, wife and mother, or Mayor Toro, youngest son of the Toros and friend of Alma’s daughter Maribel. The main plot centers around the personal love story between Toro and Maribel, the latter being a victim of a debilitating brain injury at an early age. Henríquez also inserts short interval chapters in which background characters tell exactly how they themselves ended up in America, and this is where the novel gets a larger sense of scale.

The book is plainly written, sprinkled with sometimes tedious exposition and sometimes frustratingly simple or cliché prose, and the tragedy of the characters’ lives can seem melodramatic or manipulative on occasion, but Henríquez’s strengths are in the thematic essence. We see characters that struggle with universal issues, from guilt to lust to anger, but they are forced to work through them in a world that already puts them at a disadvantage. The novel, then, is broadly about the struggle of American immigrants to find a foothold in a country that systematically rejects them.

Most of the characters in the novel make a point to say that they never had a desire to come to the United States. It’s something they do out of necessity, for one reason or another. Alma and her family, for instance, come for improved education for their disabled daughter, while others come for relative safety, or because they had a good job opportunity lined up only to have it fall through without the money to return home. These people come, only to be harassed and oppressed by mass misconception. In a battle between the selfish and greedy and the needy and disadvantaged, those with the resources always win. It’s not a system built on opportunity or advantage or work ethic, it’s a system of tipped scales.

The Book of Unknown Americans, in showing a host of characters’ attempts to enter into that system, sheds light on the true nature of the American Dream, that the widespread mischaracterization of the United States as an unquestionably welcoming, free nation is almost as damaging a stereotype as any other. In one of the interlude chapters told from the perspective of a neighbor, Micho Alvarez, the character condemns the privileged American perception of Mexico: “You listen to the media, you’ll learn that we’re all gangbangers, we’re all drug dealers… we’re all trying to destroy America… we don’t pay any taxes, we’re lazy, we’re stupid, we’re all wetbacks who crossed the border illegally.” Henríquez isn’t attempting to humanize the people trapped in the immigration crisis as much as she’s directly combating the dehumanizing depictions of those people so rampant in our culture. She does this with a story that glorifies the values of love, community, family and sacrifice—things so often ignored in the debate.

That’s the most compelling aspect of The Book of Unknown Americans: how it demonstrates the immense value of community and companionship in a world apathetic to the needs and desires of certain ethnic, social and economic classes. It rightly characterizes the plight of Central and South American immigrants as a universal struggle, a priority of all humanity rather than that of those groups alone. The Book of Unknown Americans points out that we all want to belong somewhere, but for one reason or another (many out of our control), it’s just easier for some than for others.

The Book of Unknown Americans is not a novel where the great promise of American life is fulfilled. Henríquez crafts a realistic story where advancement in society is barred for all but a few, where tragedy strikes more often than fortune, where some characters lose their jobs or become victims of sexual abuse and violence. There’s a great sadness at the core of The Book of Unknown Americans, but it’s also built on a warm story about friends, family and the joy that they bring. The companionship between the Toro and Rivera families may not be enough for them to push back against the oppressive pressures of American society, but it counts for something in the end. In a world where the “unknown Americans” are constantly ignored and taken advantage of, they still have each other. A simple sentiment, sure, but no less meaningful.

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