The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

“I was used to people looking at her. It had happened often in Pátzcuaro. Maribel had the kind of beauty that reduced people to simpletons. Once upon a time grown men would break into smiles as she walked past. The boys in her school would come to the house, shoving each other awkwardly when I opened the door, asking if she was home. Of course, that was before the accident. She looked the same now as she always had, but people knew – almost everyone in our town knew – that she had changed. They seemed to believe she was no longer worthy of their attention or maybe that it was wrong to look at her now, that there was something perverse about it, and they averted their gaze.
But this boy looked. He looked because he didn’t know. And the way he looked made me uncomfortable.”

Arturo exits the store. Maribel’s mother signals the presence of the boy to Arturo who tells her to just walk as he clasps Maribel’s hand and steps out.

The setting is Delaware. The boy’s name is Mayor. Maribel’s family has just Book of Unknown Americansarrived from Mexico.The boy’s parents have learned from another tenant in the same building that their last name is Rivera and they are legal (all of them have visas). The landlord’s name is Fito. The Riveras are being sponsored by the mushroom farm where Arturo Rivera will be employed.

Mayor (Toro) gets bullied all the time at school. He s in his second year. His brother Enrique was very popular and had been awarded a full-ride soccer scholarship to Maryland. Two weeks into practice the coach told Mayor to “just sit it out for awhile”. He “felt like a loser”.

Mayor’s dad was born in Los Santos in Panamá. His father had a bad temper and he modelled himself upon his dad. His wife Celia helped him change and then Panamá was invaded and life changed and they decided to leave.  When asked where his home is now he proudly says los Estados Unidos. He and Celia miss Panamá but only the Panamá of the past. “Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it. That’s how it works.”

The job at the mushroom farm was the only one with the a company that was near Maribel’s school that had been willing to sponsor their visas. Arturo had to stand in a warehouse for ten hours and pick mushrooms out of the dirt in the dark without water or food. There were quotas to be met. He had to take three buses to get to the job which was over the state line in Pennsylvania. In Mexico Arturo had owned a construction business.

They had to wait to hear from the school so that Maribel could start. The school they had understood that she would attend was the Evers School but Alma learns that Maribel does not have an Individualized Education Plan so she must first go to another school where it will be determined whether she is eligible for special education services.  This will take as long as two months. The doctor in Mexico had provided a letter and they had understood that entrance to Evers was a sure thing.

And so begins a new set of challenges for each member  of the family. “We had to push past trepidation and believe that by sending her off we were doing the right thing. What other choice did we have?”

Alma tried to learn English by studying people’s mouths as they spoke English. They had picked up an old television put out to the road for junk. She found the people spoke too fast and she couldn’t tell if she was “mouthing individual words or bunches of them strung together like grapes.” When she went out for food she thought she was being followed by a boy and she feared for her daughter but the landlord was able to reassure her that the boy need not be a source of worry.

The boy was Mayor and eventually he is introduced to Alma and Maribel by his mother Celia when they are shopping at the Dollar Tree. After the introductions, Mayor thinks:

“Maribel, I said to myself.  Forget about how she was dressed – white canvas sneakers straight out of another decade and a huge yellow sweater over leggings – and forget about the fact that her black hair was mussed up like she’d just woken up and the fact that she wasn’t wearing anything else that most of the girls in my school liked to pile on. Forget about all of that.  She was fucking gorgeous.
My heart was jackhammering so hard I thought people from the next aisle were going to start complaining about the noise.”

When Mayor learns that Maribel was supposed to go to the Evers School both he and his mom are surprised.

“I looked at the girl again. Evers? That was the school for retards. We all called it the Turtle School.” That’s when Mayor realized “There was something wrong with her. I never would have guessed it. I mean, to look at her…it didn’t seem possible.”

Interspersed between the ongoing story of the Riveras and the Toros are stories of other immigrants to Delaware such as Benny Quinto from Nicaragua and Gustavo Milhojas from Guatemala and Quisqueya Solis from Venezuela who lives in the same building as Alma and Arturo. And there is also the story of the landlord, Adolfo “Fito” Angelina who wanted to be a boxer but ended up as a building manager and who explains how that came about.

A love story between a boy and a girl and a love story between new citizens and their new home. You will enjoy meeting these people and you will be drawn into their stories and have a new respect for the challenges they have all faced in their lives.