The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

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Themes

Overall, the novel has a central theme of immigrant adjustment to American life. One migrant father, Arturo, cannot find appropriate work, and another couple can barely make ends meet after many years in the US. An important corollary of this theme is the biases that immigrants face, both in the legal system and from individuals.

Family love is one prominent theme, especially parents’ love for their children. The Rivera family—father, mother, and daughter—moves from Mexico so that their daughter, Maribel, who had a brain injury, can attend a special school. In their apartment building, they meet the Toro family, who had immigrated from Panama. The two mothers, Celia and Alma, become friends, and Celia’s son, Mayor, becomes smitten with Maribel.

Another main theme is the vulnerability of people with disabilities. At Maribel’s school, a boy named Garrett sexually harasses her by trying to remove her clothing. Despite her mother’s complaint, the police refuse to pursue the matter. Ultimately, her father’s actions to resolve the situation precipitate the crisis leading to his murder.

While the book includes a love story between Mayor and Maribel, teen love is not a major theme. Rather, the interactions between the two seem to emphasize their position as individuals for whom migrant status may not be the dominant factor in identity.