The Book of Unknown Americans

by

Cristina Henríquez

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The Book of Unknown Americans: Chapter 1: Alma Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Alma Rivera describes a time when all she and her family wanted were “simple” things, and says that in thinking she and her family had a “right” to simplicity, she was “naïve” and “blinded by hope.”
Alma is narrating the novel from an unknown point in the future—a point at which her hope and naivete have been shattered.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The Riveras arrive in Newark, Delaware thirty hours after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Alma wakes her teenage daughter, Maribel, who has fallen asleep in the pickup truck they’ve been transported in. Her husband Arturo takes in their new building—it is two stories tall and made of cinder blocks, and the perimeter is ringed by a chain-link fence. Alma is disappointed, having “expected something nicer.” Still, she tells herself that she, Maribel, and Arturo are lucky to have a place to live at all.
Alma and Arturo are disappointed by their new home—they had envisioned something better for themselves and their daughter. They long for more, but attempt to soothe their longing by reminding themselves of how much worse things could be. 
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
The Riveras unload their belongings from the pickup, and their driver notices a television on the side of the road. He tells the Riveras to take it if they want it—its previous owner must have discarded it—and they are shocked that “people throw away everything in the United States.” The Riveras take a mattress and a kitchen table from the street. Arturo pays their driver—half of all the money they have in the world—and he wishes them luck and drives away.
The discarded furniture by the side of the road tells the Riveras a lot about the strange new country they’re in. America is shown as a place seized by an endless cycle of longing, disappointment, and frustration, and their taking of the discarded goods signals the fact that the Riveras will soon find themselves caught up in this cycle, as well.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
The inside of the apartment is dingy, ugly, and “reek[ing] of mildew and fish.” As Alma and Arturo look around, Maribel stands “expressionless, as usual, clutching her notebook to her chest.” Alma wonders what her daughter thinks of their new surroundings, and whether she even understands where they are and what is happening to them. The Riveras, exhausted, lie down all together on their new mattress. Alma cannot fall asleep, as she’s full of doubt and anxiety. She tells herself that everything will be all right and eventually drifts off.
Though it’s unclear what is wrong with Maribel at this point, it’s obvious that she is easily disoriented. Even Alma and Arturo both seem disoriented as they investigate their new home and find that it is dingy, unclean, and very different than the American home they’d envisioned for themselves. Clearly, there’s a gap between the American dream as it’s represented in other countries and the reality on the ground.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
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In the morning, the Riveras are hungry for breakfast, but they have no food and no idea where to get any. They leave their apartment and begin walking in the direction of town—the three of them know “minimal” English and struggle to read the signs above the many stores they pass. Eventually they come upon a gas station, and decide to go in. As they approach the market, they see a teenage boy “slouched” against the wall, holding a skateboard. He has a neck tattoo, and he makes Alma nervous.
As the Riveras approach the gas station and Alma spots the teenage skater loitering outside of it, there is a sense of sadness, futility, and even danger. The Riveras have endured a long journey to what they hoped would be a better place—and they are eating gas station meals and fending off perhaps irrational fears of all of their new surroundings.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Inside, the Riveras pick out some food items and laugh amongst themselves about the quality of American jarred salsa. At the register, Arturo does not understand the cashier, and simply hands over a twenty-dollar bill. The cashier continues asking Arturo for something, but neither he nor Alma can understand. Other customers in the store begin to stare. Flustered and frightened, Alma takes Maribel outside. The boy with the skateboard looks Maribel up and down—Alma is “used to people looking” at her daughter, who was considered a great beauty back in their hometown, but Alma is nonetheless unsettled.
As Arturo struggles to communicate with the gas station cashier, Alma becomes overwhelmed and attempts to remove herself from being scrutinized by other customers, only to find that she and her daughter are now being sized up and looked at in an even more invasive way.
Themes
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Arturo emerges from the gas station with the food, exclaiming that his total had been twenty-two dollars and lamenting the cost of food. The boy with the skateboard continues to stare at the Riveras, and Arturo hurries everyone away toward home.
Arturo senses the distress and isolation that Alma is feeling and he hides his own in order to make sure that she and Maribel can get to a place where they feel safe.
Themes
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon