The Book of Unknown Americans

by

Cristina Henríquez

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Book of Unknown Americans can help.

The Book of Unknown Americans: Chapter 10: Alma Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Alma watches as Arturo struggles with the physical toll his new job is taking on him. She remembers how serious, solemn, but soft Arturo has always been, and notices that since the accident he has grown “darker.” When Arturo becomes emotional one day over missing a certain glass bowl that their family had back in México, Alma laments that their whole lives and everything they once knew are “so far away.”
Alma and Arturo both struggle—privately as well as together—to reconcile the pain and struggle of their new life with the happiness and comfort of the lives they lived in México.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
The Riveras lived comfortably in México, but in the United States, they are nearly destitute and are living paycheck to paycheck. Specialty foods from the Mexican market nearby are unaffordable, and Alma, at the suggestion of a fellow shopper at the Dollar Tree, makes oatmeal for herself, Arturo, and Maribel to have for dinner. Arturo initially is disgusted by the oatmeal and he begins to laugh at the crazy things Americans eat—soon, Maribel is laughing along with him, and Arturo and Alma are overjoyed at Maribel’s ability to express herself.
Alma is unable to even provide her family with the food that reminds them of home, and instead the Riveras find themselves eating tasteless oatmeal. The absurdity of the situation, and the fact that no matter what they are all in it together, inspires laughter and mirth in all of them—even Maribel. Her parents are overjoyed to see her be able to emote again, however briefly or randomly, after so long.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Alma has not been sleeping well, since she is dogged by memories of the past and how things used to be before Maribel’s accident. Alma recalls the circumstances of the accident: Arturo was leading a construction project and Maribel was desperate to visit the job site with her father. One day, Alma agreed to let Maribel go, as long as she herself could come along and supervise.
In America, Alma is clearly quite protective of Maribel, controlling the people she’s around and meeting her at the bus every day. This passage reveals that Alma was protective before the accident, too—she seems to have taken every reasonable precaution to protect her daughter.
Themes
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
At the work site, Alma observed Maribel carefully as she helped out with small tasks. Arturo called down to one of his coworkers from up on the roof to bring a bucket of clay up the ladder to him—Maribel volunteered to do the task, and Alma held a ladder steady for her daughter as she climbed to the top. As Maribel made her way back down, a nearby noise startled Alma, causing her to—in her memory—jerk the ladder and cause Maribel’s fall. Arturo and Alma rushed Maribel to the hospital, where doctors informed the two of them that in order to reduce the swelling in Maribel’s brain, they had to remove a part of her skull. The piece they removed, Alma believes in hindsight, had been “everything” that made Maribel herself. The doctors explain that the accident, not the surgery to save her, changed their daughter, and Alma’s guilt multiplied.
As Alma reveals the truth of Maribel’s accident in the form of her pained memories, the audience realizes that she bears the guilt of having, through a series of unfortunate events, taken “everything” away from her daughter. Though the accident was clearly due to chance and unpredictable circumstances, the fact of the matter remains that it has forever changed all of the Riveras.
Themes
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Get the entire The Book of Unknown Americans LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Book of Unknown Americans PDF
Maribel’s doctors in Mexico were optimistic about her recovery, but warned Alma and Arturo that she might never be the same as she had been before. Sending Maribel back to school proved useless—she could no longer keep up in class. Maribel’s doctors suggested a specialized school, and recommended a few in México—but advised the Riveras that the best schools were in the United States. After arguing for a little while about whether moving to America would really be the best thing for their daughter, Alma convinced Arturo that an education in the States would be best for Maribel, “and the decision was made.”
Alma and Arturo, having acknowledged that, no matter what they did next, their lives would forever be different than before, decided to go all in and take a leap of faith. Their move to America was motivated by both desperation and longing, as well as a dash of recklessness. To stay in one place might have been futile, but to actively pursue an answer and a remedy was at least an action that might move their lives forward.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon