The Book of Unknown Americans

by

Cristina Henríquez

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The Book of Unknown Americans: Chapter 17: Mayor Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Celia announces to Rafael and Mayor over dinner that her sister has received eighty thousand dollars in her divorce settlement and will be giving “some of it” to the three of them. Rafael scoffs at the news, asking if they’ll receive fifty dollars from her—Celia warns him that he will feel bad when she tells him what the actual number is, and then refuses to tell him when he presses her further. As the two begin to argue, Rafael becomes incensed and proclaims that he and he alone will provide for their family. He grabs Celia’s wrists, then quickly releases them. The three of them fall silent, and Mayor feels “embarrassed” for his mother. 
Rafael’s intense need to be seen as the only provider for his family turns, for just a moment, physically violent. He is desperate to maintain control over his situation, and to fulfill the role he has carved out for himself, and to live up to the standards he began to set early on in his relationship with Celia despite the new, unforeseen circumstances of their lives in America. It’s telling, too, that Mayor is embarrassed for his mother rather than ashamed of his father’s behavior, as though Celia is the one who has erred.
Themes
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Two days later, Celia reveals that their family will be receiving ten thousand dollars. Rafael counters that their family has probably loaned Celia’s sister “almost as much” over the years, but Celia insists that is not so. After allowing the news to settle in for a moment, Rafael announces that he wants to use the money to buy a car. Mayor knows that his father “lusted” after cars as a boy and has always dreamed of owning one. Celia protests—she does not even know how to drive, and she points out that their family could “go to Panamá ten times” with the money, but Rafael’s mind is made up.
Rafael reacts to the actual amount he and his family will be receiving from Celia’s sister with excitement rather than anger once he realizes it will actually make a big difference in their lives. He never acknowledges his prior anger, and instead attempts to take charge of his family once again by deciding firmly how they will spend the money. The decision is a selfish one, as it is Rafael’s dream—not his family’s—to own a car.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
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Rafael, Mayor, and Celia go to a nearby used-car lot and pick out a Volkswagen Rabbit. After haggling with the salesman for a bit, they purchase it and drive it off the lot, “two thousand dollars poorer.” On the highway on the way home, Rafael drives the car painfully slowly, though he does not stall the automatic transmission even once. When Celia asks Rafael why he was driving so dangerously slowly, Rafael counters that cops will pull over black and brown people for even the smallest reason—Rafael was “just trying to blend in,” as it is “the way of the world.” Celia agrees that blending in is at least “the way of America.”
Rafael is excited to have a car, but he seems to feel there is something insufficient about it. When he begins driving, his fears of being singled out by the police are made known to his family, and he and Celia contemplate the need for assimilation in order to make life in America easier—though of course, assimilation (to the extent that it’s possible) doesn’t make their life much easier.
Themes
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Related Quotes
The mood in the Toro house lifts with the purchase of the car, but Mayor is still grounded and still hasn’t seen Maribel since Christmas. He hopes that she doesn’t think he is ignoring her—if anything, he thinks, he longs for her more deeply than ever. He feels depressed at home and cannot focus in school. One afternoon, Mayor eavesdrops on a conversation between his mother and Alma—Alma admits that Mayor was “good” for Maribel, and that she is “more like herself” when he is around. Alma asks why Mayor does not come over anymore, and Celia tells Alma that Mayor was grounded, but that nothing serious occurred and that he is a “good boy.” Another afternoon, Mayor arrives home to find Quisqueya visiting with his mother—Quisqueya teasingly asks about Mayor’s involvement with Maribel. Mayor grows defensive and lashes out at Quisqueya, and Celia sends him to his room.
As Mayor wrestles with feelings of longing, frustration, isolation, and anger, he lashes out. He feels that his entire situation is unfair—he is anxious at the thought of leaving Maribel in the lurch, and he himself harbors a great longing and desire for her which he selfishly wants to fulfill.
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Angry that no one around him can understand that he and Maribel are “meant for each other,” Mayor goes to visit the Rivera apartment the following day after school. When Alma answers the door and asks Mayor if he is still grounded, he assures her that his punishment has been lifted. Alma lets Mayor in. Maribel is in her bedroom, wearing the red scarf he gave her for Christmas. She asks him about his family’s new car, and when Mayor tells her it is sitting in the lot, she asks if the car is “lonely” and suggests the two of them “visit it.” Mayor notes that Maribel is “way smarter than anyone [gives] her credit for.”
Mayor takes matters into his own hands, defying his parents in order to once again be close to Maribel. He takes things a step even further as he goes along with Maribel’s suggestion that they visit the “lonely” car, surprised and excited by her sly troublemaking and more than willing to go along with her wishes. Alma’s new trust of Mayor indicates that maybe she is getting comfortable in her new surroundings and opening herself up to being vulnerable with others, even if that vulnerability is only through her daughter.
Themes
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Mayor and Maribel tell Alma that they are going over to hang out at the Toros’ apartment. Mayor takes his father’s car keys off the windowsill near the front door, and then the two of them head down to the parking lot. They get inside the car and Maribel takes stock of the interior. She asks if Mayor knows how to drive—he tells her that he has taken driver’s ed, but that he does not have a license yet. Maribel tells Mayor that the car is cool and that he is the only person who “sees” her. Mayor leans over and kisses Maribel. They make out for a while and eventually Mayor, excited and overwhelmed, ejaculates into his pants. Mayor pulls away from Maribel, but when she asks him what is wrong, he assures her that it’s “nothing.” 
Mayor’s longing for Maribel is immense and overwhelming, and as they break the rules together Mayor feels closer to Maribel than ever before. This is a complicated scene, as Mayor is violating Alma’s already fragile trust by taking Maribel outside of the apartment complex without permission or supervision. However, in another sense, Mayor is giving Maribel the gift of being a normal teenager, and it’s clear that Maribel values this enormously. 
Themes
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