The Book of Unknown Americans

by

Cristina Henríquez

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The Book of Unknown Americans: Chapter 19: Alma Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Toward the end of January, Arturo loses his job. He comes home one afternoon while Maribel and Alma are working on Maribel’s homework and gets straight into the shower. Alma follows him into the bathroom, and he tells her that he has been fired for a minor infraction that occurred months ago—when he changed his shift and stayed home on the morning of Maribel’s first day at school. Alma insists it must be a mistake, but Arturo claims that the farm only sponsored their family’s visas due to government pressure to hire workers with papers. Arturo thinks that they are letting go documented workers and preparing to hire undocumented workers in their place in order to save money. Maribel and Arturo both lament having done things the “right way” and having worked so very hard for nothing. Arturo tells Alma that he has thirty days to find a job.
Alma and Arturo become overwhelmed by the futility of their having done things the “right way.” They worked so hard to be “good” immigrants, and to make sure that they were on the right side of the law. Now, after Arturo has been fired and the mushroom farm’s corruption has been revealed, they experience anger and sadness over yet another way in which the American dream has failed them.
Themes
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Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Arturo begins going out during the days, looking for work. He is laughed out of “store after store”—the economy is in shambles, and no one is hiring. Arturo and Alma use money from their savings in order to pay the rent and they try to ask Fito for a break, but he cannot give them one. The Riveras subsist on rice and beans and oatmeal until they are sick of the same meals over and over again. The atmosphere in the apartment is dismal as the Riveras cope with true poverty. Alma stops going to classes at the Community Center, in part because she wants to be home during the days in case Arturo comes home for lunch. Celia Toro begins teaching Alma basic English, and Alma passes on what she learns to Arturo in hopes that it will raise his chances with potential employers.
As the Riveras reach the depths of their misery, they realize even more deeply and fully how the American dream has failed to materialize for them despite their best efforts. They remain hopeful, but chance and circumstances beyond their control continue to bring hardship and pain into their lives.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Despite all their hardship, Alma feels that she and Arturo are closer than they have been since Maribel’s accident. For their nineteenth wedding anniversary, on February 19th, Alma and Arturo decide to go out for “drinks”—but since “even sodas [are] beyond [their] means,” they settle for having waters at a local pizza place, where Arturo has put in a job application and wants to show his face in case someone wants to offer him a job—there is only a week left before their visas lapse.
Even at the height of their difficulties, the Riveras are bound by the love they all share. They celebrate in a small but meaningful way, attempting to stave off the looming threat of their visas’ expiration and the extreme depths of their poverty.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
At the restaurant, Arturo, Alma, and Maribel order ice waters and watch the American families all around them. Arturo toasts his and Alma’s marriage and attempts to tell several jokes—finally, Alma tells one that sends all three of them, even Maribel, into hysterics.
As Maribel continues to improve, she becomes more and more like her old self and is able to participate and share in her parents’ moments of happiness.
Themes
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
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A week passes, and Arturo is still without a job. He is afraid that if anyone finds out their family has fallen out of status, Maribel will have to leave her school. Alma assures him that their family is “not like the rest of them,” meaning undocumented immigrants. Arturo, sad and resigned, tells her that “[they] are now.”
The Riveras lapse out of status, cementing the futility of their efforts to prevent their family from becoming like other immigrants from México who enter the States undocumented.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
At the end of February there is an ice storm—Celia calls to suggest that the Riveras join the Toros for some ice skating at a local frozen marsh over the weekend. On Sunday, as the two families prepare for the drive over to the marsh, Quisqueya asks what they are doing—Celia, wanting to avoid her, doesn’t invite her along. At the marsh, Mayor helps Maribel skate on the soles of her shoes. There is a large crowd at the marsh, and Alma briefly thinks she sees Garrett—in the confusion, she loses sight of Maribel and becomes distressed. Arturo notices, and again asks Alma what is going on and what she’s keeping from him. Alma considers telling him everything, but ultimately decides not to. She notes, in hindsight, that the split second in which she made her decision “changed [her family’s] fate.”
Quisqueya’s feelings of rejection continue to mount, while Celia replaces her friendship with Alma’s. The families continue to spend time together, and Mayor and Maribel make the most of it. Alma’s fears continue to haunt her, and her paranoia seems to be at a fever pitch—perhaps worsened by her fear of having fallen out of status, and the fact that she and her family are in dire circumstances even without the threat of Garrett looming over them. Alma refuses her husband’s attempts to pull her from her isolation, and her actions, she says, will impact her family in ways she could not have predicted. 
Themes
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
A week later, Alma and Arturo borrow the Toros’ radio and are enjoying listening to old music when there is a knock at the door—it is Quisqueya. Alma offers her water and sends Maribel to her room—when she and Arturo sit down with Quisqueya, Quisqueya says that she “hates to say anything,” but she must tell them that a few weeks ago she saw Maribel and Mayor canoodling in the Toros’ car—not only that, but when Mayor stepped out of the car, his pants were wet. Arturo tells Quisqueya she is lying, but she insists it is the truth and warns them that they “can’t be too careful” with boys Mayor’s age.
Quisqueya, envious of Alma and Celia’s relationship, uses what she has seen in order to drive a wedge between their two families. She also seems to insinuate that boys Mayor’s age are predatory (like Garrett), even if they seem sweet. In this way, Quisqueya preys on Alma’s fears for Maribel’s safety.
Themes
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