The Book of Unknown Americans

by

Cristina Henríquez

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The Book of Unknown Americans: Chapter 4: Alma Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A few days after the Riveras arrive in Newark, Arturo begins work at a mushroom farm “just over the state line in Pennsylvania.” The farm is the only place near to Maribel’s new school that would sponsor the Riveras’ visas. After Arturo’s first day of work, Alma is appalled to find that he stood on his feet for ten hours in a dark warehouse picking mushrooms out of stacked boxes, with no breaks or time for lunch. Alma remembers how in México, Arturo used to come home for lunch each day from his construction job, and she feels full of guilt.
Alma and Arturo must again confront an aspect of their new lives which does not live up to their dreams for how it would be. Alma longs for their old lives—lives in which they enjoyed their work, were treated fairly, and were able to enjoy simple comforts such as a midday lunch together. Alma feels, deep down, that the move to America has been futile and that she and her family have lost a lot, both material and emotional, in a short span of time.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Arturo asks if Alma has heard from Maribel’s new school, but she says that they did not call. Alma cooks Arturo a single hot dog, and the “insufficiency” of their new lives hangs over them.
Again, Alma and Arturo feel that their lives in America are isolating, insufficient, and more than a little bit futile.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Five days later, a translator from the school district calls—her name is Phyllis. She informs Alma that Maribel will have to start at a nearby public school before she can be “placed in a school like [The] Evers [School]”—the special school that the Riveras moved to Newark for. The translator tells Alma that getting Maribel set up for Evers will probably take about two months, and Alma knows there is nothing she can do “but say okay and wait again.”
Added onto the nasty surprise of Arturo’s difficult and degrading job is the fact that Maribel must delay her start at her new, special school. It is revealed that the entire reason for the Riveras’ move was to send Maribel to this school. Now, faced with a significant delay, Alma feels herself sink into the futility of the entire situation—the futility of the move, the futility of fighting to get Maribel sent straight to Evers, the futility of having hoped for an easy, joyful start.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Arturo is disappointed by the news, but optimistic. On Maribel’s first day of school, Arturo and Alma, “filled with impossible expectation,” help Maribel to get ready for school. Maribel is visibly confused, unable to understand why she cannot go to her old school, and seemingly unaware of where she is. Maribel dresses herself, and when she puts her sweater on backwards and Alma tries to fix it, Maribel lashes out. After breakfast, Alma asks Maribel if she is ready, and Maribel responds, “’For what?’” Alma says there is “no rhyme or reason” to Maribel’s confusion—“even a year after the accident,” Alma still cannot make sense of any pattern to Maribel’s behavior. Alma and Arturo take Maribel downstairs to catch her bus, and send her off with both hope and trepidation.
Despite these feelings of futility, Alma and Arturo experience a resurgence of hope on Maribel’s first day of school. They try not to let themselves become demoralized by her obvious confusion—it is useless to try to stay ahead of it or to sense when it might rear its head. As they send Maribel off to start her new life, they experience both the naivete of hope and the dark cloud of fear—they long for Maribel to succeed in her new surroundings, but they know that there is nothing more they can do to ensure that this happens. Moving to America has been the ultimate sacrifice, and all they can do now is wait and see if their gamble will pay off.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
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Arturo leaves for work, and Alma is alone in the apartment for the first time since their arrival in Newark. She watches television and attempts to “replicate the sounds,” though she has no idea what anyone is saying. Alma longs to cook something, but has none of the ingredients she needs. She realizes that this is going to be her life—long days alone in the apartment—and she must learn how to spend them.
Alma attempts to figure out how to spend her days. She is both fascinated and saddened by life in America—she wants to know more about her town, about English, and about her future, but she also longs for the comforts of home.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Alma wants to buy more food, but she does not want to return to the gas station. She showers, dresses, and heads outside, and as she steps out onto the walkway, she hears a skateboard in the parking lot below—it is Garrett Miller, the boy with the neck tattoo. Alma is full of fear, but she tells herself to calm down. She waits for Garrett to leave, and after several minutes, he does. Alma wonders why he came to the building—for Maribel or for something else.
Garrett Miller reappears, and Alma is again struck by fear. Garrett has come to represent all that is unknown and dangerous about her new life, and Alma is intensely suspicious of him. 
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
As Alma heads to the staircase, she spots a man who introduces himself as Fito, the landlord. He gives Alma her mailbox key, and she asks about the boy—Fito tells Alma that he is “just a local troublemaker,” and that he lives down the road in a neighborhood called Capitol Oaks. He assures Alma that there is “nothing to worry about.” He describes the neighborhoods of Newark to Alma, and declares with pride that the Redwood Apartments—his building—is home to Latino immigrants from several countries. He tells Alma that she will “fit right in,” and once again reminds her that there is nothing to worry about. It occurs to Alma that perhaps Fito is just afraid to scare the Riveras away and lose out on their rent, but she nonetheless repeats his words back to him—“Nothing to worry about.” 
Alma likes Fito, but she is afraid to trust him completely. Nonetheless, he offers her comfort and attempts to lighten her heart by describing the bustling community of immigrants that he has made within his building. Alma attempts to make herself believe Fito’s words, and to really feel that she is safe and there is nothing at all to be afraid of.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon