The Book of Unknown Americans

by

Cristina Henríquez

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The Book of Unknown Americans: Chapter 7: Alma Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Maribel undergoes a series of evaluations and tests with psychologists and education specialists. Alma is interviewed, too, and is asked about Maribel’s developmental history—Alma, frustrated, reminds the experts that Maribel is only the way she is “because of the accident.” Eventually, the district agrees that Maribel’s traumatic brain injury—albeit mild—is enough to warrant admission to the Evers School. Alma is overjoyed, but after Maribel’s first day of school, Maribel is as flat and emotionless as ever. Arturo urges Alma not to grow impatient.
Though Maribel’s cognitive impairments are, according to Alma, the results of a devastating accident, she is still scrutinized and subjected to tests. Her condition is frustrating and isolating for herself, for Alma, and for Arturo, but Arturo urges patience, holding out hope that she might eventually improve.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Maribel’s school reports do not improve—her teachers describe her as “unresponsive and unengaged.” Alma attempts to help Maribel with her homework, which seems to be aimed at getting Maribel to identify feelings and emotions. Maribel struggles, and cannot keep up with the assignment.
Maribel’s inability to properly judge the feelings and emotions of others isolates her from her mother.
Themes
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Alma busies herself during her long days home alone cleaning, watching television, and cooking familiar foods. She calls her parents from her prepaid cell phone, but hearing all their good news from México makes Alma feel sad that “life [is] going on without [her.]”
Alma, still bored and frustrated, longs for home. Speaking to her parents and hearing of that life is “going on” in her home country inspires feelings of futility and frustration.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Alma has received many visits from her new neighbors—Quisqueya Solís brought cookies, and Nelia Zafón and Ynez Mercado also dropped by to welcome Alma and to tell her to call on them if she needed help. Ynez, after learning that Maribel, Arturo, and Alma have all been sleeping on the same mattress, brings over a sleeping bag for Maribel to use.
At the depths of her longing and frustration, Alma is visited by kindly neighbors who seek to make her feel a welcome part of their community.
Themes
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
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Alma visits the laundromat and the Mexican grocery store, and sometimes she goes to church to pray. She visits Celia Toro, whom Alma sees as glamorous compared to her friends back in México. Celia gives Alma a list of things she will need for winter, and suggests Alma visit the Community House, a local resource which offers immigrant services. Celia and Alma discuss their reasons for leaving their respective home countries, and marvel together at “what parents will do for their children.”
Alma and Celia’s friendship offers them both the things they need. Both women are isolated in their own ways, and coming together in friendship allows them to feel less alone, more hopeful, and bound by their shared experiences of having left their home countries for the sake of their children. 
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Bored of her usual activities, Alma decides to go to Community House one morning. When she arrives, a receptionist asks her if she has come for the English class—though this wasn’t the original purpose of her visit, Alma decides to sit in on the class, excited by the idea of being a student again. The teacher, Mrs. Shields, tells the class that she will talk mostly in Spanish during their early sessions, but that as the course goes on and their understanding of English deepens, she will speak in English most of the time. Alma is put off at first by Mrs. Shield’s enthusiastic attitude, but she enjoys the class and marvels at the differences between English and Spanish.
As Alma continues to seek a sense of community in her new town, she confronts the differences between her old culture and her new culture as they unfold within the Spanish and English languages. Alma feels warmed by the sense of community she finds in class, and experiences a spark of both joy and hopefulness.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Mrs. Shields passes out Spanish-to-English dictionaries at the end of class, and on the bus home, Alma becomes lost in its pages. She misses her bus stop and begins to panic as she realizes she is in an unfamiliar part of town and has just twenty minutes to get home to meet Maribel’s bus as she arrives home from school. Alma gets off the bus at the next stop and stands in the rain waiting and waiting for a bus or a car. She tries calling Maribel’s school, but cannot page through her dictionary fast enough to translate what she wants to say, and the school hangs up on her. Eventually, a bus arrives and after verifying that her stop will be on the line, Alma boards it.
Alma, still fascinated by the experience of learning a new language and lost in happy thoughts after having had a positive experience in her new community, suddenly finds herself isolated, afraid, and lost. Disaster is ultimately averted, but her fear of leaving Maribel alone and unattended is revealed in this passage to be a devastatingly intense emotion.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Alma, panicked, arrives back at the Redwood Apartments, searching for Maribel everywhere. She finds her with Mayor Toro, in the hallway outside the Toros’ apartment. Mayor assures Alma that everything is okay. Alma is relieved and grateful that Mayor found Maribel because “as boys [go,] Mayor [seems] harmless.”
Alma is relieved to discover that no harm has come to Maribel. She sees Mayor as safe and harmless, and admits that she is lucky he was around to take care of Maribel when she could not. Though she doesn’t see Mayor as a threat, she seems not to realize his feelings for Maribel. 
Themes
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon