The Book of Unknown Americans

by

Cristina Henríquez

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The Book of Unknown Americans: Chapter 8: Mayor Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Toros and the Riveras grow closer—both families attend the same mass, and Celia often invites the Riveras over to their apartment for lunch afterwards. Celia is a gracious and enthusiastic hostess, but Rafael does not let the Riveras’ presence interfere with his usual Sunday routine of watching soccer. Rafael brags to the Riveras about Enrique’s success, and even talks up Mayor’s (nonexistent) soccer skills. Initially wary of these Sunday afternoons with the Riveras, Mayor tends to hide in his room—Celia coaxes him out, though, and urges him to engage Maribel, since the two of them are about the same age. Mayor is afraid to attempt any real conversation with Maribel.
As the Toros and the Riveras grow closer and find a sense of community in one another’s friendship, Mayor struggles with his complicated feelings of attraction towards Maribel. He is shy, and nervous to engage her in conversation, and while their parents’ friendships move forward, their own does not.
Themes
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
One afternoon, Garrett taunts Mayor as Mayor walks home from school. Mayor considers that Garrett must be lonely—he doesn’t have any friends, his older brother died serving in Iraq, his mother has recently picked up and left town, and his father is rumored to be an alcoholic. Mayor attempts to ignore Garrett and walk away, but soon Maribel’s bus pulls up and drops her out front of the Redwood Apartments, where Garrett taunts her for not being able to speak English. He calls Maribel a retard, and then pulls Maribel’s sunglasses—which are extra-dark, a remedy against her frequent headaches—down off of her face and throws them to the ground. When Maribel bends over to reach her glasses, Garrett puts his hands on her hips. Mayor calls out to Garrett, telling him to leave Maribel alone. Garrett turns on Mayor, but seemingly gets bored of the interaction before escalating things. He rides off on his skateboard, and calls out to Maribel: “I’m not done with you.”
Mayor is used to being teased and picked on by Garrett, but when Garrett teases Maribel, he escalates the situation until it edges on danger. Sensing that Garrett’s desire to humiliate Maribel is perhaps sexual in nature, Mayor intervenes despite having sworn at the beginning of the school year that he would not retaliate against Garrett in any way to avoid his own physical endangerment. Garrett threatens Maribel further as he leaves—a bit of foreshadowing that looms over the narrative, but that doesn’t seem to affect the disoriented and emotionally isolated Maribel.
Themes
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Mayor makes sure that Maribel is okay, and then asks her if she’s going up to her apartment. Maribel insists on waiting for her mother, who always meets her at the bus. Mayor suggests the two of them wait up on the landing, and Maribel agrees. Maribel pulls out a notebook and begins writing—Mayor tries to talk to her about reading and writing, and they have a pleasant enough conversation despite Maribel’s frequent non-sequiturs.
As it becomes evident that Alma has been delayed in coming to collect Maribel, Mayor attempts again to make her feel safe. The two of them finally have a pleasant conversation, and Mayor is happy and surprised to find that he likes Maribel’s company.
Themes
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Soon, Mayor and Maribel hear Alma calling for Maribel. She is flushed and panicked, but Mayor reassures her that everything is okay. Alma quickly takes Maribel up to their apartment, leaving Mayor on his own.
Having seen this event from both Alma and Mayor’s point of view, the audience can understand that the emotions and circumstances driving any given encounter are always more complicated than they seem.
Themes
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
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Mayor feels that something has changed between him and Maribel—he is protective of her, and now engages in conversations with her on Sundays and attempts to joke with her in order to make her smile. One Sunday, Quisqueya shows up—she is hurt that Celia has not invited her over in a long time, and once she sees that the Riveras are at the apartment, she leaves. After she does the Toros and the Riveras discuss politics—Barack Obama has just been elected president. Rafael Toro is skeptical of what Obama can do for immigrants, but he is hopeful that Obama will fix the economy. Rafael laments that America is “not as safe as it used to be”—when Arturo Rivera seems concerned by this statement, Rafael adds that “compared to where any of us are from, it’s safe.”
While Mayor and Maribel’s friendship begins to blossom, their parents consider all they have suffered in order to bring their children to a “safer” country. The Toros and the Riveras both hope for prosperity, even as the financial crisis looms larger than ever over all their lives. Though “safety” is relative and layered, the Riveras and Toros agree that America is a safer place than any of their home countries.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Mayor was just an infant when the Toros came to America, and though he never really knew Panamá, Rafael constantly assures him that the country is “in [Mayor’s] bones.” Mayor feels American, though, and he is distressed when his classmates tease him about being Panamanian—he is caught between two worlds.
Mayor is torn between two identities. He feels American, but his classmates at school make him feel ostracized and othered on a daily basis—he does not know where he fits in.
Themes
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Mayor remembers the day he and his family took their oath of citizenship, “along with a group of other men and women who had made living in the United States a dream.”
Mayor considers the idea of American identity even more deeply as he remembers the oath he and his parents—and countless others in pursuit of the American dream—have taken.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
The Toros have never been back to Panamá—Rafael is too afraid to ask for vacation time, knowing that as a line cook “he could be replaced in a heartbeat.” They almost went back once, for Rafael’s high school reunion—the whole family was excited, and Celia bought new clothes for the trip, but after Rafael spoke on the phone to one of his classmates who called him “gringo royalty” and implied that Rafael had forgotten his roots, Rafael became angered and cancelled the trip. The Toros considered one more trip to Panamá, the following year—but two weeks before they were scheduled to depart, the 9/11 attacks took place in New York, and they once again cancelled their trip. That Christmas, Rafael took his family to a frozen beach in Southern Delaware and told Celia—devastated by having twice missed the opportunity to visit her family—that the beach was “[as] close [as she was] going to get” to Panamá. Once at the beach in the freezing cold, Celia admitted that “this country [is] beautiful.”
The Toros’ complicated longing for home is dissected in these passages, as Mayor—isolated from his family by his American-ness, isolated from his American friends by his Panamanian heritage—reflects upon his parents’ intense desire to reconnect with their homeland. Obstacle after obstacle stands in the way of the Toros’ return to Panamá—fear, longing, isolation, and feelings of futility are all wrapped up in every attempt the Toros make to visit the country from which they fled. At the height of their collective despair over being caught, just as Mayor is, between two worlds, Rafael brings his family to a beach, the “closest thing” to Panamá they can hope for. Though the gesture seems bleak and futile at first. Celia admits that there is a harsh beauty to America, and to American life.
Themes
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon