The Book of Unknown Americans

by

Cristina Henríquez

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Alma Rivera Character Analysis

The novel’s protagonist and the matriarch of the Rivera family, Alma is a loving wife and mother who is determined to make the best life possible for her daughter, Maribel. Maribel suffers from brain damage, and Alma carries with her the deep guilt of believing that she herself was responsible for Maribel’s accident—she had been holding the ladder that Maribel was climbing at the time of her fall. Alma’s guilt drives her to move the family to Newark, Delaware in order to secure a better, more specialized education for the brain-injured Maribel. Alma yearns to recover the “old” Maribel and she grows frustrated with the withdrawn, easily-confused girl her daughter has become. Though initially unhappy and a bit frightened, Alma (who is stuck at home all day while her husband Arturo goes to work at the mushroom farm and Maribel goes off to school) soon discovers a community of immigrants in Newark—specifically in her apartment complex, the Redwood Apartments—and forms deep friendships, most notably with Celia Toro. Alma remains isolated, though, in her grief over Maribel’s accident and her fear of local bully Garrett Miller, whom she observes harassing Maribel. Alma, in this way, is perhaps the character most representative of theme of isolation vs. community—despite making a life for herself in America, she remains insular and repressed in many ways.

Alma Rivera Quotes in The Book of Unknown Americans

The The Book of Unknown Americans quotes below are all either spoken by Alma Rivera or refer to Alma Rivera. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage Books edition of The Book of Unknown Americans published in 2014.
Chapter 1: Alma Quotes

Back then, all we wanted was the simplest things: to eat good food, to sleep at night, to smile, to laugh, to be well. We felt it was our right, as much as it was anyone’s, to have those things. Of course, when I think about it now, I see that I was naive. I was blinded by the swell of hope and the promise of possibility. I assumed that everything that would go wrong in our lives already had.

Related Characters: Alma Rivera (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4: Alma Quotes

I dropped the hot dog into a pot of water. I could hear Arturo behind me, working through his thoughts, trying to box in his frustration. After all these years, I could interpret his various silences. I knew he didn’t want to say any more about it. I didn’t want him to, either.

Finally, “She’s in the bedroom?” he asked.

“She’s resting,” I said. “The hot dog will be ready soon,” I added, as if it were some sort of consolation. But when Arturo didn’t say anything, I felt acutely the meagerness of it, the insufficiency. We wanted more. We wanted what we had come here for.

Related Characters: Alma Rivera (speaker), Arturo Rivera (speaker), Maribel Rivera
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7: Alma Quotes

English was such a dense, tight language. So many hard letters, like miniature walls. Not open with vowels the way Spanish was. Our throats open, our mouths open, our hearts open. In English, the sounds were closed. They thudded to the floor. And yet, there was something magnificent about it. There was no usted, no tu. There was only one word—you. It applied to all people. Everyone equal. There were no words that changed from feminine to masculine and back again depending on the speaker. A person was from New York. Not a woman from New York, not a man from New York. Simply a person.

Related Characters: Alma Rivera (speaker)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13: Alma Quotes

I was a worrier by nature and I couldn’t escape the feeling that anything could happen to her at any time. As if because something terrible had happened to her once, there was more of a possibility that something terrible would happen to her again. Or maybe it was merely that I understood how vulnerable she was in a way I hadn’t before. I understood how easily and how quickly things could be snatched away.

Related Characters: Alma Rivera (speaker), Maribel Rivera
Related Symbols: The Ladder
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

“What if God wants us to be happy? What if there’s nothing else around the bend? What if all our unhappiness is in the past and from here on out we get an uncomplicated life? Some people get that, you know. Why shouldn’t it be us?”

Related Characters: Arturo Rivera (speaker), Alma Rivera, Maribel Rivera
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 19: Alma Quotes

This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. We had followed the rules. We had said to ourselves, We won’t be like those people who pack up and [go] north without waiting for the proper authorization. We were no less desperate them. We understood, just as they did, how badly a person could want a thing—money, or peace of mind, or a better education for their injured daughter, or just a chance at this thing called life. But we would be different. We would do it the right way. So we filled out the papers and waited nearly a year before they let us come. We waited even though it would have been so much easier not to wait. And for what?

Related Characters: Alma Rivera (speaker), Arturo Rivera, Maribel Rivera
Page Number: 181-82
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 27: Alma Quotes

It was only a word—justice. It was only a concept, and it wasn’t enough.

Related Characters: Alma Rivera (speaker), Arturo Rivera
Page Number: 268
Explanation and Analysis:

I took most of the garbage bags that I had piled in the hallway out to the alley. Maribel helped me carry the mattress down to the parking lot, where we left it. Somebody else could have all of it if they wanted. I didn’t need it anymore.

Related Characters: Alma Rivera (speaker), Arturo Rivera, Maribel Rivera
Page Number: 276
Explanation and Analysis:

There she was again. The person Arturo and I had been waiting for, the reason for all of this. And as I looked at her I saw that maybe she had been here all along. Not exactly the girl she used to be before the accident, which was the girl I thought I had been searching for, but my Maribel, brave and impetuous and kind. All this time I had been buried too far under my guilt to see her. I had been preoccupied with getting us to the United States because I wanted it to make her whole again. I believed that I had lost my daughter and that if I did the right things and brought us to the right place, I could recover the girl she used to be. What I didn’t understand—what I realized now—was that if I stopped moving backwards, trying to recapture the past, there might be a future waiting for us.

Related Characters: Alma Rivera (speaker), Arturo Rivera, Maribel Rivera
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:
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Alma Rivera Character Timeline in The Book of Unknown Americans

The timeline below shows where the character Alma Rivera appears in The Book of Unknown Americans. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: Alma
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Alma Rivera describes a time when all she and her family wanted were “simple” things, and... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
The Riveras arrive in Newark, Delaware thirty hours after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Alma wakes her teenage daughter, Maribel, who has fallen asleep in the pickup truck they’ve been... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
The inside of the apartment is dingy, ugly, and “reek[ing] of mildew and fish.” As Alma and Arturo look around, Maribel stands “expressionless, as usual, clutching her notebook to her chest.”... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
...“slouched” against the wall, holding a skateboard. He has a neck tattoo, and he makes Alma nervous. (full context)
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
...over a twenty-dollar bill. The cashier continues asking Arturo for something, but neither he nor Alma can understand. Other customers in the store begin to stare. Flustered and frightened, Alma takes... (full context)
Chapter 4: Alma
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
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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... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
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... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Arturo leaves for work, and Alma is alone in the apartment for the first time since their arrival in Newark. She... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Alma wants to buy more food, but she does not want to return to the gas... (full context)
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As Alma heads to the staircase, she spots a man who introduces himself as Fito, the landlord.... (full context)
Chapter 5: Mayor
Longing Theme Icon
...day, Celia and Mayor go to the Dollar Tree, where they run into Maribel and Alma. Mayor is mesmerized by Maribel’s beauty. Celia introduces herself and Mayor to Alma and Maribel,... (full context)
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Celia tells Alma and Maribel to stop by the Toro apartment any time—she is almost always home, she... (full context)
Chapter 7: Alma
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
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... (full context)
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... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Alma busies herself during her long days home alone cleaning, watching television, and cooking familiar foods.... (full context)
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Alma has received many visits from her new neighbors—Quisqueya Solís brought cookies, and Nelia Zafón and... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
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Alma visits the laundromat and the Mexican grocery store, and sometimes she goes to church to... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
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Bored of her usual activities, Alma decides to go to Community House one morning. When she arrives, a receptionist asks her... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Alma, panicked, arrives back at the Redwood Apartments, searching for Maribel everywhere. She finds her with... (full context)
Chapter 8: Mayor
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... (full context)
Chapter 10: Alma
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Alma watches as Arturo struggles with the physical toll his new job is taking on him.... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
...are living paycheck to paycheck. Specialty foods from the Mexican market nearby are unaffordable, and Alma, at the suggestion of a fellow shopper at the Dollar Tree, makes oatmeal for herself,... (full context)
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Alma has not been sleeping well, since she is dogged by memories of the past and... (full context)
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Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
At the work site, Alma observed Maribel carefully as she helped out with small tasks. Arturo called down to one... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Maribel’s doctors in Mexico were optimistic about her recovery, but warned Alma and Arturo that she might never be the same as she had been before. Sending... (full context)
Chapter 11: Mayor
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
...spend even more time with Maribel. He wishes he could take her out somewhere, but Alma insists the two of them stay in the apartment. One afternoon, Mayor and Maribel discuss... (full context)
Chapter 13: Alma
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Trying to focus on the positive, Alma and Arturo rejoice over the fact that Maribel is laughing more often, now, and seems... (full context)
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Alma notices that Maribel has “developed a sort of friendship” with Mayor, but she insists that... (full context)
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Alma heads over to the Toros’ apartment, but as she reaches the staircase, she hears a... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
That night at dinner, Arturo asks Alma what’s wrong—he can sense that something is off. Alma does not answer him—she is not... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Arturo urges Alma to snap out of her mood and to “believe [she is] entitled to happiness.” Alma... (full context)
Chapter 14: Mayor
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
...from her husband. Later in the morning, the radiators stop working—soon, the telephone rings, and Alma Rivera reports that her family’s radiator has gone out, too. Mayor suggests that they invite... (full context)
Chapter 16: Alma
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Alma has not told anyone about the incident with Garrett, but she is hardly able to... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
At the station, Alma is introduced to a Spanish-speaking officer and begins to tell him about the situation. The... (full context)
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Instead of going home, Alma boards a bus bound for Capitol Oaks. On the ride, she looks up the English... (full context)
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That night, after Maribel has gone to bed, Alma and Arturo sit at the kitchen table drinking tea. Alma is aware that she is... (full context)
Chapter 17: Mayor
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
...cannot focus in school. One afternoon, Mayor eavesdrops on a conversation between his mother and AlmaAlma admits that Mayor was “good” for Maribel, and that she is “more like herself” when... (full context)
Longing Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Longing Theme Icon
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Mayor and Maribel tell Alma that they are going over to hang out at the Toros’ apartment. Mayor takes his... (full context)
Chapter 19: Alma
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
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... (full context)
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
At the restaurant, Arturo, Alma, and Maribel order ice waters and watch the American families all around them. Arturo toasts... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
...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.... (full context)
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...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.... (full context)
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
A week later, Alma and Arturo borrow the Toros’ radio and are enjoying listening to old music when there... (full context)
Chapter 20: Mayor
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
...home from the movies, his mother tells him that she has received a call from Alma Rivera. Mayor asks what about, but Celia insists on waiting until Rafael gets home. When... (full context)
Chapter 22: Alma
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Alma and Arturo tell Maribel that she cannot see Mayor anymore, and in the days afterward,... (full context)
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In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, Alma asks Arturo if they did the right thing, and Arturo implies that if Maribel did... (full context)
Chapter 25: Alma
Longing Theme Icon
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
It is Friday, and Alma is waiting at the front window of the apartment for Maribel to get home from... (full context)
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Alma becomes afraid that Garrett has somehow taken Maribel, and she makes “an anguished sound.” Celia... (full context)
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Alma calls Arturo and tells him that he needs to come home from job-hunting—Maribel has not... (full context)
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
...a patrol car has been sent out to look for her. The police officer reassures Alma and Arturo that “kids [Maribel’s] age” are always in trouble, and that she will probably... (full context)
Chapter 26: Mayor
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
...seems to be growing agitated. Celia tells her that Arturo is in surgery, and that Alma is waiting elsewhere in the hospital. Celia tells Mayor that they called him “a hundred... (full context)
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
...has died. The Toros are overwhelmed with grief. Rafael goes to the hospital to retrieve Alma and Maribel and brings them back to their apartment—Celia asks why he wouldn’t have brought... (full context)
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Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
The next morning, Celia and Mayor go to visit Alma and Maribel. Mayor sits with Maribel in her bedroom while their mothers converse, cry, and... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
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...curb outside of the Redwood Apartments next to a discarded mattress. She tells Mayor that Alma is inside sleeping on the floor—she does not want to sleep on the mattress anymore—and... (full context)
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The next morning, Alma and Maribel are gone and Mayor pictures what they might have looked like as they... (full context)
Chapter 27: Alma
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After Arturo’s death, Alma says, she “detached from [her]self.”  She remembers the pain of the moment she learned of... (full context)
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Alma, unable to sleep on the mattress she and Arturo had shared, sleeps on the floor.... (full context)
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Alma thinks that if she could, she would kill Garrett and his father herself. As the... (full context)
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Alma does not blame Mayor Toro for what happened, but Celia comes by every day—sometimes twice... (full context)
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Alma speaks with Phyllis, the translator from the school district, and informs her that Maribel will... (full context)
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Alma and Maribel pass the time receiving guests, watching television, and packing for their journey home.... (full context)
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...the hospital, and the church pitched in to raise over five thousand dollars and help Alma get Arturo’s body home. Celia tells Alma that everyone loved Arturo. Alma, overwhelmed, breaks down... (full context)
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Two days later, Alma and Maribel leave in a black pickup truck. Rafael has found someone to take them... (full context)
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...stomachache. The driver pulls over, and Maribel gets out of the car and throws up. Alma holds Maribel’s hair, and when Maribel is done, she proclaims that she wants to cut... (full context)
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The next morning, Alma looks out at the countryside and remembers something Arturo said to her on their way... (full context)