The Book of Unknown Americans


Cristina Henríquez

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Book of Unknown Americans can help.

The Book of Unknown Americans Summary

Arturo and Alma Rivera bring their teenage daughter, Maribel, across the Mexico-U.S. border and up to Newark, Delaware to start a new life. Maribel has been involved in a mysterious accident and has suffered a traumatic brain injury which has left her with a flat emotional affect and number of impairments, such as short-term memory loss and difficulty remembering certain words. Her parents are hopeful that by sending her to Evers, a school for learning-disabled or cognitively-impaired children, Mirabel will have an easier time learning and will soon begin to resemble her old self. Alma and Arturo settle into the Redwood Apartments and their new lives begin to take shape. Arturo takes a job at a mushroom farm, where he works on his feet for hours in the dark without breaks for food or water. Alma, who is mostly housebound, struggles to navigate her new neighborhood as she deals with intense homesickness. After connecting with a neighbor, Celia Toro, Alma learns the ropes of life in Newark—she begins taking English classes at a local community center and becomes excited about all life in America could offer.

Mayor Toro, Celia’s son, is a stringy, geeky high-schooler who can’t seem to live up to his father’s dreams—or his soccer-star older brother Enrique, who has gone off to college in Maryland on an athletic scholarship. Mayor develops an interest in the beautiful Maribel and gladly accepts the challenge of attempting to communicate with and learn more about her. A bully from Mayor’s school, Garrett Miller, teases Mayor over his crush on the “retarded girl” and, eventually, he follows Mayor and Maribel to their apartment complex, where he taunts and bullies the two of them further. After “rescuing” Maribel from Garrett’s insults, Mayor begins to feel a “protectiveness” over her and the two spend more and more time together, growing closer and closer. Mayor’s father, Rafael, is a hot-tempered man with big dreams for his son—he wants Mayor to be a soccer star, though, unbeknownst to him, Mayor has quit soccer and is only lying about having attended practices and games. Rafael is skeptical of Mayor’s fascination with Maribel, and Alma Rivera, too, makes sure that the two are only allowed to spend time together while supervised, either at the Riveras’ apartment or the Toros’.

One afternoon, Alma spots Garrett harassing Maribel outside the apartment—her shirt is lifted up over her bra and Garrett has her up against a wall. Alma frightens Garrett away, returns Maribel to the apartment, and does not speak a word of the incident to Arturo. At school, Garrett taunts Mayor further, and the two get into a fight. Rafael and Celia are called into Mayor’s school for a conference, where it is revealed that Mayor has not been on the soccer team for some time. Furious, Rafael grounds Mayor—which means he is not allowed to spend any time hanging out with Maribel. At Christmas, the heat in the apartment complex goes out, and the Toros throw a large party in their apartment to welcome their neighbors—the Riveras, the Mercados, Quisqueya Solis, Benny Quinto, Nelia Zafon, and Micho Alvarez are all in attendance, and even the landlord, Fito, shows up. The tenants celebrate their cultures together, and Mayor and Maribel sneak off in the middle of the party. Mayor gifts Maribel a red scarf and kisses her.

Alma, still nervous about Garrett, attempts to report him to the police, but as no crime has been committed there is nothing that the authorities can do. Meanwhile, Celia Toro’s sister, who is back in Panamá, finalizes her divorce and offers a large chunk of her settlement to Celia and Rafael, repaying them for all the money they have lent her throughout the years. Rafael decides to use the money to buy a car, and the family picks out a Volkswagen Rabbit. Mayor is still grounded, but he visits the Riveras’ apartment anyway—he lies to Alma and tells her that his punishment has been lifted. In order to impress Maribel, Mayor offers to show her the inside of the car—he steals his father’s keys, and the two make out in the parking lot.

Arturo loses his job at the mushroom farm, and he and Alma lament the futility of their carefully-laid plans for success in America. Arturo is the only member of the family authorized to work and he has only thirty days to secure a new job. Celia begins teaching Alma English, as Alma has stopped going to classes at Community House. Alma teaches Arturo some key English words, but they do not improve his job search. On their wedding anniversary, Alma and Arturo take Maribel out for “drinks.” The family has no money, so they just order waters and enjoy sitting in the bustling restaurant. Maribel seems to have improved, and she laughs at her father’s jokes. The Toros and the Riveras go ice skating at a local pond—Alma thinks she sees Garrett, and Arturo notices her anxiety. She denies that anything is wrong. Later that week, Quisqueya pays a visit to the Riveras—she informs Alma and Arturo that she saw Mayor and Maribel canoodling in the Toro family car. Meanwhile, Rafael Toro has lost his job as well—the financial crisis of 2007-2008 is hitting everyone hard. A few days later, Alma calls Celia and tells her what Quisqueya saw—Celia and Arturo reprimand him and forbid him from seeing Maribel anymore. The Riveras tell Maribel the same thing—Maribel grows “sullen,” and the progress she has made in coming out of her shell seems to halt. Alma worries that she will never get her daughter back.

Rafael Toro gets a job as a newspaper carrier. During the first snow of the season, Mayor and his friend William steal Rafael’s car, but Mayor abandons William so that he himself can go scoop Maribel up from school and show her the snow—the first snowfall she has ever seen in her life. Mayor drives Maribel a long distance from town, ignoring the messages coming in on his cell phone. He gets Maribel McDonald’s and she loves it. The two drive on and eventually come to a frigid beach. They kiss and Maribel laments that the moment can’t last.

When Maribel does not arrive home from school that afternoon, Alma grows worried. She visits Celia Toro, and Celia assures her that Mayor is out with William. The two attempt to contact Mayor, but he does not answer his phone. Alma calls Arturo to inform him that Maribel is missing and then calls Maribel’s school, but cannot get in touch with anyone. When Arturo arrives home, Alma confesses that there has been a boy who has had it out for Maribel. Alma tells Arturo that she wanted to protect Maribel on her own after not having been able to protect her when she took her fateful fall off a ladder at Arturo’s construction site (the fall that led to her brain injury). Arturo tells Alma to forgive herself, and he calls the police—there is a patrol car out looking for Maribel already, but Arturo does not want to wait. Alma tells him that Garrett lives in a neighborhood called Capitol Oaks, and Arturo puts on his hat and heads out the door.

Mayor and Maribel make their way home in the snowstorm, but as the weather worsens, they are forced to pull over to the side of the road. When they wake up, it is dark. Maribel tells Mayor, seemingly out of nowhere, about her frightful encounter with Garrett, and the two head home. When they arrive back at the apartment complex, Rafael is waiting outside for them—he orders them to get into the backseat, and he drives them to the hospital. The three head inside, and Celia Toro tells them that Arturo is in surgery. Maribel is confused and upset, as is Mayor. Celia comforts both of them and they all wait for hours for some news. The Toros head home and Maribel stays at the hospital with her mother—Mayor feels responsible for whatever has happened. He begs his mother to tells him what is going on, and Celia tells him that Arturo was shot while trying to find Maribel. Over the rest of the day, as neighbors visit the Toros to offer support, the story unfolds: Arturo went to Capitol Oaks, became embroiled in a confrontation, and a man with a shotgun fired at him. Mayor imagines the scene over and over again in great detail, sick with worry and guilt. That night, the Toros receive a call: Arturo has died.

The next morning, Mayor and Celia go over to the Riveras’ apartment to offer support. Celia and Alma embrace, while Mayor and Maribel sit together silently. Maribel asks Mayor if what happened was her fault, and Mayor assures her that it wasn’t. In his head, he begins to wonder who, exactly, is at fault—trying to unravel such a random and “infinitely” complicated series of events causes Mayor to think perhaps Arturo’s death has “nothing to do with any of [them.]”

Maribel and Alma make plans to return to Mexico. Mayor offers to come visit, or to come find Maribel someday, but Maribel tells him that she is not lost and does not need to be found. Alma recounts the circumstances of her husband’s death—he was shot by Garrett Miller’s father, who will be charged with his murder. The authorities promise Alma that they will get “justice” for her and for Maribel. Alma wants to bring Arturo’s body back to Mexico, but the hospital tells her that it will cost five thousand dollars to transport the body. She knows that she and Maribel, having fallen out of status, must leave the country. As she and Maribel prepare to leave, their neighbors visit to offer flowers, food, and condolences. Celia comes over and tells Alma that the neighbors and the local community have taken up a collection—they have raised over five thousand dollars to help in getting Arturo’s body back and to ease the long journey Alma and Maribel have ahead of them.

Two days later, Alma and Maribel leave in a black pickup truck driven by a quiet man who is an acquaintance of Rafael’s. Alma suspects that Rafael has paid the man nicely to drive them across the border. Maribel feels sick a few hours into the trip and when they pull over to the side of the road, Maribel throws up and then remarks that she wants to cut her hair. Alma realizes that her daughter was never really “missing,” and has always been who she was before the accident. The two get back in the car and the drive continues—Alma remembers something Arturo said months ago, as they made the trip toward Delaware: “Every place is beautiful if you give it a chance.”