When Celia Toro’s sister, who still lives in Panamá, receives a large sum of money in a divorce settlement, she offers to send ten thousand dollars of it to Celia and Rafael. Rafael immediately decides that the money should be used to buy a car and, despite Celia’s protests, the family heads to a used car dealership and purchases a Volkswagen Rabbit. The car becomes a symbol of the American dream in all its complexity—much like America, the car promises freedom, mobility, and status, but its ability to provide these things is limited. For example, Rafael is afraid to drive the car as fast and confidently as he wants to because he doesn’t want to be pulled over by the police, who “automatically think you’ve done something wrong if you’re black or if you’re brown.” This shows that simply having a car—like simply being in America—does not guarantee a person status or freedom. Mayor, too, has high hopes for the car, but not only is he an unlicensed driver, he is also forbidden from going into the car at all while grounded. The car’s development as a symbol therefore parallels the characters’ realizations about the complicated nature of the American dream. When Mayor steals the car in order to take Maribel for a drive in the snow, he regains a measure of agency, and the car once again symbolizes freedom and opportunity. However, when he and Maribel return home and receive news that Arturo has been shot and killed, it’s clear that the car was a factor that led to the tragedy. Mayor therefore sees the car as a representation of his guilt over Arturo’s death, which he thinks occurred in part because of his own selfish desire to possess the false freedom the car promised.
Rafael’s Car Quotes in The Book of Unknown Americans
“Next time, just try to blend in with everyone else and you’ll be fine,” my mom offered.
“The way of the world,” my dad said.
“What?” my mom asked.
“Just trying to blend in. That’s the way of the world.”
“Well, that’s the way of America, at least,” my mom said.
Both of us were trying to make sense of it. And sitting there, I started thinking, Who can say whose fault it is? Who can say who set this whole thing in motion? Maybe it was Maribel. Maybe it was me. Maybe if I hadn’t left school that day, none of this would have happened. Maybe if our parents hadn’t forbidden us from seeing each other, I wouldn’t have needed to steal her away. Maybe if my dad had never bought that car, I wouldn’t have had a way to get to the beach. Maybe it was my tía Gloria’s fault for giving my dad the money [to] buy it. Maybe it was my tío Esteban’s fault for being a jerk she would need to divorce to get that money. You could trace it back infinitely. All these different veins, but who knew which one led to the heart? And then again, maybe it had nothing to do with any of us. Maybe it really was completely random, just something that happened.