The Book of Unknown Americans

by

Cristina Henríquez

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Rafael’s Car Symbol Analysis

Rafael’s Car Symbol Icon

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

The The Book of Unknown Americans quotes below all refer to the symbol of Rafael’s Car. 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 17: Mayor Quotes

“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.

Related Characters: Celia Toro (speaker), Rafael “Rafa” Toro (speaker), Mayor Toro
Related Symbols: Rafael’s Car
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 26: Mayor Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mayor Toro (speaker), Maribel Rivera
Related Symbols: Rafael’s Car
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis:
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Rafael’s Car Symbol Timeline in The Book of Unknown Americans

The timeline below shows where the symbol Rafael’s Car appears in The Book of Unknown Americans. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 17: Mayor
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
...for a moment, Rafael announces that he wants to use the money to buy a car. Mayor knows that his father “lusted” after cars as a boy and has always dreamed... (full context)
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon
Rafael, Mayor, and Celia go to a nearby used-car lot and pick out a Volkswagen Rabbit. After haggling with the salesman for a bit,... (full context)
Longing Theme Icon
...has been lifted. Alma lets Mayor in. Maribel is in her bedroom, wearing the red scarf he gave her for Christmas. She asks him about his family’s new car, and when... (full context)
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
...they are going over to hang out at the Toros’ apartment. Mayor takes his father’s car keys off the windowsill near the front door, and then the two of them head... (full context)
Chapter 19: Alma
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
...them that a few weeks ago she saw Maribel and Mayor canoodling in the Toros’ car—not only that, but when Mayor stepped out of the car, his pants were wet. Arturo... (full context)
Chapter 20: Mayor
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
...has “a dark look in his eyes.” Rafael confronts him about having been in the car with Maribel, and Mayor admits to stealing the keys off the windowsill in order to... (full context)
Chapter 23: Mayor
Longing Theme Icon
...to spend the afternoon with William, but instead he is going to steal his father’s car. Mayor goes inside and takes the keys, and then William accompanies him to an empty... (full context)
Longing Theme Icon
Mayor drives his father’s car out to the Evers School and gets there at around two in the afternoon. The... (full context)
Chapter 26: Mayor
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
By the time Mayor and Maribel get back in the car and start heading for home, it is already getting dark. The snow is falling even... (full context)