Throughout The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez continually forces her characters to reckon with losses small and large, and to consider the futility of their actions in trying to prevent, combat, or soothe those losses. The Riveras work hard to obtain visas to come to the States legally, give up everything they know in leaving Mexico, and struggle daily in their new lives in America only to have their dreams crushed, their legal status stripped away, and their patriarch, Arturo, killed in a shooting which could have been prevented entirely. Micho Alvarez, a photographer from México, works tirelessly for immigration legislation reform but knows deep down that the tides may never turn when it comes to American prejudice against immigrants. Mayor Toro woos Maribel Rivera over the course of nearly a year, believing all the while that they are “meant” for one another, until she returns to México and he is left only with the selfish but pained thought that “the only girl who had ever liked [him]” was forever “lost” to him. As the characters within the novel wrestle privately with the futility of their actions, Henríquez actually makes the argument that nothing, really, is ever in vain—though her characters are often overwhelmed by the futility of their lives, most of them come to accept that chance plays an enormous role in disappointment and loss, and that a random accident, firing, or act of violence does not invalidate their hard work or their hope for a better life.
Maribel’s accident is the novel’s inciting incident, as it leaves her injured and transformed and her parents are devastated and desperate to get their daughter “back.” When Alma decides that the right course of action is to bring Maribel to the States for more specialized schooling, Arturo attempts to point out the futility of the move—Maribel’s doctors have told them that their daughter may never return to being the impetuous, rebellious spirit she was before the fall—but Alma refuses to hear it, believing that a change in circumstance will bring her daughter back to her. At the end of the novel, after Arturo has died and Alma and Maribel have been forced to return to México due to their lapsed visa status, Alma realizes that while Maribel has made undeniable progress due to her new school and new relationship, Maribel was herself all along—Alma was just so consumed by the futility, banality, and sadness of what she perceived as the “loss” of her daughter to really try to see past Maribel’s brain injury. Rather than feeling angry at the arguable futility of this discovery—her family has had to lose so much in order for her to recognize something so small—Alma chooses to embrace the journey she and Maribel have been on, and resolves to stop “moving backward.”
Both Rafael Toro and Arturo Rivera face the loss of their jobs over the course of the novel—it is 2008, and the financial crisis is at a fever pitch. Both men are affronted and devastated by their firings, and both consider the futility of their lives and choices when the news of their being let go comes to light. Rafael sees himself as the provider for his family, and becomes enraged any time his wife Celia offers to get a job or to contribute in any other way to their well-being. The futility of such a staunch approach to being the patriarch of his family becomes apparent when Rafael loses his job, and he is forced to realize that the loss would have been less severe if he had relented—his need to be seen as the sole provider was counterproductive all along. Arturo, meanwhile, reckons with the futility of his efforts in a different way when he loses his job—he is let go from the mushroom farm which sponsored his and his family’s visas over a minor infraction, but he hears gossip that the farm is firing documented workers in order to hire undocumented workers who can be paid less. Arturo considers the futility of his entire effort to move his family to the States—he worked so hard to do things the “right way” and secure documentation, and now is faced with losing legal status. Both men are forced to confront the futility of planning to avoid loss, and the powerful, disheartening role of chance. While Rafael is ultimately able to find another job, Arturo is not, and he is eventually killed in a devastating, unpredictable encounter. By choosing two opposing outcomes for Rafael and Arturo, Henríquez plays with the ways in which futility can play out across a life. Rafael is delivered, but Arturo is not—however, Arturo’s death is not in vain, since—as previously mentioned—it presents an opportunity for his wife and daughter to rediscover one another, and for them to allow his loss to propel them toward richer, more hopeful lives.
Despite the setbacks and disappointments her characters face, Henríquez draws her characters’ lives with compassion. She acknowledges the pain of realizing that one’s actions have all been (seemingly) for nothing or that the reason for a devastating loss can be traced back to one’s own chance choices. However, Henríquez never points fingers or pokes fun at her characters’ suffering, and she imbues the narrative with grace and understanding. Feelings of futility can cloud one’s judgment or perception, she admits, but she also demonstrates the ways in which futility and loss are inevitable—and that surrendering to the futility of certain actions within or aspects of one’s life rather than persevering in spite of it is what renders a life futile.
Futility, Chance, and Loss ThemeTracker
Futility, Chance, and Loss Quotes in The Book of Unknown Americans
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.
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.
I missed my mother, but the truth was that I had missed her even when we were together, so it was nothing new.
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.
“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?”
On my walk home sometimes, as I stepped back down into that cellar apartment, my eyes heavy from exhaustion, I would think, Is this what this is? This country? My life? Is this all? But even when I thought that, I was always aware of some other part of me saying, there is more. And you will find it.
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?
We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?
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.
“You could come back one day,” I said. “Or I could come there.”
“I could find you.”
Maribel shook her head. “Finding is for things that are lost. You don’t need to find me, Mayor.”
It was only a word—justice. It was only a concept, and it wasn’t enough.
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.
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.