Henriquez’s characters are all struggling with loneliness and isolation that are, in many cases, born out of a profound sense of dislodgement and statelessness. The Riveras—the newest arrivals to the bustling apartment complex which houses the “unknown Americans” of Henríquez’s novel—are the most affected by this, especially at the beginning of the novel. As the Riveras begin to make sense of their new lives in Delaware, though, they become a part of the community of immigrants and begin to develop camaraderie, confidence, and a feeling of home. Though what they’ve left behind is never far from the Riveras’ minds, the burden of being stateless is lifted slightly by the comforts of community, and while isolation is an integral part of the immigrant experience, Henríquez argues, that isolation is not its defining quality—community is.
Isolation comes in many form in The Book of Unknown Americans—emotional isolation, cultural isolation, and physical isolation are all things that the characters must reckon with. While each character who narrates a chapter from their own point of view describes their struggles with all three, the Riveras—specifically Maribel and Alma—best represent the effects of these different kinds of isolation, as they’re the central characters and the newest to the United States. Alma Rivera, the novel’s protagonist, is isolated in the ways that many of her fellow immigrants are—she is unable to speak English, she longs for home, and she initially lacks the confidence to integrate herself into her community or to seek out company, help, or fun. Alma is isolated further, though, due to her grief and guilt over having been “responsible” for Maribel’s accident back in México. Alma chooses to bear this guilt alone, never discussing it with Arturo or with anyone. When she finally confesses her fears to him, Arturo soothes her, absolving her of her quilt and urging her to forgive herself and stop isolating herself. Alma is even further isolated by the knowledge that Garrett Miller has been harassing Maribel—rather than choosing to tell Arturo and worry him, she keeps the knowledge to herself and bears the burden of her anxiety over Maribel’s safety alone.
Maribel is the most representative of physical isolation—though she is isolated culturally and emotionally like her parents, her physical limitations and her inability to express herself make her into an even more isolated figure than her parents. Throughout the novel, Maribel struggles against her own mind and body to make her voice heard. Perhaps in order to highlight her unique experience of isolation, Henríquez does not give Maribel a point-of-view chapter of her own—she is the only major character who does not receive a chance to speak.
Henríquez makes clear that isolation is a fundamental part of the immigrant experience, but the novel frames immigrant communities as the saving grace of such isolation. The apartment building where the Riveras make their home at first seems as if it will isolate them even further—their apartment is dingy and small, and they feel farther away from the comforts of home than they thought possible. However, the apartment quickly becomes an emblem of community, since it’s a bustling building in which pretty much every tenant comes from somewhere else. The Riveras find comfort, solace, and happiness in their neighbors’ homes, lives, and stories. At a local place which offers immigrant services, aptly called the Community House, Alma takes free English lessons and experiences her first feelings of agency and capability in her new home. Finally, after Arturo’s death, Celia Toro takes up a collection to raise funds to help Alma transport her husband’s body back to México. Nearly everyone in the community pitches in, from the teachers at Maribel’s school to the translator from the school district’s office. Alma is overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness her community has shown her in her time of need. Though she and Maribel are retreating from their new home and community, their community is still there for them—they are isolated by their pain, to be sure, but they are far from alone even in their darkest moment.
In a narrative committed to demonstrating the pains and difficulties of immigrant life—the poverty, loneliness, isolation, and sense of statelessness or rootlessness that most immigrants must reckon with as they build a new life in a foreign country—it would be easy for Henríquez to make those difficulties the defining characteristic of the immigrant experience. By choosing to tilt her novel toward the light, though, and demonstrate the ways in which community, joy, solidarity, and perseverance are much more representative not just of the immigrant experience, but also the immigrant spirit, Henríquez makes a bold and beautiful argument for the power of resiliency, determination, and togetherness.
Isolation vs. Community ThemeTracker
Isolation vs. Community Quotes in The Book of Unknown Americans
We’re Americans now. We’re citizens, and if someone asks me where my home is, I say los Estados Unidos. I say it proudly. Of course, we still miss Panamá. Celia is desperate to go back and visit. But I worry what it would be like after all this time. We thought it was unrecognizable when we left, but I have a feeling it would be even more unrecognizable now. Sometimes I think I would rather just remember it in my head, all those streets and places I loved. Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it. That’s how it works.
“It’s in you,” my dad assured me once. “You were born in Panamá. It’s in your bones.”
I spent a lot of time trying to find it in me, but usually I couldn’t. I felt more American than anything, but even that was up for debate according to the kids at school who’d taunted me over the years. The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim.
I missed my mother, but the truth was that I had missed her even when we were together, so it was nothing new.
The area is changing. A clash of cultures. I try to make this building like an island for all of us washed-ashore refugees. A safe harbor. I don’t let anyone mess with me. If people want to tell me to go home, I just turn to them and smile politely and say, “I’m already there.”
“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.
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?
“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.”
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.