The hope that “someplace else will be better” and the desire to reach that bettered state of living drives each and every character in The Book of Unknown Americans. Though all of the characters take steps to reach a better life, in the end everyone still longs for something more. By finishing her novel on this note, Cristina Henríquez makes the argument that longing is a living, breathing thing—it is never satisfied and it is always growing and changing. Longing, she argues, is what makes the (often grueling) immigrant experience possible, and what keeps the occasionally vicious cycle of desire and longing going. For better or for worse, Arturo Rivera says, longing goads “people to do what they have to in this life.”
Alma and Arturo long each day for Maribel’s recovery—the hope that they’ll be able to help her become herself again is what drives their move to the States. Once settled in Delaware, their longing is met with complication—Maribel cannot go to the special school she was originally supposed to attend, and must start out in the public school system instead. Meanwhile, Arturo’s job at a mushroom farm in Pennsylvania is not at all what he thought it would be, and he and Alma, now embroiled in a miserable situation on all sides, experience a longing for home. By moving the Riveras from one situation of desperate longing toward its resolution, and then pulling the rug out from underneath their feet, Henríquez highlights the inability to satisfy longing and the ways in which longing just breeds new longings.
While the Riveras long for a better life for their family, a better education for their daughter, and an end to the pain that has plagued them since Maribel’s accident, Maribel’s longing is seemingly simple and achievable: she likes a boy who likes her back. Henríquez complicates Maribel’s longing, though, by causing it to lead to a chain of unforeseeable events which results in Arturo’s death. Thus, Maribel’s longing remains unfulfilled—longing, Henríquez argues through this storyline, can never really be satisfied. Approaching the Mayor/Maribel storyline from Mayor’s point of view, Henríquez introduces the notion that not only is longing unfulfillable, but it can also be dangerous. Mayor Toro is full of longing—to fit in at school, to crawl out from under his older brother Enrique’s shadow, and to woo the odd but beautiful Maribel Rivera. As Mayor’s longing for Maribel grows, it eclipses all his other wants and he pursues it to his own detriment. When the first snowfall of the year starts, Mayor drives his father’s car illegally to Maribel’s school and takes her out of class in an attempt to bring her on an adventure to mark her first time ever seeing snow. Mayor’s longing to create a perfect day with Maribel has devastating effects when her father, Arturo, is killed while trying to find her. Longing is shown here, in Mayor’s story, to be something with potentially dangerous consequences—acting selfishly out of longing can set off a chain of events which has dire results. Maribel and Mayor’s longing for one another, despite Mayor’s feelings that they are “meant for each other,” remains unfulfilled—and creates devastating consequences which themselves just inspire more longing.
The general longing for a better life is what drives many of the stories that make up the tapestry of The Book of Unknown Americans. This longing—which Arturo claims is rooted in the “immigrant instinct”—is vague but intense, and it often puts characters in conflict with the reality of their circumstances. Nelia Zafón, who longed to be a famous dancer in her youth, was forced to confront the fact that not only were her dreams further from her reach than she thought, but that the deck was stacked against her all along due to the racism and tokenism of the entertainment industry. Micho Alvarez longs to use his photography to portray immigrants in a positive light, and to illuminate the poverty and desperation that colors many of their lives, but he is aware that his effort alone will not speed up “progress” for the millions of immigrants in America. Quisqueya Solís longs for true friendship, but she is held back from making any substantial connections with her neighbors due to her desire to keep her troubled past a secret. The longing for something, or someplace, better drives all of the characters in the novel, and each one of them comes to realize, in some way, that the nature of longing is that it is constantly renewed.
As Henríquez’s characters attempt to fulfill their hopes and to find all they long for, they are forced to confront the fact that perhaps their dreams will never be realized, and that the end to one kind of longing will only ever herald another kind. Longing can pave the road to joy, or it can open the door for more and more struggle—Henríquez allows longing to offer her characters both happiness and pain, and in doing so demonstrates that though the things we long for can perhaps be attained in some way, the nature of longing itself is that it can never be truly fulfilled.
Longing 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.
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.
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.
English was such a dense, tight language. So many hard letters, like miniature walls. Not open with vowels the way Spanish was. Our throats open, our mouths open, our hearts open. In English, the sounds were closed. They thudded to the floor. And yet, there was something magnificent about it. There was no usted, no tu. There was only one word—you. It applied to all people. Everyone equal. There were no words that changed from feminine to masculine and back again depending on the speaker. A person was from New York. Not a woman from New York, not a man from New York. Simply a person.
“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.
“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?
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.
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.