The American Dream—the idea that in America everyone, regardless of race, creed, or class, can enjoy prosperity, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—is a driving force in the lives of the characters in Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans. The pursuit of the American dream offers, in theory, the chance not just to be safe and sheltered in the United States, but also to be seen, known, and accepted. However, as Henríquez’s characters—almost all immigrants from South and Central America, who occupy the same bustling apartment complex—make their new lives in the United States, they each find that the myth of the American dream does not offer quite what they thought it would. As Henríquez’s characters reckon with realizing that they are—and perhaps always will be—the “unknown” Americans, they struggle to accept that the reality of American opportunity is different from the myth of being recognized and embraced—the reality of the American dream is struggle, uncertainty, and unknowability.
Arturo and Alma Rivera come from México in an attempt to heal their brain-injured daughter, Maribel. Rafael and Celia Toro left Panamá with their small children, Enrique and Mayor, to escape the horrors of war. Others in the apartment building departed their home countries in search of fortune and fame. All of Henríquez’s characters are chasing something to the United States—and few of them ever really find it. Some are able to accomplish a version of their dreams and experience, to some degree, the feeling of being seen—once Broadway-bound, the dejected Nelia Zafón opens a small theater of her own in Delaware; Benny Quinto, who dreamed of striking it rich and turned to dealing drugs in order to do so, realized that a life of safety and temperance was more appealing than one of high risks for high rewards. However, huge roadblocks still stand between these characters and the achievement of the dreams they set out to make a reality. Prejudice, discrimination, cultural and linguistic barriers, and the cruel realization that the American dream is a fantasy deepen the feeling of being “unknown,” and Henríquez forces her characters to reckon head-on with their disappointment and frustration.
The word “unknown” means a lot of different things within the context of this novel. The characters in it are unknown within the country they have worked so hard to be able to call home—but they are also, in large part, unknown to themselves and to each other. Their futures, too, are unknown, and on top of everything, the longer they stay in America the more unknown they become to the people from their pasts. When the Toros save up for a trip home to Panama, Rafael’s friend tells him, over the phone a few days before the journey, that Rafael is no longer Panamanian but is now “gringo royalty.” Hurt and furious, Rafael cancels the trip. José Mercado, a Puerto Rican Navy man with the soul of a poet, enlisted in the military as a young man as a proud service member in order to please his father and feel a connection to his country. Pursuing his vision of what it means to be an American, though, has taken a toll on both his physical and emotional well-being, and José now, in his old age, feels more unknown than ever before.
As Henríquez’s characters struggle with the disappointment of not being able to be seen or known in America, many of them ultimately embrace the fact that the true nature of the American dream is, in fact, the feeling of being unseen and unknown—and persevering toward success and happiness in spite of that feeling. Each character’s eyes are eventually opened to the unattainability of all they dreamed up, but each comes to recognize a new way of dreaming and recognizes that possibility, promise, and longing are what “keep [many of them] going.”
The Unknown and The American Dream ThemeTracker
The Unknown and The American Dream 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.
My life has been what it has been. It’s not a wonderful story, but it’s mine.
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?”
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?
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.
Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And this condition: if only I can get to that place.