BY GABRIELLE RODRIGUEZ ’22
Mount Holyoke’s 2018 common read, “The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henríquez, is a novel full of complex and validating representations of immigrant communities. The novel tackles tough topics such as assimilation, intercommunity, gender politics, identity formation and neurodivergence in Latinx communities.
The book begins with the main characters, Arturo and Alma Rivera, traveling to Newark, Delaware with their teenage daughter Maribel, who suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her with short-term memory loss and difficulty speaking. The Riveras live in the Redwood Apartments, where many other immigrants also reside, including people like the Toros, who have lived in the States for years, and help Alma feel less homesick.
One day, Maribel is sexually assaulted. This leads to a chain of events that ends with the Riveras returning to Mexico.
Henríquez does a great job with her narrative frame. She manages to intertwine the fully fleshed-out stories of main and contributing characters, writing from the perspectives of both. Through characters like Benny Quinto, who struggles to reach America, and Quisqueya Solis, who is quietly resilient after experiencing rape, readers are shown individual stories which also connect to those of the larger Latinx population.
The various perspectives and histories used by Henríquez are well-written, but the nuances are where she seems to stumble. Most, if not all, of the stories told by Henríquez involve some form of trauma. Though this is the reality for a lot of Latinx immigrants, the novel seems, like many others, to capitalize off immigrant communities’ very real and devastating experiences. This kind of depiction is seen too often in stories about Latinx communities, and Henríquez seems to merely comment on the phenomenon instead of denouncing it. It is exhausting and discouraging.
Henríquez’s novel is a fork in the road for literary representation. It is a solid read: not amazing but not horrible. For those looking to learn more about Latinx immigrants and their struggles, I would recommend it. But for those who are looking for Latinx representation and an escape from the real world, I recommend books like “Sal and Gabi Break the Universe” by Carlos Hernandez, a fun out-of-this world adventure, or “Don’t Date Rosa Santos” by Nina Moreno, a delightful romantic comedy.
The setbacks of Henríquez’s book connect to larger issues in literary representations of Latinx populations. The dominant narrative seems to be a traumatic family event and an unhappy ending. Literary systems must be critiqued to be bettered, and while Henríquez does a great job crafting an enticing story with great representation, I will continue to push for stories with Latinx casts that do not hinge on trauma.