Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

American story built on immigrant tales

  • Print

If the soul of a country is in its people (and where else could it be?), then one of the defining qualities of the United States (and Canada) is that it is a nation of nations. The melting pot was a political idea, a prescription for one contingent's view of ideal citizenship, a slogan for, perhaps, racial harmony.

The historical and social reality, however, is more akin to a patchwork quilt, and The Book of Unknown Americans is a view of just one patch.

American author Cristina Henríquez's heartfelt sophomore novel takes place mostly in and around a Latin American neighbourhood -- an apartment building, specifically -- in Delaware. Its primary focus is two families: the Toros are Panamanian-American and have lived in the country for 17 years, while the Riveras are newly arrived from Mexico.

The Toros have a 16-year-old son still residing at home, living in the shadow of his brother, who is at Notre Dame on a soccer scholarship. The Riveras have only one daughter, beautiful but palpably absent as the result of a recent traumatic brain injury.

Although their stories are initially separate, the two families become intertwined as the teenagers fall in love. Like a miracle, the girl, Maribel, seems to begin finding her way back to herself in the presence of the insecure but earnest Mayor.

But there are complications. The love of the Riveras for their daughter is mixed with guilt, disappointment and a fear they will fail to protect her again. Mayor has a difficult time meeting his father's expectations as it is, and Maribel isn't exactly what he'd call girlfriend material.

These are good people, with flaws and demons, and it's clear a happy ending will be possible.

The story is told via a series of first-person narratives, switching viewpoints each chapter. Mayor is the primary storyteller for the Toros, while Alma, Maribel's mother, tells the story of the Riveras. Unusually, the intervening storylines are separated by brief bits of backstory from secondary or tertiary characters. These don't typically impinge on the main narrative directly; they're "why I came to America" stories, told in anywhere from two to eight pages. They include neighbours from the building who barely get more than a passing mention outside their own chapter, and more important characters, like Mayor's father.

It makes for an odd mix, and some of them aren't as well-integrated into the main story as they might be, though the theme is right on target: Why do people leave everything they know behind to come to America?

The Toros loved Panama and, seen through their eyes, it seems like the most beautiful place in the world. Yet war and strife destroyed any sense of security for that young family; they feared for their children's future, sacrificing all they had known to protect them.

The Riveras had a perfect life in their small Mexican town. They would have liked to have lived and died there, like their parents and grandparents before them. But after Maribel's accident, it seemed only in America would they find the help they needed for her to heal.

Stories of other building tenants -- from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua -- echo those of the Toros and Riveras, though each one is different. No one abandons their country because they don't love it enough, but because they love something else more. Often, though not always, that something else is their children.

This novel raises other questions, specifically about prejudice against the disabled as well as people of colour. But it's primarily about America's newest citizens: what are their dreams, what do they work so hard for and why have they come?

These are questions not everyone thinks to ask, perhaps assuming that anyone would rather live in America (or Canada) than elsewhere. But they're worth asking -- and it's worth hearing the different answers. In a nation of immigrants, understanding one's country must certainly include knowing their story.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2014 G6


Updated on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at 7:27 AM CDT: Formatting.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Feeling at home at Home Expressions

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A group of Horese pose for the camera in the early evening light at Southcreek Stables in Stl Norbert Wednessday. Sept  14, 2011 (RUTH BONNEVILLE) / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Young goslings jostle for position to take a drink from a puddle in Brookside Cemetery Thursday morning- Day 23– June 14, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Has your opinion of Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec changed given his latest winning streak?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google