Written by Cristina Henriquez
Narrated by Yareli Arizmendi, Christine Avila, Jesse Corti, Gustavo Res, Ozzie Rodriguez and Gabriel Romero
Run Time: 9 hours, 12 minutes
Publisher: Random House Audio/Knopf
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
— Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus" (1883)
A century later, the lamp is still lit and people from all over the world want to get through the golden door and have a better life in America. For some, it remains a place of hope while others have shed tears during their American experience.
Cristina Henriquez's book The Book of Unknown Americans taps into the inherent sense of risk and desperation immigrant families have in coming to America for that better quality of life. Arturo, Maribel and Alma Rivera have made the long trek from Mexico to a Delaware apartment complex in the hopes helping Maribel, who has suffered a significant injury. Her parents sacrifice for her to attend a special school, even when facing racism, bureaucracy and ludicrous job conditions. Meanwhile, Maribel starts to fall for Mayor Toro, the son of Panamanian immigrants who also live in the apartment complex.
One of the best qualities of the book, and it really stands out in the audiobook, is the variation of people. There are interludes where immigrants in the apartment complex tell their backstory and come from the likes of Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Mexico and Panama. When these interludes happen, they are each spoken by a different voice actor, giving a variation that hammers home the point that there is no one single road for immigrants. Some of the characters arrive through visas while others walk across the Mexican border or are smuggled into the U.S. No two journeys are alike.
Henriquez writes in a style that at times felt like a series of feature news articles. She writes with a sense of the harsh realities of immigration, because not everything goes swimmingly when a family migrates to another country and tries to adjust to its culture and idiosyncracies. At the same time, there are tender moments, particularly with the teenage romance between Mayor and Maribel. The characters are easy to empathize with, especially when they struggle in adapting to American life.
Rating: 4/5 stars. Regardless of what your view is on the current state of immigration, I would encourage picking up Henriquez's book for the relatable characters and diversity of backgrounds they have as they try to blend into the American melting pot.
As part of the book's launch last year, Henriquez debuted the Unknown Americans Project on Tumblr. Below, she gives a taste of the kinds of stories the project has unearthed.
The book is available in all formats. A paperback edition was just published in the U.S. earlier this month via Vintage.