Every character in The Book of The Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez has had the foundations of their being crafted by the people they are surrounded by. Their motivations, personality, and traits are a culmination of what the reader comes to understand in the book. Whether their actions and personality is a mirror image of what their family portrays like
with the case of Mayor. Or how a family’s actions have brought upon a completely opposite effect, such as the case with Maribel. Stories of family neglect always end in a similar way with what we see with Garret. Through three characters in particular Mayor, Maribel, and Garrett does the reader come to understand that family shapes who we are as a person.
Mayor has a piece of his family members within himself and it’s portrayed through his actions and personality. Mayor has adopted his brother, Enrique’s personality trait of being a little bit rebellious and wanting freedom. “ my brother shook his head. ‘one day you’ll get out of here and you’ll see.’ (Henriquez 135). Enrique was convincing his brother about how great it is to be free from burdens such as parents. Clearly this desire for freedom has rubbed off on Mayor due to the fact that he refused to wear his tie on clip to church, throwing it away in a proud manner. This type of behaviour would influence Mayor’s future actions such as him taking his dad’s car and having Maribel skip school. This was one of two things Mayor learned from his older brother, the second one was learning to stand up for yourself, bravery.
The reader will be able to get a clear understanding that Mayor is not a very confident person towards the start of the story, a striking contrast from how Enrique is.Enrique provided help and advice to his younger brother when he could. ‘I know you don’t want to fight,’ he said once. ‘But at least have the balls to tell them to fuck off.’ (Henriquez 15). Mayor is reminded of those words the same time the reader comes across this point in the story. Mayor starts to become more confident soon after, he stands up to Garrett when he was picking on Maribel after she got dropped off from the school bus. He even got into a fight with him during school, describing the experience of not feeling fear, but feeling exhilarated. Along with his pent up frustration, he also gained a rush of adrenaline when he punched Garrett. That rush of anger and frustration came from what he had obtained from his father.
Mayor’s father Rafael is shown to have a temper problem, mayor described his father’s temper problem as spontaneous moments of anger that would come and go. The greatest example of this is when Rafael finds out that Mayor has been lying to him about going to soccer practice.. “His nostrils flared and he looked me right in the eyes ‘God damn it, Mayor!’. (Henriquez 132). Mayor also is guilty of escorting this type of anger throughout various points in the narrative. Like when he got into a verbal confrontation with Quisqueya when he heard her making disrespectful remarks about her when she was talking to Mayor’s mom. His mom sat idly by and instead punished Mayor instead of confronting Quisqueya about what she had said.
Celia, Mayor’s mom is someone who represents a large part of who Mayor is as a person throughout the story. She is kind and always willing to help and make friends with new people. but at the time, she is submissive and not willing to stand up for herself when it really counts. Like when she is determined to get a job but Rafael will not allow it, or how she is very eager to introduce herself and Mayor to Alma and Maribel when she first meets them when they see them in the store. ‘Are those our new neighbors?’ “my mom asked, And before I knew it, she was marching towards them, her pocketbook bouncing against her thigh.” (Henriquez 40,41). Mayor is shown to share this eagerness to talk to people he wants to associate himself with, specifically with Maribel. This eagerness is also intertwined with his trait of bravery that he had gotten from his brother when he had taken his father’s car and skipped school just to see Maribel.
Maribel is not shown to have inherited a great deal of her personality traits from her parents, however the way she acts in the story is a direct result of the actions of her parents. The reason she has the mental condition shown to the reader in the narrative is because of the fact that both of her parents had taken her to her dad’s job located at a construction site. “I must have jerked the ladder. It slid into the mud on the ground from the rain world was unspooling in slow motion. I saw Maribel’s body tilt for the ladder, but her fingertips only grazed the rung, Arturo yelled. Maribel dropped two stories to the ground below.” (Henriquez 100). This was the unfortunate incident that caused Maribel to have permanent damage to her brain.
Due to the accident that Maribel had went through her parents started to treat her differently as a result. That were a lot more gentle with her and were a lot more protective of heras a result as well. Her parents overprotective nature was actually a detriment to the recovery in her brain. This is evident due to the fact that once she was separated from Mayor during a point in the narrative, all the progress she was making to adjusting to her new situation was halted when she was forced to stop seeing him. During an interesting exchange towards the end of the story between Arturo and Alma the reader comes to understand that both of them have come to terms with the fact that Maribel currently has brain damage. ‘Say whether you’re upset about Mayor and her because she’s your daughter or because she’s your brain-damaged daughter.’ ‘I never used that word.’ ‘say it,’ “I insisted.” (Henriquez 220,221). Arturo did not want to admit how he truly sees his daughter, while Alma had come to terms to their daughter’s current situation. The reason she gravitated towards Mayor as much as she did is because he was the only one who treated her like a normal person who is capable of just as much as anyone else. During their car ride Maribel tells Mayor that ‘you’re the only one who thinks I can do anything,’ “she said.” (Henriquez 230).
Garrett’s current situation seems to be a directs result of the unfortunate events that have happened in his family. From what the book tells the reader his family went through a dramatic change when his brother had died while in the air force. “Garrett didn’t have a single friend that I knew of. His older brother had gone to Iraq with the air force and had come back in a body bag.”(Henriquez 69).The death had a strong effect on his parents, apparently his mom had disappeared and his father had developed a drinking problem. The result of this tragic event has shaped who the reader sees as a person in the narrative. This is also in combination with the fact that Garrett had also became a racist towards Hispanics which he had learned from his father. This point is further strengthened from the act that Garrett’s father Leon, had killed Arturo, a Hispanic.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez has many important messages and themes within it’s text, the theme of family is one that can help the reader truly understand the personality and motivations of these characters. Family is what shapes us as a person; Mayor, Maribel, and Garrett prove this point to the reader in the narrative. Whether is was for the better, like with Mayor standing up for himself and for Maribel against Garrett. Or for the worse,like with Garret picking on Mayor and mocking him for his ethnicity. Or perhaps it could be a grey area like with Maribel’s parents wondering if their doing the right thing. All of these people are the leading forces of influence for these three characters. Making for a great book that will lead to many more great discussions on its many meaningful messages and themes.
Meghali, Gayatree “Family influence on the behavioural problems of children during childhood.”
Clarion: International Multidisciplinary Journal, 2016 vol. 5 issue 1, p122-131
Henriquez, Cristina “The Book of Unknown Americans”
Knopf, 3 June.2014