Have you ever felt guilty? Almost everyone has. Feeling guilty about something is tough and can be very stressful. Constant guilt can cause someone so much emotional, psychological, and even physical stress. Everyone handles guilt differently although the feeling is still the same.
In the book, ‘The Book of Unknown Americans,’ Alma Rivera is the mother of a young girl named Maribel; who has suffered from a traumatic brain injury, blames herself and believes that she is the cause of it. Maribel was born after three years of Alma and Arturo (Maribel’s father) trying to have a baby. So Maribel was their one and only child. When Maribel was 14 year old, she fell off a ladder two stories high after carrying up a heavy bucket of cement. Maribel loved to follow her father’s footsteps, so one day she was helping him while he was at work. She begged her mom to let her carry up a bucket of cement to her father who was on top of a roof two stories high. After Maribel pleading and begging to be able to climb the ladder, her mother, Alma allowed her to. While Maribel was climbing down the ladder, Alma turned away while holding onto the ladder which may have let the ladder slip through the mud, and caused Maribel to fall back off of the ladder. The way that Maribel landed on her neck caused her brain to shake inside of her head. She ended up needing to have a certain part of her brain cut off to stop the swelling and bleeding. Alma says, “It wasn’t an earthquake or a gust of wind that knocked her to the ground. It was me” (Henriquez 102). From that moment on, she believed that she was the reason that Maribel’s life had drastically changed.
Alma goes to a small church, St. Thomas More Oratory and begins to pray, “I know I’m not very important, I told him. I know you You have other things to worry about. But please forgive me for all that I’ve done. Please give me the the strength to fix it. Please let her get better. And please let Arturo forgive me, too. In Jesus’ name, Amen” (Henriquez 54). She doesn’t even think of herself as someone who is important. She continues by asking for forgiveness, but she should be able to forgive herself for what she think she did to her daughter. She believes that her own husband blames her for Maribel’s accident. She has this heavy weight of guilt upon her shoulders. But she puts it all on herself. She is always reminding herself what she did to Maribel. Alma was taking the bus one day and stepped off on the wrong stop. It was pouring rain and she still didn’t know the area so ended up getting lost and only having a short amount of time to get to where Maribel’s was being dropped off by the bus. She called the school to try and see if the bus driver would wait until she was able to meet Maribel; but after moments of Alma trying to explain her situation, the woman couldn’t help her. Alma says “the woman said something else that I couldn’t understand and I nearly wept in frustration. They were only words” (Henriquez 63). Alma feels weaker at the fact that she couldn’t break that barrier when trying to communicate with the woman on the phone. She thought of every other possible thing that she could have done to make sure sure she was there to meet Maribel. Alma was more worried about Maribel stepping off the bus to find that one was there, than the fact that she was lost, in the rain, by herself, and in a place that she is not even familiar with. She cries and runs around frantically trying to get to her daughter. All Alma wants is that Maribel is safe and okay when she finally sees her with Mayor (Henriquez 64-66).
Alma becomes paranoid, constantly thinking that something may happen to Maribel while shes alone because Maribel is in a state where her emotions are very monotone. She doesn’t react to something the way that any other person would. For example, in ‘The Book of Unknown Americans,’ Maribel gets sexually assaulted by a deviant named Garrett. She then describes what she saw Garrett doing to Maribel. “Her back was against the cinder-block wall, and her hands were. A boy-the boy from the gas station, I recognized him instantly- was holding her wrists in place, staring at her. Her shirt was bunched under her armpits, exposing her white cotton bra, and her head was turned to the side, her eyes squeezed shut” (Henriquez 121). Later on in the night, Arturo notices that something is bothering Alma. But Alma doesn’t even tell her husband what had happened to their daughter. Her guilt takes over her, and she starts to over-analyze everything. She didn’t want to be blamed for what had happened THIS time with Maribel. When she decides to report the incident to the police, she leaves out details of what had actually happened, which didn’t do anything to help her. She tells the officer (Officer Mora) “I came home on day and a boy was with my daughter.” She doesn’t tell Officer Mora what exactly Garret was doing to Maribel. He then asks Alma if Maribel was hit of some kind, and all Alma says is “he had her against the wall” (Henriquez 149). She even leaves out the fact that Maribel has a brain injury because she “didn’t want his pity” (Henriquez 149). Garrett took advantage of Maribel. He assaulted her, and Alma witnessed it but didn’t explain to whole story.
In “The Book of Unknown Americans,” Alma is portrayed to be a great mother who will do anything for her family. But what stands in the way of that is her guilty conscious. She starts to overthink everything, which cause her to make poor decisions. “It is Alma’s desire to shield her daughter that ultimately dooms her entire family” Although Alma tends to make terrible decisions, she loves her daughter and will do anything for her and her family. When Alma goes to the English class, she thinks to herself, “Maybe I would even learn enough to be able to help Maribel with her homework” (Henriquez 58). Of course as a mother, Alma cares for her daughter and wants to see her grow and succeed.
Henriquez, Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. 2015
McPhilimy, Cheryl. “Interview With Cristina Henriquez.” June 7, 2016. https://www.triquarterly.org/interviews/interview-cristina-henriquez
Price, Austin. “The Characters in ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ Are Silenced by the Voice.” 18 May 2015. http://www.popmatters.com/review/193138-the-book-of-unknown-americans-by-cristina-henriquez/