Different races interact with each other in strange and confusing ways. One race may tolerate another race well while they spew all sorts of hate at some other race. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez examines both how different races and cultures can live in peace with each other and how they can conflict with each other. When people are given the opportunity to meet people of diverse background they are able to overcome feelings of prejudice that they may have. On the other hand, people who are determined to keep their upper hand over a race turn quickly to racism to prevent less prevalent races from challenging their superiority over them.
Areas with large amounts of cultural diversity can live in peace with each other. Areas that are prone to immigration tend to be more diverse. Sociologists have noted that areas that have large amounts of diversity usually are more tolerant to minorities (Carter). The apartment complex in The Book of Unknown Americans is a prime example of how diversity leads to tolerance. The apartment complex that most of the characters live in is a diversity hotspot. Henriquez demonstrates this by having multiple chapters each of which tell the story of a different character. Each person describes where they were born and why they moved to the United States. These short little chapters give the reader more insight to the cultural differences and the different struggles that are faced in many Latin American countries today. Rather than portraying the residents of the apartment as all Latinos, Henriquez was able to show that there are large amounts of diversity within the Latino community. When it is nearing Christmas the gathering at the Toro’s apartment also highlights this diversity. There is a moment where everyone was proudly yelling their countries of origin. In total six different countries were named (Henriquez 141). The relationship between Mayor and Maribel also shows how people of different races can get along peacefully. Mayor and his family are from Panama. On the other hand, Maribel and her parents are from Mexico. The moment that highlights the extent that people are able to overcome their prejudices is when everyone chips in to have Arturo’s body flown back to Mexico to be buried. What is striking is that the residents of the apartment complex came together to help the Riveras despite their racial differences. None of the people living in the apartment were wealthy. Almost none of the people living in the apartment were Mexican. None of the people living in the apartment had known Alma and Arturo for very long. Several of the people in the apartment could speak ill of Mexico. Sr. Milhojas faced large amounts of racism while he lived in Mexico. When Sr. Rivera asked to put cinnamon in the hot chocolate to make it Mexican style Celia responded by saying, “It always has to be the Mexican way. Mexico, Mexico. As if the rest of us don’t exist.” (Henriquez 140). But what I noticed is that the people did not view the Riveras as just Mexicans. The people in the apartment were able to see past each other’s races. When Alma asks Celia if she gave the money to fly Arturo’s body back to Mexico Celia responded, “We all did” (Henriquez 278). They viewed the Riveras almost like family. This shows the true extent that people can overcome their prejudices when they come to appreciate other people’s cultures. Immigration gave all of these people opportunities to meet each other and develop racial tolerance. By actually getting to know people of diverse backgrounds we are able to overcome racism ourselves similar to how they were able to show love towards each other.
The Book of Unknown Americans also highlights how pride causes cultures to live in tension with each other. The American Psychological Association argues that racism is less of a mindset and more of a tool used to preserve a group’s supremacy. They said, “Racism serves simultaneously both to rationalize the hierarchical domination of one racial or ethnic group over other group(s), and maintain psychological, social and material advantages for the dominant group” (Psychological). The American Psychological Association’s reason for racism argues that racism is used to justify the poor treatment of other racial groups and to preserve the power of the dominant race. The more powerful race turns to racism to preserve their own ego. Gustavo Milhojas’ story highlights how pride interferes with tolerance. As Sr. Milhojas retells his experience moving to Mexico he describes how the Mexicans’ pride caused him to viewed as less than them. He said, “The Mexicans look down on us. They believe Guatemalans are stupid.” (Henriquez 88). The way that Sr. Milhojas was treated while he resided in Mexico reflects the pattern of racism sheltering other people’s ego. In order for the Mexicans to look down on the Guatemalans, they first have to think that they are better than them. After the Mexicans viewed the Guatemalans as less than them they had to resort to racism in order to preserve their superiority. The significance of Sr. Milhojas adding that Mexicans think Guatemalans are stupid is that it shows the Mexicans using racism to preserve their supremacy. This stands in contrast to how the Riveras were treated by the people in the apartment complex. Rather than viewing them as less than them, they were able to see them as people very similar to them. In order to remove prejudice, these feelings of superiority have to first be dissolved.
The causes of both racism and tolerance give us insight on how we can start to move away from our prejudices. The first step to achieving tolerance is eliminating racism. In order to do this powerful cultures must lay down their pride and haughtiness. Second, people should try to cultivate diversity which will grow people’s appreciation of other cultures. When people are able to interact with others of a diverse background they will begin to appreciate them. As a result, they turn from trying to prevent minorities from climbing the social ladder to encouraging and helping them make progress. As a society, if we do these things racism will fade and we will be able to grow from each other’s strengths and cover for each other’s weaknesses.
Carter, J Scott. “Reassessing the Effect of Urbanism and Regionalism: A Comparison of Different
Indicators of Racial Tolerance.” Sociation Today Urban Reprint Series, Sociation Today,
Henríquez Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. Vintage Books, a Division of Random
House LLC, 2015.
“Psychological Causes and Consequences of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and
Related Intolerances.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological