In Cristina Henriquez’s, The Book of Unknown Americans, readers are given a personal insight into many of the characters’ background stories, including where they came from as well as the different reasons they left home. All of the characters immigrated from Mexico and various countries in South and Central America. They all have something in common; they came to the U.S. in search of a better life. Looking deeper, another theme emerges. The characters in the book are searching for a better life in the country that is, at least in part, culpable for the political and economic instabilities that compelled them to leave their native countries in the first place (Chacon 466) (Chomsky 29-55) (Yao 70-72). This thematic irony is intentional and cannot be ignored. The perfect examples of this irony are the backstories of Rafael Toro, Benny Quinto, and Gustavo Milhojas. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, they are the first three backstories revealed in the book. All three men talk briefly about the specific political and economic issues happening in their countries at the time they decided to leave (Henriquez 22, 44, 87).
Rafael Toro and his wife Celia immigrated to the United States with their baby after the United States invaded Panama in late 1989, toppling then dictator, Manuel Noriega. Rafael describes his shock by the devastation of El Chorrillo and San Miguel that occurred during the invasion. He describes a close call when men from the Dignity Battalions (a government paramilitary force created to help counter a U.S. invasion) pointed guns at him and his family (Henriquez 19-23) (Yao 70). The reality is that General Noriega had been a U.S. ally and on the C.I.A.’s payroll for years. Noriega’s drug trafficking activities (which were the pretext for the U.S. invasion) had been known to the C.I.A. and the D.E.A. as well as to the U.S. state and justice departments since 1972. In 1984, President Regan helped legitimize Noriega’s stolen election by sending his secretary of state to congratulate him on his victory. When the U.S. lost control of Noriega, the American media began making the case for war. Prior to invading, the United States passed economic sanctions which destroyed the Panamanian economy (Chomsky 50-55). This of course would hurt no one more than poor and working class people like Rafael. The United States invaded Rafael’s home country to remove Noriega while at the same time supporting death squads, dictatorships, and drug lords around the world who were far more brutal than Noriega (Roberts). After the invasion, President Bush gave a billion-dollar aid package to Panama, about half of which went to banks and U.S. corporations (Chomsky 54). The M.I.T. professor emeritus, public intellectual, and author of over 100 books on history and politics, Noam Chomsky, writes: “…the aid was a gift from the American taxpayer to American businesses.” Henriquez’s character Rafael had just met the woman of his dreams, cleaned up his life, and had a son (Henriquez 20-21). It’s safe to say he had no plans to leave before the invasion. He was forced to leave due to forces beyond his control. Forces that had turned his country into something “unrecognizable” to him (Henriquez 23). Rafael says of the ordeal, “We felt as though our home had been stolen from us” (Henriquez 22).
Above: My Beloved America, by Mark Vallen (1990)
Benny Quinto’s back story also mentions the time period in which he immigrates to the United States. Benny says of the times, “Politically, you know it wasn’t so bad anymore. Somoza was long gone, the Contras were nothing but a memory” (Henriquez 44). The Somozas were an extremely corrupt political, dictatorial dynasty that ruled Nicaragua for decades, always with extensive U.S. financial and military support (Roberts). When the Sandinistas led a popular uprising to overthrow Somoza, the U.S. poured vast amounts of money into counter revolutionary gorilla death squads, known as Contras, to protect the Somoza government. The U.S. even illegally sold weapons to its enemy, Iran, in order to directly fund the contras in Nicaragua, a fact that President Regan denied when the story first broke. In the end, no amount of U.S. military funding could save the Somoza government. Somoza escaped Nicaragua on a private jet with most of what was left in the country’s treasury. The U.S. began hitting Nicaragua with economic sanctions, exacerbating poverty in the country (Chomsky 40-45). “But leaving the poverty of Nicaragua for the richest country in the world didn’t take much convincing,” Benny said (Henriquez 44). Chomsky writes in his book, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, about the U.S. State Department’s attitude toward the new Nicaraguan government: “Back in 1981, a State Department insider boasted that we would ‘turn Nicaragua into the Albania of Central America’ – that is, poor, isolated and politically radical.” In order to survive, Benny Quinto must leave this economically broken country for the very country that had a heavy hand in breaking it.
Above: Meanwhile, in Guatemala, by Mark Vallen (1988)
Gustavo Milhojas’ story begins in Guatemala where he is born in 1960. Gustavo is raised by a single mother (Henriquez 87). His country has been locked in a brutal civil war for his entire life (Chomsky 46). The character Gustavo recalls the horrors of the genocide, mass rapes and the murdering of infants that were carried out by the army (Henriquez 87). Guatemala underwent a U.S. backed coup in 1954, after which a long string of genocidal and tyrannical dictators enjoyed the support of both Republican and Democratic U.S. presidents for decades. Washington-backed dictators would murder tens of thousands of Guatemalans during the years the character Gustavo Milhojas spent there (Roht-Arriaza 454). Finally, he “couldn’t take it anymore,” and left to find a better life in the United States (Henriquez 87).
Above: A common sentiment expressed through graffiti in Caracas, Venezuela (2008)
An understanding of the United States’ role in the social, political, and economic events that drove the characters out of their homelands reveals the irony of these characters’ condition. Picking up and moving to a foreign country is usually done for extraordinary reasons having to do with survival, not desire. Most of the characters express a desire to return to their original country. Celia was desperate to visit Panama (Henriquez 80-81). Alma missed her life and the home that her husband had built for them back in Mexico (Henriquez 26, 151). Gustavo wished he could visit his children for whom he worked so hard to send money (Henriquez 90). Being in the U.S. was more of a necessity than the true desire of these characters. Now that they were in the U.S., they received little to no help from the government to lift themselves out of poverty. The frustration with the lack of help from the very government that displaced them is summed up by Mayor’s description of a common dinner table conversation at the Toro’s: “…they [his parents] spent the dinner hour complaining about how so far president Obama hadn’t done anything and how they saw absolutely zero improvements and how people were getting desperate…” (Henriquez 207). In fact, Obama earned the nickname “Deporter-in-Chief” by deporting a record number of people during his presidency (Marshall). This book’s supporting theme of irony is important to understand, especially in the Trump era, when xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies are becoming more and more aggressive.
Chacon, Oscar. “Globalization, Obsolete and Inhumane Migratory Policies and Their Impact on Migrant Workers and Their Families in the North and Central American/ Caribbean Region.” Journal of Poverty (2011): 465-474.
Chomsky, Noam. What Uncle Sam Really Wants. Berkley : Odonian Press, 1992.
Heriquez, Cristina. The Book Of Unknown Americans. New York: Vintage Books , 2014.
Marshall, Serena. Obama Has Deported More People Than Any Other President. 29 August 2016. ABC. 14 April 2018. <http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/obamas-deportation-policy-numbers/story?id=41715661>.
Roberts, Charles H. U.S. Sponsored Genocide. 25 October 1978. The Harvard Crimson Inc. 11 April 2018. <http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1978/10/25/us-sponsored-genocide-pin-the-recent-wave/>.
Roht-Arriaza, Naomi. “State Responsibility to Investigate and Prosecute Grave Human Rights Violations in International Law.” California Law Review (1990): 451-514.
Silva, Gorge, photo. Grafitti Art. Caracas.
Vallen, Mark. Meanwhile, in Guatemala. Brand Library Gallery and Art, Glendale.
Vallen, Mark. My Beloved America. Art for a Change. 1990. Los Angleles, n.d.
Vallen, Mark. Voices of Justice. Art for a Change, Sherman Oaks.
Yao, Julio. “Legacies of the U.S. Invasion of Panama.” NACLA Report on the Americas (2012): 70-72