According to the book, Immigrants and the American Dream, by William Clark, “…the American dream is no less intangible than so many other dreams…” (Clark 2). Thousands upon thousands of immigrants have found their way to the shores of the United States in pursuit of the American Dream. A combination of materialism, such as a safe home and a decent job, and a sense of acceptance and dignity in the eye’s of society define the American Dream. However, in The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez challenges the myths surrounding that dream and captures the essence of the immigrant spirit and experience. The deeply honest portrayal of the the Rivera family’s trials and joys, and their fiery perseverance give us a new definition of what it is to be an American.
The reality of America smashes the Rivera family in the opening chapters of the book. In the first few pages of the book, the Rivera family travels across the United States by car with nothing but their clothes and few other possessions. On their way to their destination, they observe that the streets are littered with discarded TV’s, tables, and other supplies. They pick up a few items because as the driver explains to them, “People throw away everything in the United States. Even things that are still perfectly good” (Henríquez 4). This indicates that in America, people are never satisfied. The American dream is built around endless longing, which leads to frustration at never having enough. National Public Radio reported that at the end of 2017, the American consumer debt sat at 13.15 trillion dollars (npr.org). This shows how consumerism dominates American society. When they arrive in Delaware, they find themselves in a small apartment that “reeked of mildew and, faintly, of fish” in the shady part of town; not exactly the American dream (Henríquez 5). Arturo begins working in a mushroom farm and earns a meager wage. In Mexico, Arturo’s work life was better. He was able to take breaks and have time to eat with his family. With his new American dream job, he worked as a mushroom picker in the dark for ten hours straight without any breaks. Arturo also cannot ask for a better position at work because he does not know how to properly speak English. Furthermore, on page 119, Alma says they can’t afford to pay the electricity bill. This shows how bad their conditions are in the U.S. Another downfall of living in the United States is that none of the Rivera family knows how to speak English. They do not know how to communicate with the society around them. When they go to the supermarket, no one understands them. When Alma reports Garrett for assaulting Maribel, the police do nothing. The officer who tried to help her said, “…this is a police station. We don’t deal with teenage relationships here…we can’t protect her from a boy, who, honestly, probably just has a crush on her” (Henríquez 149). He did not take her seriously. Alma is struck by the insufficiencies of their lives in America, reflecting, “We wanted more. We wanted what we had come for” (Henriquez 27 ). They are disappointed because their preconceived notion of America is beginning to show its ugliness. In chapter 1, Alma reminisces, “Back then, all we wanted was the simple things; to eat good food, to sleep at night, to smile, to laugh, to be well”(Henríquez 3). In America, poverty, discrimination, and isolation prevent the Rivera family from finding fulfillment.
Part of Henríquez’s American dream emphasizes the importance of community and interpersonal relationships. One of the main reasons the Rivera family come to the U.S is to seek treatment for Maribel’s brain injury. Referring to Maribel’s brain injury, the Mexican doctors had given the Riveras hope when they told them that, “With the right attention and exercise, it can heal” (Henríquez 106). Maribel meets a boy named Mayor and they fall in love. When they are together, Mayor seems to heal her disability. In the novel, Mayor says that “…when I stopped talking, she would respond in a way that proved she’d been paying attention all along…she’d been paying attention…” (Henríquez 108). Mayor gave Maribel the “right attention” and that helped her. Maribel didn’t need the American school to make her better. She needed people in her life who were not only dependable, but could also see her for who she was. Alma comprehends what her relationship to Maribel ought to have looked like. At the end of the book, we find her coming to terms with “There she [Maribel] was again…as I looked at her I saw that maybe she had been here all along…I had been preoccupied with getting us to the United States because I wanted it to make her whole again. I believed that I had lost my daughter and that if i did the right things and brought us to the right place, I could recover the girl she used to be. What I didn’t understand -what i realize now- was that if i stopped moving backwards…there might be a future waiting for us” (Henriquez 282). The Riveras realize that they didn’t need the elevated standard of living of America; they just needed each other. Furthermore, the importance of being surrounded by a community is stressed in the book. The Rivera family finds a slight remedy to the loneliness they feel after being removed from their home in Mexico. Fito, the landlord of the apartment building they live in, describes the community as “…an island for…refugees. A safe harbor” (Henríquez 146). So even though they are separated from their home, proximity to others with similar narratives, gives them a sense of belonging. Community, not possessions, is what gives a sense of happiness to the Riveras. Maribel’s improvement and the small sense of security afforded by the community become their new American dream.
Towards the end of the story, Maribel goes out with Mayor to the beach. Arturo goes in search of her because he fears that Garrett has kidnapped her. He travels to Garrett’s house in search of Maribel but instead is shot and killed by Garrett’s father. After Arturo’s death, Maribel and Alma return to Mexico. They entered the United States with almost nothing. They left with nothing. Or did they? Yes, they left with the understanding that the immigrant spirit is one of hope. The American dream is “…the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And this condition: if only I can get to that place” (Henríquez 286). When everything is taken away from them, the Riveras understand that the American dream is not a wealth or recognition; it is personal happiness and contentment based on hope and meaningful relationships.
The Rivera family did achieve the American dream in their own way. They did not have the house with the white picket fence or the “9-5” job with great pay. They wanted to have a better lifestyle. America was the place where they thought everything would go perfectly for them. But their goal was to heal their daughter, and she was healed because of the compassion and love shown by Mayor and the positivity of Arturo and Alma. The American dream is about finding happiness and contentment. Arturo, in the last chapter said, “We are happy here in many ways. We’ve met good people…the people in the building where we live have become family to us. The teachers at Maribel’s school have helped her tremendously. She’s getting better…Alma and I can tell. Maribel has a light in her eyes now. We see that, and nothing-not a single thing- brings us more joy” (Henríquez 285). He doesn’t have a car, a house, or a stable job, but he finds the American dream is a completely different thing. Arturo says if he had to leave Mexico again, his possessions, stable job, friends, family, and life, he would do it all again. He would travel to America. Arturo says that when he and his family return to Mexico, he will tell people about how great America is. “I will tell them all the ways I loved this country” (Henríquez 286). He was not disappointed with the course his life took in America. To immigrants, the new american dream is all about grit, community, and hope.
Arnold, Chris. “Americans’ Borrowing Hits Another Record. Time To Worry?” NPR, NPR, 12 Sept. 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/09/12/550250789/americans-borrowing-hits-another-record-time-to-worry.
Clark, William A. V. Immigrants and the American Dream: Remaking the Middle Class. Guilford Press, 2003. This is a scholarly article.
Henríquez, Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House LLC, 2015.