In the novel of “The Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez the audience follow the story of the Rivera family along with many other immigrant families who all began new lives in the state of Delaware in the United States of America because of unforeseeable events in their home countries. All the main characters in this story are residents in the same apartment building in the part of town where most immigrants from Mexico or south America live called the Redwood Apartments the landlord Adolfo “Fito” Angelino says he tries his best to make “this building like an island for all of us washed-ashore refugees. A safe harbor.”(Henriquez 146), These different families from all over become a connected group that help each other due to everyone being far from their own families and homes. The book begins by introducing Alma Rivera who is moving to Delaware with her husband and daughter for the hopeful improvement of her daughter Maribel’s livelihood and health. Since an accident occurred to Maribel back home in Patzcuaro Mexico the family knew they needed to make their best effort to help their daughter with her recovery that they did not know how to treat themselves the only solution her parents could think of is moving Maribel to a great special education school in America to get the best help for her. In this essay I will argue the positive effects that moving to America created for Maribel’s mental improvement and her getting better from the life altering incident she experienced.
The accident affected Maribel’s ability to express her emotions, communication skills, and memory.For example in page 49 of the book Maribel is practicing reading with her mother she reads the story but when asked to recall the story she has trouble remembering. In the story we find out that Maribel took a fall from the top of a ladder when helping her father at his construction site.(Henriquez 100-102). In Mexico her father was the owner of a construction company and he even built their family home back in Mexico. What occurred to Maribel caused her some broken bones and bruises that healed but left her with a remaining brain injury that affected her life and the lives of her parents. According to page 102 by Henriquez “the doctor emerged from the bowels of the hospital and told us: A bruised tailbone. Two broken ribs, Minor injuries except for one. Her Brain.” When Maribel fell from the ladder her head snapped back up and down several times shaking her brain in the skull which can lead to deadly effects like swelling of the brain. Maribel did face swelling in her brain, so she needed a surgery right then and there to make space in her skull for the amount swelling. After the fact if you were to look at Maribel, she is described by the young boy Mayor to be a normal very beautiful teenage girl (Henriquez 40). Except for the mental effects , scar left behind from her life saving surgery.and sunglasses she wears that cover the bright sun/light that give her headaches she appears as a uninjured girl. “A slight blow to the head or even a fall without hitting the head may be sufficient to tear blood vessels in the brain.” (Longe 148) The accident created new issues for her family that they never had to think about like the care Maribel now needed. They were the happiest family in the world and now Alma and Arturo Rivera had to worry about how to help their daughters new special needs, if Maribel the young girl they remembered would ever come back and of course the blame and guilt her parents began to feel ever since the misfortune of the accident.
Maribel’s parents’ life changed the day their only child suffered from a brain injury. A brain injury is said to “usually result from impact or trauma to the brain that can lead to a variety of medical problems, depending on the nature of the injury.” (Batten, Etal. 262) Her parents desperately wanted the old Maribel which caused some tension between Alma and Arturo as well as with their daughter. Alma believed that a person inhabited his or her whole body that a person’s essence was spread throughout the body she could not believe that because Maribel’s brain was affected her whole self would be different as well. (Henriquez 103) The doctors in Mexico could only tell the Rivera family that her short-term memory is inconsistent, and that she can’t find the right words to communicate her thoughts. While time passed and not much improvement occurred with the treatments in Mexico the expectations of Maribel’s parents created frustration, so they chose to make a complete life change by traveling to a new place where they didn’t speak or understand the language creating a language barrier and the family needed a translator to communicate with their daughters new school. They get Maribel into Evers School in Delaware a school specifically for mentally challenged students where Maribel had to take countless test to prove her need for special education and she began English Language Learning classes . Arturo Sr. Rivera Maribel’s father had to downgrade from his job in Mexico being the owner of a construction business to find work that would sponsor his family for visas his only choice was to work as a mushroom farmer with long hours and extremely poor working conditions (Henriquez 25). The lower status they now had in America was all worth it to them because it was helping Maribel’s condition. While Arturo works Alma is a stay at home mom, she makes dinner and waits for her daughter/Husband to arrive daily. Alma remembers the time that her daughter was a spontaneous, energetic, and rebellious young girl she reminisces on the warm holidays in Mexico when Maribel used to cook buñuelos independently for the family as a dessert (Henriquez 124) and how Maribel used to wake up early in the morning so her mother could braid her hair in two plaits from her scalp down her back and now Alma cannot even help her daughter get dressed or brush her hair because Maribel says it hurts when the scar on her scalp is pulled. (Henriquez 30) .After the accident Maribel became a introvert mainly just being with herself .Each day that she refuses help more and more it is a good sign to see her do it on her own.
When they first arrived at the apartments, they knew no one and soon they made friends with the Toro family who are originally from panama and now live down the hall. They were a family of four the mother Celia, father Rafael, youngest son about Maribel’s age Mayor, and oldest son in college Enrique. The Toro family greatly helped the Rivera family with their transition in this new foreign place. Celia Toro made it her main task to become a good friend to those around her. At the dollar store they first met, and Celia shows Alma where the grocery shop, thrift shop, hair salon etc. are and gives Alma helpful tips about the city .(Henriquez 40-43) .The families later become close friends and gather regularly as well as attend church together. As previously mentioned, Celia and Alma first get to talking and they learn about each other’s family while in the dollar tree. Here Mayor and Maribel first meet and he begins to form a liking toward her. After the teenagers meet it doesn’t take long for them to become friends and they get to know each other. Mayor understands that Maribel has her own issues because of the accident so he makes sure not to take advantage of her, but he doesn’t stop yearning for the chance to interact with her. Once they are friends Maribel points out to him that he is one of the few people who are normal with her without expressing pity or making her feel less than as most people do without realizing it. Mayor knows that she attends the school Evers and that is a specialized school which most bully’s like Garett make fun of those students that attend this school. Now that he knows Maribel it bothers him to hear someone like Garret make fun of Maribel, he now does not let him get away with bullying her and stands up to him. Mayor even goes as far as getting into a fight at his school to defend Maribel from Garret. Mayor/Garret throw punches causing Mayor to get grounded by his at times explosive father. (Henriquez 128-132).
The friendship created between Maribel and Mayor allows her to become open with someone and talk about things that teenagers should talk about. With this friendship and Maribel attending Evers reports of improvements from her school began to show good news in her education progress. At school Maribel takes achievement tests, cognitive test, talks to psychologists, and gets educational diagnostics to check her progression. The school and doctors recommend she writes as many things down as she can to keep her mind active. Maribel uses a green notebook to write down her thoughts in a way to gather her words and express ideas. Maribel says “My notebook” ”im writing” “Like note to self”( Henriquez 73). While with Mayor one day he asked about her injury and if he can read her notebook, she hands it over and he sees that she writes about what she encounters at school, the things they/others talk about, her address and so on. During the teenager’s communications they talk about the weather, random things, and their day. In these conversations Mayor must guess half of what Maribel is wanting to say but, in the end, they find a way to understand each other. Maribel says to Mayor “you don’t ask me how I’m feeling, I hate it when people …ask me that” (Henriques 113) she also admits her want to be like everyone else. Mayor helps Maribel figure her current self out he keeps the conversations light, makes her laugh, and teaches her new things like about the types of snow which she appreciates. Alma and Celia talk about their children’s friendship and they say, “he seems to like Maribel, no?” “He’s been good for her; I think she’s different when he’s around. More like herself.” (Henriquez 168) Maribel’s motivation and want to get better is greatly due to Mayors influence and the work that her school/family puts in to getting her caught up to where she used to be mentally. Mayor helps the young girl see that although she is no longer the person, she used to be she is still in there and it is possible for someone to understand the person she once was and the person she is now. Maribel and Mayors friendship develops into a romance and she tells him “I feel like you’re the only person who . . . sees . . . me”(Henriquez 173) Mayor in fact sees Maribel as the complex girl she is and he has the patience to help her understand the confusion that is in her mind. The adoration of these teenagers leads to some bad decisions on Mayors part that could be dangerous in the end this caused trouble at home for them both.
Maribel’s trauma was not set in stone she was diagnosed a mild brain injury that can be treated and improved with plenty of effort. The brain is a muscle that can adapt it was important for Maribel to get properly diagnosed and treat the wound promptly like her family did in Mexico. After the physical treatment of the injury the cognitive treatment begins. The outer appearance of a brain injury will disappear and leave no trace as in Maribel’s case no one was able to tell of her condition by her appearance, but the internal changes affect the individuals life experience it changes their ability to use their motor and cognitive skills. To achieve rehabilitation there must be proper therapies which her family made possible when they moved to America.“The harmful effects of brain injuries respond best to aggressive treatment by rehabilitation teams typically made up of specially trained physicians, rehabilitation nurses, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, physical and occupational therapists, and other professionals. Patients must be monitored constantly, and their condition must be reevaluated as their behavior and symptoms change.” (Batten Etal 262) The quality of treatment Maribel’s family wanted for her became the only priority since that decision was made their lives would never be the same. At the end of the book Maribel was seemingly almost back to being herself although it was one of the worst parts of her life because of her father’s sudden terrible passing. Maribel experienced many events in this time of her life that she will always remember. Having these impactful moments unleashed her personality and helped her see that there is a chance of getting back to her old self that was always there, but her parents focus was always the negative effects from the accident and what needed to be treated so they could not see that Maribel was slowly but surely getting better. The death at the end of the novel of Sr Rivera allowed Sra Rivera to finally realize that Maribel was never gone she only had to accept her daughter for who she now is .
Henriquez, Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. Vintage Books, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
“Brain Injuries.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology, edited by Jacqueline L. Longe, 3rd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2016, pp. 148-152. Gale eBooks, https://link-gale-com.chaffey.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/CX3631000110/GVRL?u=ranc95197&sid=GVRL&xid=ab87b119. Accessed 8 Oct. 2019.
“Brain Injuries.” Human Diseases and Conditions, edited by Donna Batten, et al., 3rd ed., vol. 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2017, pp. 262-270. Gale eBooks, https://link-gale-com.chaffey.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/CX3630000053/GVRL?u=ranc95197&sid=GVRL&xid=07c6ba5c. Accessed 8 Oct. 2019.