The American Dream. What is it? Basically it’s the idea that one can come to America with or without anything and build a better future for themselves or their families in certain cases. In “The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez, many of the characters immigrated to the states for a chance of making their dreams into reality or escaping from bad situations into a better one. Many had specific goals in mind but didn’t exactly reach them. It’s hard for immigrants to progress as their previous experiences can be overlooked or ignored such as Arturo from the book. As time progresses in our society, the view on immigrants changes and it impacts the chances they have of making it in this country. The idea of the American Dream is still there especially with people who don’t live in America, but once in the country it is difficult to achieve (more so for first generation) because of prejudices against immigrants.
Most of the characters from “The Book of Unknown Americans” left their homes behind for several reasons in order to pursue something better. In Alma’s case, she moved to Delaware with her family for her daughter Maribel since she suffered a brain injury and the schools which were helpful were only in the states. Mayor’s family left behind Panama because of the invasions which made their home not feel the same anymore. Other characters left their countries in hopes that they would become boxers, dancers, escape poverty, to provide for their families, or because their government was corrupt and there was violence filling their streets. Now not to say that some of the characters didn’t achieve their goals such as Gustavo Milhojas was able to provide for his children back in Mexico, however some of them didn’t quite get what they hoped for. They face hardships which hindered the possibility of their dreams becoming reality such as finding stable, well paying jobs and discrimination/racism.
Arturo, Maribel’s father, owned a construction business back in Mexico which he gave up to become a mushroom picker in Delaware. It was what was offered to him as they supplied his work visa as well as his family’s. At the mushroom farm, he picks mushrooms however in poor work conditions. It was described as, “Everything is controlled. The ventilation, the humidity. And they keep it dark”(Henriquez 24). They also don’t drink or eat throughout their shift. “It’s mindless,” says Arturo (25). Not all immigrants work in conditions as such but in most cases they do as they’re starting anew.Alma was confused as to why Arturo had to do such things when he clearly can be a manager with his experience and he responded by saying, “They’re not going to care about that”(25). Employers as such know that most immigrants are willing to go through such conditions because they need a source of income. Regarding Latino immigrants, employers mostly view them “as manageable, pliable workers who ‘had the work ethic’… willingness to work hard, accept low-status jobs, and obey authority”(Shih 102). These sorts of jobs are capable of exploiting their employees in which they do in certain cases like Arturo’s. It relates with how Arturo is putting up with it for the sake of his daughter despite no room for growth or higher pay.
Depending on what job one has, the mobility of growth is limited. For example, Mayor’s father, Rafael, worked at the same diner for 15 years until it went out of business. Now, he did move in job positions through his time working there. He “worked up his way from busboy to dishwasher to line cook”(206). After 15 years, he was still working for the same diner but didn’t have a managing position of some sort. Finding a new job was difficult as that was his only experience and he didn’t speak perfect English. His thoughts on why he wasn’t getting hired despite the effort he was putting in was because “They’re targeting the people who look like us” with ‘they’ being the country (207). Mayor’s family would have struggled as Maribel’s family did when Arturo lost his job, but they were able to get by with the money they received from Celia’s, Mayor’s mother, sister.
The Toro’s friends back from Panama didn’t take into consideration that struggling was a possibility in the states. When Rafael and Celia were planning on going to Panama for their school reunion, Rafael spoke to an old schoolmate. Their conversation mainly consisted of the schoolmate saying how “American” the Toros’ were and that they must have thought of themselves too good for Panama. For example, the schoolmate said, “We didn’t know the gringo royalty was coming”(81). Despite the reason for the Toros’ going to America was regarding safety, the people in Panama just viewed them as people who though high and mighty just because of living in the states. The people from Panama haven’t experienced the hardships they have faced hence why they disregard the possibility. They believe the American Dream is realistic and attainable.
Regarding Latino immigrants, discrimination is one of the main obstacles they face. The setting of where discrimination is displayed can vary from the workplace, school or even the streets. Micho Alvarez in the book talks about how Latinos are looked down on. He discusses how the media is at fault to it as, “You listen to the media, you’ll learn that we’re all gangbangers, we’re all drug dealers, we’re tossing bodies in vats of acid, we want to destroy America, we still think Texas belongs to us, we all have swine flu, we carry machine guns under our coats, we don’t pay any taxes, we’re lazy, we’re stupid, we’re all wetbacks who crossed the border illegally”(236). These ideas influence what non-immigrants think of immigrants. It creates a bias against them and that their presence in the states is a threat. It affects the chances of immigrants getting housing in certain areas. “Latinos are particularly at risk for experiencing housing discrimination based on their ethnicity and immigration statuses”(Torres, et al 364). Housing sectors are set up to keep certain races out of certain neighborhoods. How can immigrants move up in status when they are limited to where they can live and work?
The American Dream changes with time and who’s being asked but it’s mainly the idea of achieving a better life. Not to say it isn’t possible, but it’s a difficult thing to accomplish. Immigrants have to go through many hardships to get what they want. They have to deal with discrimination in all sorts of places, the risk of being exploited and the possibility of not achieving their goals. In “The Book of Unknown Americans”, not all of the characters reached the goal they had in mind when they first immigrated. It seems easy to do before actually immigrating. Immigrants are still capable of having a better lifestyle, but with how today’s nation views them it can be a difficult journey.
- Henriquez, Christina. “The Book Of Unknown Americans.” Random House LLC, New York, in 2014.
- Torres, Héctor L., et al. “The American dream: Racism towards Latino/as in the US and the experience of trauma symptoms.” Interamerican Journal of Psychology 45.3 (2011): 363-368.
- Shih, Johanna. “‘…Yeah, I Could Hire This One, but I Know It’s Gonna Be a Problem’: How Race, Nativity and Gender Affect Employers’ Perceptions of the Manageability of Job Seekers.” Ethnic & Racial Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 2002, pp. 99–119. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/01419870120112076.