The driving force behind immigration, the American Dream, represents opportunity, freedom, and prosperity. As Cristina Henríquez depicts in her novel The Book of Unknown Americans, immigrants like the Riveras and Toros idealize America as a land of rebirth and second chances, where their disabled daughter Maribel can receive quality healthcare and where they can provide her a better life. However, through probing first-person narratives, Henríquez subverts this myth of American exceptionalism by revealing the harsh realities that immigrants face. While the American Dream cultivates optimism about Alberto Rivera’s increasing independence and Maribel Rivera’s recovery, Henríquez emphasizes economic instability, social ostracization, and human connection sacrifices to demonstrate this ideal’s elusiveness.
The optimistic immigrants who flock to America seeking its promises rely chiefly on two symbols of the American Dream: homes and education. Homeownership and academic opportunities represent financial stability and upward mobility, incentivizing families like the Riveras to immigrate. The hopes tied to these institutions also give Alberto the courage to learn English in night classes, as Maribel notes he does it “for the American Dream. To get a better job…And buy a house for us one day” (Henríquez 171). His vision of providing this middle-class milestone implies belief in the Dream’s assurances about class flexibility. However, the reality surrounding the Riveras subverts this expectation of swift success, revealing home ownership’s unrealistic nature. Upon the family’s arrival, Mayor Toro immediately quells these lofty aspirations, warning that “In this country, there is always more to pay for” regarding houses (Henríquez 51). His wisdom, derived from lifelong financial struggles, contradicts the mythic guarantees of swift prosperity. Additionally, the Riveras’ rental reflects their distance from the Dream, as its dingy, “sad little apartment” conditions clash with their visions of white-picket stability (Henríquez 79). Through these characters who have invested in the Dream, Henríquez warns that its promises supersede realistic achievement for many hardworking immigrants.
While the vision of educational opportunity also buoys immigrants’ faith despite daily hardships, many young characters in Unknown Americans inhabit binary roles where they either excel through higher education or fail by abandoning schooling—a limiting portrayal subverting mythical flexibility. Achievers like Mayor Toro’s daughter Alejandra gain independence through excelling at the university level, depicted when she temporarily moves away from her parent’s apartment and enjoys social mobility by patronizing middle-class shops like J.Crew (Henríquez 105). Conversely, characters who eschew education, like Enrique Rivera once he leaves Panama to work manual jobs in America, lose social leverage and end up critiquing the Dream’s broken promises about stable incomes from hard work alone (Henríquez 80). Through this dichotomy, Henríquez demonstrates how academic opportunity within the Dream convincing compels immense personal sacrifice. Maribel Rivera only achieves excellent rehabilitation care by relinquishing her academic dreams permanently, “bid[ding] goodbye to any more schooling” past age sixteen due to her injury (Henríquez 9). The Dream thus operates on extremes, forcing characters to choose success for loved ones over personal goals. By presenting only polarized outcomes related to immigration for educational purposes, Henríquez heightens the falsehood behind mythical open-ended freedom.
While social ostracization also manifests subtly early on, racist vitriol towards the novel’s immigrants crescendos later to completely undermine the welcoming mythos of American culture. Though characters frequently sense coldness radiating from native tenants and business people early on, larger culture shocks, such as Mayor Toro’s hospitalization, expose open aggression. The Toros’ “EVICTED” sign, though intended by a single prejudiced landlord, implies a broader social denial of immigrants’ humanity in denying care for an ailing elder (Henríquez 179). Such acharged symbolic episode, combined with the vandalization of the Riveras’ apartment perpetrated by teens with blatant xenophobia, shatters notions of America as an inclusive space. As Minich argues, these racist attacks reveal a larger “climate of fear and hostility toward people perceived as illegal immigrants” threaded through society (95). Ultimately, this social toxicity contributes to culminating tragedies at the Quarry, where anti-immigrant rhetoric translates into violence with fatal consequences. Through these moments of cultural clash, Henríquez speaks to charged nativist and racist divides unacknowledged by the myth of seamless assimilation.
Although social ostracization damages collective immigrant hopes in intangible ways, widespread economic troubles undermine the Dream more concretely on individual and group levels. Nearly all central families in Unknown Americans suffer workplace exploitation without realistic upward mobility despite constant assurances about the value of diligent work. For example, Arturo Rivera loses his fingers to negligence in a kitchen, yet the unsafe, “hellhole” conditions persist, granting no workers’ compensation while the owners avoid regulations (Henríquez 96). Workplace injury frequently discontinues characters’ income flow without recourse, keeping families like the Toros in cyclical poverty. Even once Mayor Toro heals and returns to work, he occupies the same lowest-rung jobs he has held for years, evincing workplace immobility. These narrative choices align with scholar John Beverly’s “testimonio” concept, where marginalized subjects are centered as protagonists voicing their histories (Beverly 31). Additionally, documented characters’ struggles parallel undocumented experiences like Enrique’s, proving that immigration status does not guarantee economic stability. Alarmingly high rents in Delaware consume earnings across cases, defying ideas about class flexibility. After decades of inhabiting cultural and fiscal peripheries, Mayor Toro questions if opportunity beyond subsistence living is available anywhere, as “maybe in the whole world there was not such a place” (Henríquez 51). Thus, through diverse portraits of unchanging hardship, Henríquez expands critiques of the Dream to capture wide-ranging disenchantment.
Though diasporic journeys cultivate cross-cultural connection and empathy between characters, language barriers, and legal limitations challenge intimate relationships to underscore isolation perpetuated by the American Dream mythos. While artifacts like food, music, and language knit community ties between the Toros, Riveras, and even unkind landlord Quisqueya Solages, emphasis on work and school obligations often isolate nuclear families. Parents like Mayor Toro frequently work multiple exhausting jobs under poor conditions, coming “home only to sleep” rather than bonding with family (Henríquez 51). Children like Maribel Rivera similarly withdraw from their parents due to embarrassment over her disability and trauma over her peers’ mistreatment. Though she finds some solace in new immigrant friends who teach her resilience, her declining school involvement separates her from previous connections, as with her father, “the distance between them just seemed to get larger” (Henríquez 78). Additionally, though cross-cultural relationships bloom between Maribel Rivera and Mayor Toro’s son Enrique, Maribel refuses sexual intimacy because she anticipates future exile back to Panama. As critic Julie Minich explains, Maribel “interrupted what was promising to be a sweet love story” to avoid future heartbreak (94). While diasporic connections between characters reveal empathy, various relationships stagnate or sever entirely. Thus, Henríquez questions sustainable intimacy given groups’ impermanence and transience under the Dream, which prioritizes individual advancement over connection.
Ultimately, the mythos in The BookofUnknown Americans contrasts communal ties in immigrants’ home countries versus isolated self-interest perpetuated in America. Though the nationalist ethos in Panama lionized collective responsibility, the philosophies undergirding the American Dream myth contradict this. As Kann details, the Dream’s origins stem from Lockean selfish individualism, where the public good is “a byproduct of private interests” rather than a central priority, damaging social unity (36). Opening her novel with quotations from Langston Hughes, Henríquez evokes the legendary writer’s subversion of patriotic American symbols. Hughes critiques how the mythic American Dream falters when applied to marginalized minority groups, instead perpetuating economic and social barriers. Nearly a century after Hughes, Henríquez raises similar indictments through interwoven immigrant narratives, cautioning against unrestrained faith in American exceptionalism.
Beverley, John. Testimonio: On the politics of truth. U of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Henríquez, Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2015. ISBN: 9780345806406
Kann, Mark E. “Individualism, Civic Virtue, and Gender in America.” Studies in American Political Development 4 1990: 46–81.
Minich, Julie Avril. “Enabling whom? Critical disability studies now.” Lateral 5.1 2016.