Immigrants flooded into the United States during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, providing cheap labor, creating an economic boom, and making the United States a global superpower (Gale). Although immigrants enabled the industrial revolution, most Americans believed the immigrants were a threat: “They worried that the newcomers carried or spread disease, they were disturbed because the immigrants followed different religions and customs, and they felt outnumbered by the large numbers of ‘foreigners’ in their cities” (Gale).
The fear the Americans felt towards immigrants developed into strong prejudice which made assimilating into American culture difficult for immigrants. Dealing with prejudice and struggling to assimilate are ideas explored by Cristina Hernriquez in her novel The Book of Unknown Americans. In her novel, Hernriquez writes about a Mexican family immigrating to the United States and moving into an apartment building full of other immigrants.
Hernriquez writes each chapter from a different immigrant’s perspective as they all interact with each other. In The Book of Unknown Americans, Hernriquez’s haracterization of each individual immigrant, and of the group of immigrants as a whole, develops her theme that adjusting to a new life and overcoming prejudice is easily accomplished with the help of others. Shifting narratives enhance the characterization of each individual immigrant, providing personal and intimate details about each character.
They create a strong connection between the reader and the characters, making it easier to understand the characters on a deeper level. Shifting narratives reveal each character’s thoughts, including their motives as to why they help thers: “What was I supposed to do? I didn’t really want to stand out in the rain with her for who knew how long.. After another minute, though, it was still just her and me, so I said, Well, let’s wait on the fire escape at least. It’s covered, so we can get out of the rain” (Hernriquez 70).
Almost all of the characters choose to help others because they have experienced hardships themselves and want to aid others through their hard time, attempting to improve the lives of their friends and families: “These interruptions to the primary plot add context to the Rivera’s experience and enforce the notion that parents, wherever their origin, will go to extraordinary lengths to improve their children’s lives” (Szwarek). The introspective perspectives convey the feelings of compassion that each character feels toward their loved ones.
Without shifting narratives, each character could not express their sympathetic thoughts and actions. The personal narratives also make Hernriquez’s characters more believable and real: “The novel alternates narrators among members of the Rivera and Toro families, as well as other immigrant neighbors, and their stories tress that their individual experiences can’t be reduced to types or statistics; the shorter interludes have the realest detail, candor and potency of oral history” (Kirkus Reviews).
Immigrant life is a complicated, difficult, and individualized experience, and through their own narratives, each character expresses their journey in specific detail, which makes the characters and their hardships seem real. One hardship immigrants face is discrimination, which shapes their character and makes them more compassionate. But, prejudice also causes immigrants to assimilate quickly and try to lend in to avoid stereotypes. Hernriquez illustrates the desperation to be accepted in her novel: “When I walk down the street, I don’t want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up.
I want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who’s just trying to do the right things” (Hernriquez 235). Immigrants, who have the same goals and emotions as citizens, deserve to be treated equally and should not be negatively stereotyped. But, most non-immigrants, even kids, like Hernriquez’s character, Garrett, have an internalized hatred of immigrants and minorities: “Go home,’ he said. I knew those words, and I knew by the way he said them that he didn’t mean I should go back to the apartment” (Hernriquez 150).
Garrett’s prejudice evokes fear in Alma, and her fear is symbolic of the fear immigrants feel towards the hatred towards them. Fear causes immigrants to be protective of themselves and their friends and families, like how Alma is determined and desperate to protect her daughter from Garrett, a hateful and racist boy. Alma, like most immigrant parents, came to America to improve the life of her daughter. These immigrant parents do not deserve the prejudice they face because they are trying to do the right thing for their children.
Arturo, an immigrant parent, works hard to provide for his family while trying to disprove the idea that immigrants are a burden to society and the economy: “Discrimination against Latinos may grow not from hostility against an ethnic ‘outgroup. ‘ but rather stereotypes about whether they will contribute to the United States of become a burden” (Levy and Wright). Most Americans believe immigrants do not contribute to society and negatively stereotype them because of it, but those stereotypes are false and hurtful.
The characters in Henriquez’s novel represent the false stereotypes projected onto immigrants: “.. People think Maribel is dumber than she is and that Mayor is more predatory than he is. In this way, Hernriquez suggests, they represent the immigrant experience in miniature” (Kirkus Reviews). Hernriquez purposefully characterizes Maribel and Mayor as opposites to their stereotypes to prove those stereotypes wrong. Henriquez ot only demonstrates how immigrants face discrimination through her characters, but also how they overcome stereotypes and discredit them while assimilating to a new culture.
The characters in Hernriquez’s novel and their actions demonstrate the benevolence and sympathetic characterization of immigrants. For example, throughout the novel, the Riveras have a difficult time assimilating to American culture. In response to the Riveras’ struggles, the Toros and the other immigrants help them to adjust immediately and without hesitation. Even strangers, like the immigrant at the dollar store ho advises Alma to buy oatmeal, offer to help immigrants who are going through the same struggles as they have.
The eagerness to help other immigrants reveals the kindness and compassion Henriquez’s characters possess. Friendly neighbors, like Celia, made the Riveras’ transition from Mexico to Delaware easier by giving advice and offering friendship: “Celia told me about the provisions we would need for winter – heavy coats and a stack of comforters and something called long underwear.. and about a place called the Community House where they offered immigrant services if we needed them” (Hernriquez 53).
Without Celia and the other immigrants for assistance, the Riveras would have had a difficult time adjusting to their new lives. The Riveras owe their success in America to the help of Celia and the other immigrants around them. But, the immigrant journey does not end immediately after relocating because immigrants are always learning new things and adjusting to new cultures, which is easily done with the help of other immigrants: “. less about the actual trek of its characters than about how they settle in, make do and figure things out. They talk to one another, give advice and lend a and” (Castillo).
Assimilation and adjustment to a new culture would be almost impossible wit immigrants willing to help because of the frequent language out the aid of other benevolent barriers and cultural differences. The immigrant journey is long and difficult, almost a never- ending process. From the actual moving, to learning how to adjust and assimilate while simultaneously facing prejudice and hatred, the immigrant journey is a perpetual struggle. Immigrants have been struggling to assimilate and create a new and improved life since the late nineteenth century and the arly twentieth century.
The struggle to become accustomed to a new society and culture can be ameliorated by the help of others who have gone through the same experience. In The Book of Unknown Americans, Hernriquez explores the idea of compassionate aid with an immigrant family, the Riveras. The Riveras are dependent on their benevolent neighbors who are also immigrants. Without the help of other immigrants, the Riveras would never have lived a comfortable life nor adapt to American culture. The help of assimilated immigrants is necessary for the assimilation of new immigrants in a new society.