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Campus Book Discussion (2019): The Book of Unknown Americans

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This Semester's Book: The Book of Unknown Americans

When fifteen-year-old Maribel Rivera sustains a terrible injury, the Riveras leave behind a comfortable life in Mexico and risk everything to come to the United States so that Maribel can have the care she needs. Once they arrive, it’s not long before Maribel attracts the attention of Mayor Toro, the son of one of their new neighbors, who sees a kindred spirit in this beautiful, damaged outsider. Their love story sets in motion events that will have profound repercussions for everyone involved.

Here Henríquez seamlessly interweaves the story of these star-crossed lovers, and of the Rivera and Toro families, with the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Latin America and offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be Americans. 

Discussion Dates, Times, and Locations

Interviews/Articles/Videos with the Author: Christian Heriquez
Rich Fahle interviews author Cristina Henríquez about her novel, The Book of Unknown Americans at Miami Book Fair International 2014. Watch more interviews at https ...
In Cristina Henríquez’s “The Book of Unknown Americans,” an array of characters from Latin America talk directly about their reasons for coming to ...

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Discussion Questions

1. How does Alma’s perspective in the novel’s first chapter illustrate her and her family’s hopes for their new life in America? Take another look at her statement after the trip to the gas station: “The three of us started toward the road, doubling back in the direction from which we had come, heading toward home” (11). What are the meanings of “home” here, and how does this scene show how America meets and differs from the Riveras’ expectations of it?

2. Mayor describes how he’s bullied at school and his general feelings of not fitting in. How do you think this draws him to Maribel? What do they have in common that perhaps those around them, including their parents, cannot see on the surface?

3. How is the scene where the Riveras sit down for a dinner of oatmeal a turning point for the family and for the book? Discuss the role of food in the novel, especially how it evokes memories of home and establishes a sense of community. Are there any other cultural values or traditions that do the same thing?

4. What are some key differences in the way that the women in the novel respond to challenges of assimilation compared to the men? How does Alma’s point of view highlight these differences?

5. What brings Alma and Celia together as neighbors and friends, and how does their relationship change by the end of the book?

6. How would you describe the atmosphere of the impromptu Christmas party in the Toros’ apartment (p. 137)? What brings the residents of the building together, as a group and in more intimate settings? Why do you think Cristina Henríquez brought all the characters together during this particular holiday?

7. Alma and Mayor are the primary narrators of the book, yet they have very different voices and perspectives. How does pairing these points of view affect the telling of this story, even as they are punctuated by the voices of the neighbors in Redwood Apartments? And how does the chorus of voices affect this main story and pose larger questions of immigration and the Latino experience in the United States?

8. Were you surprised that the book takes place in Newark, Delaware, rather than in the larger Latin American communities of Florida, New York, Texas, or California? What does this setting suggest about immigrant families like the Riveras and the Toros across the country? Do you feel differently about the immigration debate now raging in the United States after reading this book?

9. Do you, the members of your family, or your friends have stories of moving to another country to start a new life? Did any of the stories in the novel resonate with those you know?

10. How does the final chapter, told in Arturo’s voice, influence your understanding of what he felt about America? What do you make of how he ends his narrative, “I loved this country,” and that it is the last line of the book (286)?

Ways to Help


Border Charity Addresses for Donations

Humane Borders   Keeps water stations in the desert    
PO Box 27024
Tuscson, AZ 85726
preferred method: PayPal through website


Kino Border Initiative   Operates sour kitchen and shelters in Mexico
PO Box 159
Nogales, AZ 85628-0159
Mail donations directly or through Paypal from website


Coalicion De Derechos Humanos   Locates missing migrants, and educates migrants on workers rights
Donate through website

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