Let’s Talk: The Book of Unknown Americans

When we began the book, we suggested this as a place to begin our reflection/conversation:

As you read these stories, what are points of connection (things you can relate to because you can connect your own experience to the story) and points of disconnection (things you have a hard time relating to because you haven’t had any similar experience)?

I’ll go first:

What I want to say first about my experience with this book is that it showed me how little I knew or understood about all the different groups of people we collect under the umbrella term “Latinx.” That’s hard for me to admit out loud; it seems like I should have known in a different way that there are many different reasons people come here, and that they come from very different countries. I suppose I knew it on a superficial level, but I didn’t know know it until reading this book–which is part of why I believe stories have power. Somehow they can make things more real to us.

There are so many points of connection for me. As a teacher, I recognize the kinds of struggles Mayor faces at school. The four parents are all about the same age as me; I know what it was to be young during the same years they were. What I relate to most, though, is Alma’s drive to care for her daughter. I like to think that I, too, would do anything I needed to do for my kids. Maybe I would. But it is hard for me to imagine doing the things Alma and Arturo do to give Maribel what they feel she needs.

I’ve never visited (much less lived in) a country with a culture that is significantly different from my own. I visited European countries in 2002 and 2007, at a time when Americans were not terribly popular there (thanks, W.). I got to experience, just a bit, how challenging it is to navigate everyday things when you don’t speak the language or understanding how everyday things work. (Had an embarrassing experience in a parking garage once.) I got to experience, just a bit, how it is to be judged negatively because of the country I’m from. I understand just enough to empathize with Alma, even as I know that I can’t really know what it would be like to do what she did.

It’s hard for me to imagine leaving behind everything I’ve known, to live in an unfamiliar climate, in a place where I don’t have resources and don’t know the language. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be navigate the systems her family has to navigate. I imagine I would not handle any of it nearly as well as Alma does in this book. Seeing the kinds of challenges and the numbers helped me also come to know know how hard things must be for immigrants. Again, it was the kind of thing I knew abstractly, but seeing it in the context of the individual lives of this family leaves me knowing in a different way. It helps me understand how desperate things must have to be in immigrants’ home countries for them to come here, especially if they are poor and have little support when they arrive here.

—Rita

Your turn:

Please use the comments to respond to my reflection and/or add your own. If you are new to commenting on our site, your comment will be held for moderation. I will do my best to approve comments as soon as possible, so that we can have a true conversation. Please feel free to respond to each other, following our discussion guidelines.

Photo Credit: ambiebambie39507 Flickr via Compfight cc

8 thoughts on “Let’s Talk: The Book of Unknown Americans

  1. The photo above is a helpful reminder that the characters in this book don’t look like me, an educated, privileged white female. Encountering the “bad boy” and his father was a jolting reminder that that’s my ethnicity.

    I lived a year and a half in Puerto Rico as a homemaker and mother of school-age children, so many of the cultural cues and expressions are familiar. When my boys wore their school uniforms and we were with their school community, we were well integrated. When the driver of a large truck backed into my car, and the policeman did not speak English well, his dislike of gringos was palpable, and I was the target. So I understand being an outsider in a country that is “home.”

    Still, as I said, I’m a privileged, educated white woman. I have no way of relating, other than by reading this book, to what it’s like to work ten hours a day in the dark with no breaks at a job that could be taken away at any moment for wages that might or might not provide adequately for my family. And improve my lot?

    1. Your words about Arturo’s work resonate with me. It is hard for me to imagine what that would be like, and those passages struck me when I was reading. I wish that we would have an honest conversation in our country about immigrants (particularly Latinx immigrants) and jobs and our economy. I wish we could be honest that the reasons people cross the border is not the lack of a wall, but the presence of jobs that most white Americans would never take. I wish we could be honest about how that labor boosts our economy, and about how our immigrant communities have less crime. http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/01/29/512002076/why-sanctuary-cities-are-safer

      Thank you for writing.

  2. I’ve started typing and deleted this comment about 30 times because admitting to prejudiced thinking is HARD.

    Where I grew up, we had migrant workers. Every fall school would start and we’d have 2-3 kids in our class who wouldn’t be in school a month later. Then the weather would get nice that spring and they’d be back. In elementary school, I didn’t even really think about it, it but by middle school and high school, I noticed. And not so much the people as the underlying tension in the hallways. And because that tension wasn’t there until the migrant workers’ kids got there, I slowly and quietly concluded that it was their fault. Because if they weren’t always hanging out and speaking Spanish with each other instead of trying to get along, maybe they wouldn’t make everyone so uncomfortable. As someone who is a little more thoughtful now than I was then, I have to shake my head that I felt that way…and worse, didn’t have grown ups to help me see that thinking that way was ridiculous, but as much I loved the Alma character, the “bad boy” and his father are much more familiar.

    1. I know, it is. I have a similar story that makes me cringe now.

      When I was in high school, we had a number of refugees from southeast Asia. We called them “boat people” (because they’d escaped their countries on boats). I knew nothing more about them than what I’ve written here. They weren’t in my classes. I never stopped to think about what their lives must have been like, or what they were like now. I did only once. I was a cheerleader, and one day another cheerleader and I passed a group of boys, and they were pointing at us and, it was clear to me even though they were not speaking English, that they were mocking us. I remember feeling embarrassed (because even then I already felt that there were far more meaningful things I could be doing with my time) and angry. I remember wishing that they weren’t there, and feeling just a bit like they should be so grateful to be here that they shouldn’t make fun of those of us that the country they now lived in belonged to. At least I felt ashamed of the thought as soon as I had it.

      Yes, admitting prejudiced thinking is hard. Thanks for going there with us.

  3. I loved this book. It was eye-opening and at times uncomfortable but oh so good! I especially appreciated, like Rita said, the different perspectives on how and why people come here. Having worked in an elementary school I find myself falling back on the “Latinos are from Mexico here for a better life” narrative. This was true for MANY of my students but I need to remember that it is not true for all of them nor for all the Latino/as in the US. I also really liked how “normal” the characters are. Now, before you yell at me, what I mean is that they are just like me! I think that we all forget (I know I do) that people are people. We all worry about our kids, we all fight with our spouse, we all celebrate and mourn and yearn for something better. In our society, especially now, we sometimes look at the “other” as being so different than us. “Mexicans must be uneducated criminals” “Muslims are terrorist” “Trans people are perverts” etc. We have made “them” into something so different from us that we forget that they are, fundamentally, just like us. Scared, happy, wishful, proud, hungry, sleepy, angry – just like us. I loved that this book reaffirmed that for me. And in such a beautiful way. Kinda sad that I need that reminder, but evidently I do.
    An especially strong take away for me was the language part of the story. How hard it must be to live in a country where you do not speak the language. The struggle that the mom had in finding her daughter when she didn’t get off the bus – I could feel her fear. I speak to International students every day in my job at a university. That part of the book has reminded me to have patience with them.

    1. I had many of the same reactions to this book, Jill. It was eye-opening for me to realize all the different stories we lump under the generic label of “Latinx.” I also tried to imagine how it would be for me to send my child to school in a country where I wasn’t proficient in the language–it would take such courage and desperation to make the choices Alma did for her daughter. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience of the book–and sorry it took me so long to respond.

  4. Thank you, moderators, for guiding me into Book of Unknown Americans and to reading dangerously. We need these stories. I plan to share this book with several people and to invite many more to participate in the rest of the year’s reading.

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