The unknown and invisible Americans


National Hispanic Heritage Month is from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, and the Delaware County District Library has partnered with several groups to celebrate the event.

Among the many noteworthy programs is DelawareREADS, a communitywide book discussion. The title chosen is Cristina Henríquez’ novel “The Book of Unknown Americans.” The library has ordered more than 250 copies of the print edition alone; other formats are also available.

If you prefer to own the book, Fundamentals at 25 W. Winter St. also has a number of copies available.

Discussion groups will meet at the Ostrander branch library (Sept. 22, 7 p.m.), the Delaware main library (Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 6, 1 p.m.), the Orange branch library (Sept. 23, 7 p.m.), and the Powell branch (Sept. 25, 1 p.m., and Sept. 29, 7 p.m.).

The best news is that the author will be coming to the main library on Friday, Oct. 9, to talk about her life as a Panamanian-American and her best-selling title.

The unknown and invisible Americans whom Henríquez is talking about are the more than 50 million Hispanic immigrants and their descendants who live in the United States today. That’s about 17 percent of the population. About 28 million of them will be eligible to vote in 2016. No political party can ignore them.

First-generation immigrants often work in low-status jobs, such as farming, landscaping, construction or meatpacking. The work is dirty and unsafe, and the pay is poor. For example, one of the characters in the book, Arturo Rivera, works in a dark, dinky mushroom factory where he has no light, gets no breaks, and has to meet quota. These are not the jobs that ordinary Americans are willing to perform, but they are indispensable for large sectors of the economy.

Latino immigrants are frequently demonized as drug dealers, rapists and murderers. One character, Micho Alvarez, says, “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.” If you read the book, you will discover that accusations of this sort are unfounded. The immigrants Henríquez describes are honest, decent, hard-working people who go to mass on Sunday and deeply care for each other. And they are willing to sacrifice everything so that their children can have a good education and a better future.

At the core of the novel is the budding romance between the two teenagers, Mayor and Maribel, but you will find out about many other Hispanic families as well. The cast of characters may seem overwhelming at times (there are nine families in all), but patient readers will be rewarded by increasing their knowledge about Latino life, language and culture, and develop a better and deeper understanding and appreciation of the many unknown and invisible Americans who live in our midst, including right here in Delaware.

Even ordinary Americans can do much to welcome first-generation immigrants and to help improve their living conditions. Finding common ground and building bridges is better than erecting iron curtains and impenetrable walls.

Thomas Wolber teaches in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages at Ohio Wesleyan University. He has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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