The “Unknown” becomes known


Literary Arts

Renowned author Cristina Henriquez answers questions regarding the eye-opening “Reddie Read” book The Unknown Americans.

A book of cultural enlightenment and gripping characters has dwelled on Henderon campus and in the hearts and minds of faculty and students. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez was chosen as this semester’s “Reddie Read” book for freshmen in College Seminar, students in culturally related classes, and for any other faculty or student who wanted to read it. The book tells the stories from the narrative of 11 Hispanic immigrants whose lives collide when they move to an apartment complex in Delaware. Henriquez spoke to Henderson faculty and students via Zoom on Oct. 6.

“Being in college, I have lost reading as a pastime,” senior communications and Spanish major Harley Whisenhunt said. “What really caught me was the emotion the book was able to pull out of me.”

The Zoom event began with an introduction of the author and her book from senior biology major and president of League of Latinos Diana Hernandez. The Unknown Americans was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, an NPR Great Read, a Target Book of the Month selection, and was chosen as one of the best books of the year by BookPage, School Library Journal, and; it was also longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. A summary of Henriquez’ other works and achievements can be found at


Biology major and president of League of Latinos Diana Hernandez introduces the author of this year’s Reddie Read book.


Henriquez obtained much of the inspiration for her characters from her father who is originally from Panama, though raised her in the United States. Growing up, Henriquez felt that she was a Panamanian in the United States’ culture, and an American in Panama’s culture. Inside, she did not fully belong to either culture.

“It’s not only about Hispanics,” Henriquez said. “It’s about all people with hopes and dreams and fears.”

This inner turmoil also drives the traits of her characters, especially one of the lead characters, a teenage boy who was raised by Panamanian parents that raised him in the United States. The boy falls in love with a girl who moves to the United States from Mexico with her parents, who strive to find better care for her as she has a disability.

The book predominantly describes the events surrounding these two families, but also includes the accounts of several other immigrant characters relaying their experience moving to the United States. Henriquez is clear that her point in writing this book is not political; it is just about people

“It is about immigrants, not imigration,” Henriquez said.

Whisenhunt led the events’ questioning, having worked with instructor of communication Torri Ellison, Huie Library assistant librarian Lacy Wolfe, and Huie Library outreach and instruction assistant Susie Kirk to gather questions of students and staff who had read the book.


Senior communications and Spanish major Harley Whisenhunt leads the questioning of a renowned author.


“[Henriquez] was just so down to earth,” Whisenhunt said. “She was warm and easy to talk to.”

Whisenhunt’s experience working for Henderson Television helped make her comfortable being on a screen viewed by approximately 100 people. Originally pursuing a degree in order to become an english teacher, Whisenhunt is quite interested in literature as well. Her knowledge of Spanish from pursuing her current degree also increased Whisenhunt’s interest in this event.

Whisenhunt notes that the impeccable writing of Henriquez caused her to laugh out loud and tear up. Having so much required reading in college, Whisenhunt appreciates that this book reminded her of her love for reading. Since the book covers communication and Spanish related subjects, she did not finish the book without learning a great deal.

“Interestingly enough, it did line up with what I study,” Whisenhunt said.

Whisenhunt was able to speak with Henriquez about 15 minutes before the event started. This helped Whisenhunt feel more comfortable during the live questioning.

“I would get so enthusiastic and lost in our conversation because I was so excited and comfortable,” Whisenhunt said.

Henriquez’ novel includes memories that her characters have of their old life in their native countries. Looking back to memories of her own from visiting family in Panama, she is able to create a colorful experience with her writing. The novel contains some Spanish phrases to add an authentic feeling to the characters’ culture.

“The details are almost a 13th character,” Henriquez said. “The smell of garlic from grandma cooking in the morning, the sound of the roosters in the backyard, the humid air.”

Henriquez currently lives in Illinois as a mother of four kids who is helping homeschool due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She is in the midst of writing another book, but is hesitant to share details of it yet, as it is not close to being finished. Before the onslaught of COVID, one of Henriquez’ favorite things to do was to attend book signing events where she could have deep conversations with readers of her books.

“It felt like I was talking to a friend about a favorite book,” Whisenhunt said.

Students and faculty may have a free paperback copy of The Unknown Americans by visiting Huie Library. A recording of the Reddie Read Zoom event will be posted to