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Northwestern University

Paths: Cristina Henríquez ’99

Christina looking up at the camera from an angleDuring her childhood trips from Delaware to visit her grandparents in Panama, Cristina Henríquez would sit and listen to her grandfather’s stories. She loved how they made her feel part of something bigger.

In high school, Henríquez began to dream about telling her own stories as a writer. During a campus visit to Northwestern, she sat in on an English class and found the fuel for this emerging idea. The stimulating and supportive literary environment “was everything I’d been waiting for my whole life,” she says. 

Today, Henríquez has built a career as a successful and respected fiction writer. But it took some persistence to turn her passion into her profession.

Henríquez’s family was delighted when she was accepted to Northwestern, but they hoped she would study journalism, which they viewed as a more practical career choice. “My dad was nervous I wouldn’t get a job as a graduate with an English major,” she laughs, remembering. “Then I took my first fiction class. I loved writing dialogue and creating momentum in the narrative. I was hooked.”

Inspired, Henríquez applied to the creative writing program — and was devastated when she was rejected. Undeterred, she kept writing. “I realized I had this fire within me and the commitment to stick with it,” she recalls. At a campus literary event, she ran into her poetry professor Joanna Anos, who encouraged her to apply again. This time, she was accepted.

“Rejections are part of a writerly life,” Henríquez emphasizes. “They hurt no less now than they ever did. Still, experiencing one early on at Northwestern was a blessing. That conversation with Professor Anos was also a huge moment of validation. Years later, I wrote to her, thanking her for helping me to believe in myself.” With guidance from faculty and classmates, Henríquez learned to apply her powers of observation to character development. Again, she drew from her grandfather’s storytelling. “He would hold court in the living room until people were falling off their chairs from laughing so hard at his stories,” she recalls. “I didn’t know Spanish, so my mom would translate. I had to notice things in a way I maybe wouldn’t have if I had understood the words.”

Today, Henríquez travels the country speaking about her most recent novel, The Book of Unknown Americans (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). The love story about immigrant Latino teenagers has resonated with readers beyond Henríquez’s expectations. High schools, universities and entire towns have chosen it as their community read. 

“I wrote about what could be a controversial topic,” she explains. “But when I’m invited to speak, it’s not about immigration. It’s about bigger themes like community and belonging. We all need places to tell our stories — like my grandfather did — and we all need someone to listen.”

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