Enrique is five years old on January 29, 1989, when his mother, Lourdes, leaves Tegucigalpa in Honduras. He does not know what is going on, and Lourdes cannot bring herself to say goodbye or to tell him where she is going. At the age of twenty-four, with her husband having left her, and her two children (Enrique and his older sister Belky) hungry, Lourdes has decided to leave behind her state of impoverishment in Honduras in the hope of finding something better in the United States. She hopes to make money to send home, and to return in one year to bring her children to the United States. Despite her plans, Lourdes never returns to Honduras.
For Lourdes, as for the many other mothers like her, leaving her family to come to the US is a decision she makes out of love, in the interest of her children. And yet, she cannot help but feel guilty for abandoning them. Her inability to face Enrique as she leaves demonstrates her complicated feelings of guilt.
Enrique’s separation from his mother defines his life, and his desire to see and reconnect with his mother drives Enrique to set out to find his mother at the age of 17. As such a migrant, Enrique is one of approximately 48,000 children from Central America and Mexico who immigrate to the U.S. illegally and alone. They come for different reasons—some to find employment, others to escape abuse—but the majority are seeking to reunite with their mothers. The trip is very dangerous; dodging the police, bandits, and gangsters, most are robbed, beaten, or raped. On average, they are teenagers, but some are as young as seven.
Lourdes' decision causes her family to separate and dictates Enrique's actions as a young man. His need to reunite with his mother is common amongst the children of single immigrant mothers, who have been abandoned. The absent parent becomes a kind of ideal, and the overwhelming desire for a family connection that has been lost compels these children to make the treacherous journey to the United States.
Lourdes makes her journey by bus through Mexico with her smuggler—a person who helps illegal immigrants make the trip and cross the border into the United States—during one of the largest immigrant waves in U.S. history. She plans to travel to Miami, but her smuggler abandons her in the Greyhound bus terminal in L.A., and after three days, Lourdes begs for work at a nearby factory where she gets a job sorting tomatoes for $14 a day. Finally, she is able to obtain a fake Social Security card and a job. She moves to Beverly Hills, where she works as a live-in nanny and makes $125 a week and is able to send money back to Honduras. But after seven months, she decides to quit. She cannot bear to care for another child when she has left her own so far away.
Lourdes' journey is full of uncertainty, but, as with Carmen (Nazario’s housekeeper), her life in the United States proves no less so. Her smuggler's disappearance indicates the touch-and-go nature of immigrant's circumstances, and just what a dependent and vulnerable situation illegal immigrants are in. Lourdes must be prepared to work any job in order to send money home, even if it means triggering the emotional trauma of her separation from her children.
When Lourdes leaves Honduras on that fateful day, Enrique is left confused and abandoned. His father, Luis, who had been separated from Lourdes for three years, takes Enrique in. Enrique quickly becomes attached to his father, but within two years, his father starts a new life with another woman. Abandoned again, Enrique lives with his paternal grandmother, Maria Marcos, in a small shack, while his sister, Belky lives with her aunt Rosa Amalia in a better part of town, six miles away. Lourdes sends home money for her children, but not enough for Enrique to go to school.
The separation of this family, set off by Lourdes' departure, has further repercussions. Enrique is abandoned for a second time by his father, and is separated from his sister from the time of their mother's leaving. The separation has caused emotional problems for Belky, who has doubts about her own self-worth, and for Enrique, who becomes easily attached to parental figures as a result of his loss.
Lourdes life in the U.S. is not what she imagined. She rekindles a relationship with a former boyfriend from Honduras, Santos, who moves to Long Beach to live with her. She unintentionally gets pregnant. When her daughter Diana is born, Santos is not there, but at a bar. When Diana is an infant, both Santos and Lourdes lose their jobs. One night, Santos, an alcoholic, hits her. Later, he decides to take a trip to Honduras under the pretense that he will make investments with their savings. However, he spends the money on alcohol and never calls Lourdes and never returns. She is left alone with Diana, living in a dilapidated garage. With no other options, she takes a job as a fichera, where she must chat with lonely men at a bar. In nine months, she finds work as a cleaner during the day, and at a gas station at night. Her jobs allow her to wire money to Honduras.
In spite of her hopes, Lourdes’s problems are not solved by living in the United States. On the contrary, she is met with unprecedented difficulties, dealing with another inadequate partner and left to raise another child on her own. She is forced into jobs that humiliate her, but she perseveres nonetheless for the sake of her children. Her best times are the days that she can send home money—that she can make her sacrifice provide tangible benefit for those she left behind.
Despite Lourdes' attempts to care for her children from afar, the money cannot make up for their emotional loss. Her relationships to Belky and Enrique become more strained. In response, Lourdes plans to become a resident of the United States and bring her children as legal immigrants. But after multiple attempts to get her papers to no avail, she realizes that her plan may not work. Instead, she promises to return home for Christmas, a promise that she then has to break every year. When Enrique is twelve, he begins to realize that his mother may never return. Lourdes considers hiring a smuggler to bring her children to the United States, but the risks—abandonment or even death—and the price ($3,000 to $6,000 per child, $10,000 by air) are more than she can possibly pay.
Even when the family benefits from Lourdes' material gains, the emotional distance between the mother and her children inevitably widens. As the children grow up and their separation becomes more palpable, Lourdes considers alternatives to bring her children over. But none of the options are viable for her.
In Honduras, the anger Enrique feels at the separation from his mother causes him to rebel. He is suspended three times and becomes a problem at school. When he is fourteen, he hangs around in a bad neighborhood, Carrizal, and defies his grandmother's orders. He becomes too much for Maria Marcos to handle, and she asks Lourdes to find him another place to live, causing Enrique to believe that no one loves him. Enrique moves in with Marco, Lourdes' eldest brother.
As a teenager, Enrique reacts to his separation from his mother in more indirect ways, taking his emotions out on those around him. This leads to yet another cycle of abandonment, in which he is kicked out of his grandmother's home. Unfortunately, he falsely rationalizes that it is because no one loves him, and thus augments his feelings of loneliness and abandonment.
A year later, Lourdes moves to North Carolina, where there are fewer immigrants and she finds the people more friendly. She works as a waitress, rents a room in a trailer, and begins to save her money. She also falls in love with a house painter from Honduras, who also has two children back home. Enrique is doing well living with Marco, who works as a money changer at the border, and they have built a relationship of trust. However, at one exchange, Marco and his brother Victor are killed by thieves. Lourdes sends her savings to help pay for the funerals. With Marco gone, Enrique once again finds himself without a home.
Even when circumstances change, and Lourdes lands a steady job in a place she likes, her luck can quickly change. The tragedy of her brothers' deaths causes her to swear off Honduras, and causes Enrique to suffer yet another loss of a parental figure.
Enrique next moves to his maternal grandmother's, where he grew up with Lourdes. At fifteen, Enrique becomes quiet and sad. His grandmother Agueda begins to scold him when he misbehaves. He also develops an addiction to sniffing glue. His grandmother won't allow him to live in the house and has him stay in the stone hut located behind it.
Enrique's addiction indicates his profound depression and highlights his inability to express his feelings productively and results in even further rejection and abandonment. The book shows how familial abandonment results in psychological trauma, and these lead in turn to behavior, that produces a cycle of abandonment.
Meanwhile, Enrique meets and falls in love with Maria Isabel, who has also endured a difficult childhood separated from her parents. Enrique wants to have a child with Maria Isabel so that he can start a family and ensure that he won’t be abandoned by another person he loves. Unfortunately, his drug addiction becomes more severe and he grows increasingly out of control. He hallucinates at times, sometimes fails to recognize his family, and once tries to hurt himself by throwing himself off a hill. His family’s attempts at intervention are unsuccessful, but they decide not to tell Lourdes about Enrique’s situation.
Enrique's romance with Maria Isabel makes him realize that he deserves love, but it cannot repair his feelings of familial abandonment—and in fact is partly based on his desire to replace the family that abandoned him. Enrique and Maria Isabel connect to one another based on their mutual understanding. Despite their strong relationship, his growing drug addiction suggests that he still suffers from his complicated emotions relating to his relationship with his mother.
When Enrique turns sixteen, he and his friend Jose decide to try to get to the United States. They take buses across Guatemala towards Mexico, and successfully get past the border and make it onto a freight train. On the train they are arrested and robbed by corrupt police, but then released. They eventually make it to the city of Veracruz—though Enrique only barely and luckily avoids injury or death when he fails to make a jump from one moving train car to another. In Veracruz, though, they are caught and deported back to Honduras.
Enrique's first attempt shows not just the difficulty of the journey but its extreme danger—he’s not just trying to travel thousands of miles while evading immigration police, he’s jumping from train to train! Enrique is wiling to face death to try to be with his mother. This first journey also shows how easy it is to get caught by the immigration police.
The failed attempt pushes Enrique deeper into his drug addiction. He ends up 6,000 lempiras ($400) in debt to his dealer. To pay the debt, he steals jewelry from his aunt Rosa Amalia, who tells the police. As a result, Enrique's uncle resolves to take better care of Enrique and show him more love. He also gets Enrique a job at a tire store. However, despite attempts to quit drugs and the pleas from Maria Isabel and his family, Enrique continues to use. The conflict comes to a head when he kicks his aunt Ana Lucia, and is thrown off the property.
With every failure to reach his mother, Enrique’s despair grows. His struggle to stop using drugs represents the hurdles that he must overcome at home even before he leaves on his journey. In his teenage years, Enrique is still struggling to come to terms with his family in Honduras and to recognize their love for him.
Although she is advised to leave Enrique, Maria Isabel persists in their relationship. She also thinks that she may be pregnant with his child. Enrique feels guilty for the way he has treated her and his other family members, and believes that only his mother can help. Though he despairs at leaving Maria Isabel, he decides that he must go to the United States. On March 2, 2000, He says goodbye to his loved ones and leaves with only $57 and his mother's telephone number written on a bit of paper attached to the inner waistband of his jeans.
Enrique's resolve to find his mother shows the development of his own self-awareness, as he realizes that his separation from his mother lies at the root of his psychological problems. However, at the same time his idea that once he reaches his mother his problems will be solved indicates an idealization of Lourdes that can’t possibly be met by the reality. Lourdes’s departure has set off a cycle of immigration within this single family.