Though Julia hates sports, she agrees to tag along with Belén to a local soccer match. Halfway through the match, a young man named Esteban comes to sit between Belén and Julia, and starts chatting Julia up. Belen and her friends are amused by Esteban’s interest in Julia, and when the game is over, they depart in a pack, leaving Julia and Esteban alone. Esteban offers to walk Julia home and Julia accepts, remembering what Belén said about walking around alone at night. As the two of them talk and flirt, Esteban admits he’s had his eye on Julia since she got to town. Julia is confused by the warm feelings of desire she’s having for Esteban—she thought she was in love with Connor, and yet Esteban makes her feel “all goopy inside.”
Just as Julia pinned all her hopes on going to college in New York and becoming a famous writer, she pinned all her romantic hopes on Connor—even though there were many ways in which he wasn’t a perfect match. When she meets Esteban, she understands that it’s okay to want two things at once—or to ask for more when faced with something insufficient. Julia’s both reconsidering the nature of ambition and the utility of it—it’s not a bad thing, but there are ways to be an ambitious and hopeful person without pushing oneself too hard or closing oneself off to other things.
That night, Julia sits with Tía Fermina, Tía Estela, and Tío Chucho in Fermina’s backyard. Julia admires the stars, and admits she hardly gets to see them in Chicago. Estela tenderly braids Julia’s hair, admiring her thick and glossy locks as Julia eats figs and enjoys the warm night air. Tía Fermina goes inside and brings out a pitcher of cold hibiscus tea. As Julia sips the tea surrounded by her family and the warm breeze, she feels totally content and at peace.
Julia continues bonding with her family in the idyllic beauty of Los Ojos—and yet the threat of violence lurks just underneath the surface of even the most perfect, relaxing evening.
The next morning, Julia goes with Tía Fermina to a small market three towns over to buy some special cheese. On the ride over, Fermina complains about the drought affecting the countryside, and Julia is amazed by how familiar the scenery and passing towns look, though she hasn’t been to Mexico in many years. As the women arrive in town and walk through the streets, Fermina asks Julia how Amá is doing, and Julia admits that things at home have been extremely difficult since Olga’s death. Fermina laments that she can’t do more for her sister, and expresses sorrow at the fact that Julia and Amá seem to have a difficult relationship. Fermina begs Julia to be kinder to her mother, and to try and make her life easier. Julia retorts that though she tries with Amá, her mother is strict, overbearing, and tries to control her every move.
Julia’s family knows that things aren’t right in Chicago—there’s no other reason she’d come to Mexico alone. As Fermina asks Julia to tell her what’s going on, she tries to help Julia see things from a different angle, and to understand that her mother is just a woman trying her best. Julia maintains that Amá is cruel, judgmental, and invasive, however—she hasn’t yet learned to see that perhaps her mother’s flaws and tics are part of something larger.
Fermina tells Julia that there’s a lot she doesn’t understand about her mother, then goes quiet and starts to cry. Julia asks what’s wrong, and Fermina reveals tearfully that during Amá and Apá’s border crossing, the coyote leading them through the desert raped Amá while his associates held a gun to Apá’s head, forcing him to watch. Julia is so shocked by the news that she has to sit down on the ground. She can’t help but picture the horrible assault over and over—and what’s worse, she realizes that because Olga was born a bit under a year after her parents arrived in the state, it is likely that she was the product of rape. Fermina cries as she tells Julia that she wanted her to know, so that she can better understand where her mother is coming from—that she wants to protect Julia, not hurt her.
With this shocking revelation, Julia is forced to reconsider everything she knows about both of her parents. Suddenly, so much of Julia’s life makes sense—Amá’s fearfulness and resulting strictness and overprotectiveness, Apá’s disconnected, dissociative nature, and most of all, their obsession with praising and elevating Olga to compensate for the horrible truth about her conception.
That night, Julia is distracted by thoughts of her parents and can’t sleep. As the days pass by, they all blur together, and Julia begins feeling aimless and lost in thought. She spends most of her time with Belén and Esteban, and though she fantasizes often about Esteban, he’s never tried to kiss her—but he does sometimes hold her hand when Belén isn’t looking.
Julia experiences a minor existential crisis as she slowly absorbs the revelations about her parents and Olga—but in the meantime, life goes on. Secrets and lies have the power to stop someone in their tracks—but keeping them tamped down allows real life to spin forward with surprising normalcy.
One night, Julia is inside Mamá Jacinta’s house with her grandmother, Belén, and her aunts, watching telenovelas, when the women suddenly hear men’s voices screaming obscenities at one another in the street. Belén mutes the TV and the screams grow louder—then, the women hear gunshots. All of them drop to the floor, and the distraught Mamá Jacinta begins crying. As everyone crawls towards the back of the house, Julia peeks outside the window, and sees two dead bodies in the middle of the street.
The violence in Los Ojos begins to escalate, with the physical shattering of Julia’s bubble of safety and happiness in Mexico coinciding with the interior symbolic shattering of everything she thought she knew about her life back in Chicago.
The next day, Tía Fermina performs a cleansing ritual on Julia to get rid of the bad luck and energy from the shooting. She uses an uncooked egg to gently touch different parts of Julia’s body with the cool shell, whispering prayers and making crosses on Julia’s extremities. At the end of the ritual, Fermina cracks the egg into a glass and holds it to the light; there is blood in the yolk. Fermina gasps, and asks Julia what’s going on with her.
Fermina’s cleansing ritual shows that there’s still a lot that Julia isn’t dealing with. There’s pain, confusion, and so much more lingering just below the surface—and Julia will need to deal with her problems if she wants to become whole.
The narcos have plummeted Los Ojos into violence again, and Mamá Jacinta tells Julia it’s time for her to go home. She books a flight for Julia back to Chicago, but tells her she’ll need to take a bus to the airport as it’s dangerous for Tío Chucho to drive her. Jacinta explains that at the party a few weeks ago, Chucho gave the narcos a bribe—they are trying to recruit Andrés into their service, but he doesn’t want to work for them. Mamá Jacinta laments that her town is turning to “garbage.”
Julia has long felt alone in her restlessness and desire to get out of her neighborhood. Now, she sees that the problems she’s facing and the things she’s feeling are universal—and that for some people, even members of her own family, things are much worse than they are for Julia herself.
The next day, Julia meets up with Esteban to say goodbye. He tells her he’ll miss her—but that he might be crossing the border soon, and will perhaps see her again someday. Julia begs Esteban to be careful during the crossing, and expresses her anger about the “giant wound” the border truly is. Esteban takes Julia’s face between his hands and kisses her deeply.
There are things that Julia and Esteban can talk about that she can’t with Connor. Esteban understands Julia on a deeper level, and they share a common culture, a common hatred, and a common fear.
On the bus, as she pulls away from Los Ojos, Julia cries quietly. She has Apá’s drawing of Amá with her, and has promised Mamá Jacinta that she will take care of Amá always. As the bus moves through the desert, Julia is struck by the intense beauty and colors of the place, even in spite of the drought. As the bus approaches the city, however, Julia spies a dead donkey in a field—two vultures circle above it.
The dead donkey Julia spies on her way out of Mexico serves as a visual metaphor for the journey she’s undergone there. She is able to see that violence and beauty can exist in the same landscape—and that though there is always something ugly simmering just below the surface, life must carry on anyway.