The next morning, Lizet straightens up Jillian’s side of the room, hiding all evidence of having used Jillian’s things. When Jillian blusters in, she drops herself straight onto her bed, greeting Lizet as “Liz.” Lizet has told everyone at college to call her Liz—it is easier, as many people in her first weeks either misheard or mispronounced her name. Back in Miami, Omar and all her other friends call her El—she did not, however, want to use her special Miami nickname up at Rawlings.
As Crucet shows Lizet and Jillian interacting for the first time, she highlights the ways in which Lizet has erased and changed parts of herself in order to fit in with girls like Jillian—girls who, to Lizet, are emblematic of how she should behave and who she should be now that she is a student at Rawlings.
Jillian wants to hear all about “that baby from Cuba”—Ariel’s story is all over the news everywhere—but Lizet deflects, stating that her family is uninvolved in all the hubbub surrounding Ariel’s arrival. Jillian asks Lizet why she’s lying, pointing out that even in New Jersey she could tell from the news that people in Miami are “losing their minds” over Ariel’s predicament. Jillian wonders aloud “what could possess a woman to force a little boy to make that kind of trip.” Lizet wants to speak up, but tries to force herself not to.
As this dicey conversation with Jillian begins, Lizet is careful to try and distance herself from the truth of what’s going on in Miami. Lizet doesn’t want to seem too different, too other, or too Cuban to Jillian—she is trying as hard as she can to assimilate and downplay her cultural roots.
During her time at Rawlings, Lizet has noticed that her classmates know almost nothing about what is really happening in Cuba—they hang posters of Che Guevara in their dorms, not knowing most Cubans see him as a murderer, and talk about the “excellent healthcare system” in Cuba without realizing that its citizens are deprived of soap, bandages, tampons, and other basic medical supplies. While Jillian is not guilty of this behavior, she does introduce Lizet to everyone by saying: “This is my roommate, Liz. She’s Cuban.” This bothers Lizet for a reason she can’t quite place.
Because Lizet is singled out as the “Cuban” girl by her new white friends, she feels that she is, despite all her best efforts, constantly going to be separated from them due to her cultural heritage. It’s understandable, then, that Lizet is trying to distance herself from being Cuban, since it is her primary signifier at Rawlings whether she likes it or not.
Lizet decides to simply tell Jillian that Jillian can’t imagine how bad things are in Cuba. Jillian points out that Lizet has never even been to Cuba. Lizet knows Jillian is trying to “wreck the credibility” of anything she’s saying, and counters that she still has a lot of family left in Cuba. Jillian points out that she has never heard Lizet on the phone with anyone in Cuba. Lizet says that you can’t just call someone in Cuba—not everyone has phones. Jillian doesn’t respond to this point, and instead says that it’s “insane” that “all the Cubans” in Miami think Ariel will be allowed to stay.
This verbal struggle between Jillian and Lizet demonstrates how Jillian is setting up Lizet to fail no matter what she says. Because of her privilege, Jillian thinks that whatever she says or believes is right, and that it’s Lizet who has to prove herself and her “credibility.” Rather than thoughtfully listening to Lizet’s points and valuing her opinion—both because they’re friends and roommates and because Lizet is from Miami—Jillian shuts Lizet down and ignores her at every turn.
Lizet is almost too angry to say anything else, but after a moment she asks why Jillian thinks that. Jillian warns Lizet not to get defensive—she’s too “connected” to the whole thing. Lizet asks “what the fuck” Jillian means by connected, and Jillian warns Lizet not to get “ghetto.” As a Cuban person, Jillian believes, Lizet can’t be “completely rational” about the affair. Lizet states that she was born in America—not Cuba—and posits that as a Cuban-America, she can speak more intelligently about the Ariel situation than Jillian, or anyone else on campus. Jillian tells Lizet she wants to drop the matter “before [Lizet gets] any more racist.”
Jillian employs racist speech while at the same time urging Lizet not to be “racist” against her. Jillian’s utter lack of self-awareness—and political awareness—is staggering, and Lizet employs an enormous measure of grace and patience while dealing with her entitled and ill-informed roommate (perhaps out of a desire to make sure that Jillian likes her).
Lizet insists she’s not being racist, but Jillian ignores her and busies herself by unpacking her suitcase. Lizet, hoping to get Jillian’s attention back, confesses that Ariel is currently staying two blocks from her mother’s own apartment. Jillian does not react visibly to the news, and instead says that she hopes “people can manage to stay calm” about the whole incident. Lizet opens up a book to begin doing some homework, and agrees that she hopes they can, too, before asking Jillian if she can borrow one of her blazers to wear to class the next day.
Even when Lizet gives in and tells Jillian what she thinks she wants to hear, Jillian is uninterested in what she has to say. This passage shows that when up against racism and prejudice, Lizet can’t win. At Rawlings, Lizet is learning that, perhaps for the rest of her life, the deck will often be stacked against her. When she casually asks to borrow Jillian’s blazer in spite of Jillian’s cruel words, Crucet shows how Lizet is desperate to assimilate and fit in—no matter the cost.