Lizet writes that she and Ariel Hernandez had their “Miami Homecoming[s]” on the same day: Thanksgiving 1999. Ariel, a five-year-old Cuban boy, was rescued from a broken raft by fishermen early on Thanksgiving Day, and was the only person on his raft who survived the dangerous journey; Lizet arrived in Miami that evening, later than she had planned, after her flight home from college the previous day was overbooked.
Lizet describes her own story and Ariel’s as parallel here, demonstrating how their stories—though very different—will converge around one another in a series of strange coincidences. Readers do not yet know how Ariel and Lizet will figure in one another’s lives, but this passage foreshadows how their stories will be twinned throughout the novel.
Lizet had originally planned to stay on campus for the holiday—coming home was not in her family’s budget. At the time, Lizet’s family could barely afford to pay the 4,000 dollars a year (out of 45,000 dollars) it cost to send Lizet to the prestigious Rawlings College after financial aid. Lizet, though, used money from her work-study job on campus to come home for the holiday despite the fact that her Cuban-born-and-raised parents have really never celebrated Thanksgiving. As the holiday approached, Lizet’s mostly-white classmates could not stop talking about family and food—and though Lizet had been “fine” without the holiday her whole life, she was seized by the need to be with her family for it.
This passage shows how Lizet has changed in just the few months she’s been away at school. Though Thanksgiving has never been an important celebration for her family, Lizet’s homesickness now combines with her desire to seem more similar to her white peers, and so she imposes an importance on Thanksgiving that it never had to her before.
Now, Lizet shuffles off a plane and into the Miami International Airport “a good hour after most of East Coast America” has already finished celebrating Thanksgiving. She arranges a spot on a ride-share shuttle, then goes outside to board the van. The ticket in her hand says she’s getting dropped off in Zone 8: Little Havana. Having grown up in Hialeah, Lizet is still unfamiliar with her mother’s new neighborhood; all her life, she and her family have known it as a “joke,” a part of Miami “only the most recent of refugees called home.” Up at Rawlings, none of Lizet’s classmates are aware of Miami’s different neighborhoods—when they ask her where she’s from, they always want to know where she’s “from from,” and she has learned to tell them about Cuba, and give them the answer they want to hear.
This passage shows how the Miami Lizet grew up in and the Miami of her classmates’ imaginations are two very different things. Crucet uses Miami and its diverse neighborhoods as a metaphor for how outsiders view the experiences of people of color, and especially immigrants of color—by lumping them all together and ignoring the nuance inherent in each experience.
As people pack into the shuttle, Lizet notices a young-looking Latina lady who is dressed professionally and looks like she could be a professor somewhere. Lizet has never seen a Latina or Latino professor on Rawlings’ campus. The van starts to move, and as it winds through the different neighborhoods of Miami, Lizet wonders whether she should use this trip home to tell her mother about the problems she’s been having at school. In addition to struggling in chemistry, she accidentally plagiarized part of a paper in her freshman writing class by failing to cite a source correctly, and has been embroiled in an ongoing Academic Integrity Hearing to determine whether she will even be able to stay on as a student at Rawlings.
The revelation that Lizet is struggling at school further explains her desire to come home to her family for the holiday. In returning home, Lizet wants to escape the unfamiliar and unpleasant environment of Rawlings and be comforted by the family she left behind.
The Academic Integrity Committee has mentioned to Lizet that they are taking where she went to high school into careful consideration as they review her case. Lizet’s high school, Hialeah Lakes, is what the Committee refers to as an “underserved” school—it is so “shitty,” Lizet knows, that it was recently the subject of a New Yorker article about such schools across America.
The fact that Lizet comes from a “shitty” high school is both a curse and a blessing at Rawlings—though she’s unprepared in many ways, the college sees her background as a kind of handicap, which is embarrassing but also serves as a cushion for Lizet as she learns the ropes.
Looking back on the van ride home, the older Lizet reflects on how she already had so much to contend with that fateful Thanksgiving—and she hadn’t even heard the name Ariel Hernandez yet.
The retrospective voice of the adult Lizet will reappear throughout the novel at crucial moments to foreshadow trouble.