Lizet Ramirez, a successful research scientist, reflects on her first year at Rawlings College. She begins her story on Thanksgiving Day, 1999—she and Ariel Hernandez are both arriving in Miami as the holiday comes to a close. Ariel Hernandez is making headlines as the only survivor of an ill-fated journey by raft from Cuba to America; Lizet, a first-generation college student who has been struggling socially and academically throughout her first semester, has just returned home to Miami. Home, though, is perhaps even more complicated than school. Lizet’s parents, Ricky and Lourdes, have recently split, and Lizet’s older sister Leidy is raising her infant son Dante alone with no help from her deadbeat ex-boyfriend, Roly. Lizet spends the weekend debating if she should reveal that she is in the midst of an academic integrity trial up at school for inadvertently plagiarizing a section of an English paper. When she tries to discuss school with her family, they don’t understand and still consider her choice to go to college in the first place as a tremendous betrayal. Lizet returns to school after just a couple of days without having seen either her father or her boyfriend, Omar, and without having told her family the truth of what’s going on at school. Lizet leaves as the house where Ariel is staying—just down the block from Lourdes’s new apartment in Little Havana—becomes the epicenter of city-wide rallies in support of Ariel’s plea for asylum under the United States’ “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy for Cuban refugees.
Lizet returns to Rawlings, and within a few days has resolved her plagiarism charges under the condition that she pull her grades up. With a newfound work ethic, Lizet starts studying harder than ever. Meanwhile, Lizet’s privileged white roommate, Jillian, both wants to engage her in debates about the Ariel Hernandez situation and simultaneously believes Lizet, as a Cuban-American, is “too close” to the situation to offer an objective opinion. Meanwhile, Lizet strikes up a friendship with Ethan—though their relationship is slightly flirtatious, Lizet remains committed to her tenuous relationship with Omar.
Lizet returns home to Miami for Christmas to find that her mother has become totally preoccupied with Ariel Hernandez and his family. She spends her days making posters, attending rallies, and supporting Ariel’s family—especially his older cousin, Caridaylis, a girl who is just about Lizet’s age. Lizet is also constantly fending off insults from Leidy about how “white” she’s acting since she went off to college, and when she finally tracks her father down, she discovers he is living in a dangerous part of town with a roommate she’s never met. A few days into Lizet’s visit, Omar presents her with a promise ring. Lizet accepts it, and despite her promise to herself to avoid sleeping with Omar until she knows more about her grades and her future at Rawlings, the two have sex. Lizet’s grades finally arrive on New Year’s Eve, and she is relieved to find that the has done well, and will not need to take any remedial courses at all. That night, Omar and Lizet go out clubbing to celebrate; Omar suggests that before Lizet returns to school, she pay a visit to his mother, so that she doesn’t think something is wrong with Lizet “too.” When Lizet asks what the “too” means, Omar reveals that he, his mother, and more people in the community are concerned about Lourdes’s obsession with Ariel Hernandez; she has apparently been featured on the local news several times, and has been spinning stories about how she brought her own daughters over from Cuba on a raft when Leidy and Lizet were really born in Miami. Lizet vows to go with her mother to the New Year’s Day rally in support of Ariel and see for herself what’s really going on.
At the rally, Lizet is surprised to find herself swept up in all of the emotional support for Ariel; she catches a glimpse of the boy himself and recognizes that for many Cuban-Americans, he is a mirror of their own struggles. Lizet is also surprised to realize that Lourdes really does seem to be friends with Ariel’s family, including Caridaylis. Lizet begins to empathize with her mother; she feels angry that Omar—not to mention Leidy, Ricky, and Zoila—have made disparaging remarks about Lourdes’s preoccupation with Ariel. All Lourdes is doing, Lizet thinks, is trying to survive in her new neighborhood and adapt to her recent separation from Ricky and Lizet’s departure for college.
On Tuesday, there is another rally, and Ariel’s uncle reveals that Ariel’s father back in Cuba has been granted custody of the boy, and he will be deported in two weeks. The entire crowd gathered in front of Ariel’s house erupts in wails and howls—Lourdes is so upset that she collapses to the ground in a faint. She is about to be trampled in the chaos, and Lizet attempts to wake her mother up, but Lourdes’s friends shoo Lizet away—Lizet realizes that no one there knows that Lizet is her daughter. During Lizet’s last few days in Miami, Ariel’s family sues for temporary custody; when Lizet lands in New York, on her way back to Rawlings, she sees on the news that the government has granted it to them. In her first few days back at Rawlings, Lizet longs to push the affair aside and focus on her studies. She is enjoying her new lab class, taught by a research scientist named Dr. Kaufmann. As Lizet thrives in her studies, though, she struggles to negotiate her friendship with Ethan now that she is “sort of” engaged to Omar, and worries when Jillian pressures her into securing a summer internship. Lizet is doing so well in lab that Dr. Kaufmann offers her a summer research internship in Santa Barbara; Lizet is delighted by the news but is unsure how to tell her parents, who surely won’t be pleased.
One afternoon, Lizet walks past the TV lounge in her dorm building to see that her mother is on the national news on behalf of a group Lizet has never heard of: Madres Para Justicia, or Mothers For Justice. Lizet is confused, upset, and even enraged; in all of her phone calls with Leidy and Omar the last several weeks, they have told her that Lourdes was barely involved with Ariel and his family anymore. When some other girls from Lizet’s dorm who are watching the broadcast question Lizet’s claim that it’s her own mother on the television—and more broadly insinuate that Lizet is unqualified to speak on the Ariel issue as an American—Lizet lies and tells them she was born in Cuba. Lizet’s lies are bolstered when, miraculously, her mother begins talking on the television about bringing her children over from Cuba, in a lie of her own. Over the next several days, Lizet makes sure to ask during her phone calls home how Lourdes specifically is doing; Leidy insists that Lourdes is fine. Lizet wants to talk to Ethan about her mounting problems, but he reveals that he has been accepted to Berkeley for graduate school. Lizet has trouble being happy for Ethan—she feels sad he’s going to go away soon, and realizes this must be how her parents felt when Lizet herself was accepted to school. Ethan and Lizet have a terrible fight; with no one to talk to, Lizet begins shutting everyone else out, and leaves even Professor Kaufmann hanging by refusing to accept the prestigious internship. With things deteriorating at school and at home alike, Lizet books a flight home for Easter, planning to try and talk some sense into her mother.
When Omar picks Lizet up from the airport, the two end up getting in a huge fight during which Lizet asks why Omar wouldn’t have told her the truth about Lourdes—he insists that there was nothing Lizet could do from all the way up at school. Omar urges her to consider that it was her own selfish choice to leave Miami in the first place, and thus her fault that Lourdes has gotten in so deep. The next day, at Lourdes’s apartment, Lizet confronts Leidy over her dishonesty concerning Lourdes and demands to know the truth. Leidy reveals that Lourdes has been spending all her time over at Ariel’s, praying around-the-clock as part of the Madres Para Justicia’s vigil, which will last through Easter weekend. Lourdes brings Lizet to a house across the street from Ariel’s, where gets into a hostile confrontation with a boy named Victor that she knows from high school; he calls Lizet a “sellout” for leaving Miami and implies she’s only returned to spy on the Madres. That night, Lizet falls asleep on the sofa. Just before dawn, Lizet is awoken by a woman screaming, and runs outside to see what is happening; there has been a raid on Ariel’s family’s house, and Lizet watches as Ariel is loaded into a van and taken away to be reunited with his father. Lizet runs into Ariel’s house looking for Lourdes—she finds her cradling Caridaylis in Ariel’s racecar bed, and realizes that her mother has replaced both her and Leidy with Caridaylis. She heads home as the sun rises. The next day, no one will take Lizet to the airport except for Omar. As he drops her at the terminal, he asks her if their relationship is over, and she confirms that it is.
Back at Rawlings, Lizet gets into another confrontation with Ethan. She knows she could tell him the truth about what’s been going on with her, but ultimately decides it’s easier, and less painful, for her to just let him go. Professor Kaufmann asks why Lizet is not going to participate in the internship, and Lizet reveals that she needs to be at home in Miami with her family this summer. Kaufmann doesn’t seem to understand why Lizet is sacrificing her own happiness for her family, and urges her to reconsider taking the internship one last time. Nonetheless, at the end of the semester, Lizet returns home, where she spends her days watching Dante and driving Lourdes around to protests and rallies, despite the fact that Ariel has been deported. After several weeks of this, Lizet reaches a breaking point, and calls Professor Kaufmann to ask if she can take the internship after all—she books a 600-dollar flight for the following day. When she breaks the news to Leidy and Lourdes, Leidy becomes enraged, but Lourdes coldly states that if Lizet wants to choose herself over her family, she should be allowed to. Lourdes calls Ricky and tells him to come Lizet, who is no longer welcome under her roof. The next day, after a tearful goodbye with Ricky at the airport, Lizet boards a plane bound for Santa Barbara.
Some years later, Lizet is preparing for the possibility that her work will soon take her to Cuba to study the pristine coral reefs there. She feels that going to the island her parents left—and can never return to—would be a huge betrayal, but at the same time, knows now that she must pursue her own goals and dreams no matter the cost. She reflects on the 2000 election—she voted via absentee ballot from her dorm room. The race between George W. Bush and Al Gore was complicated by the fact that rumors had spread that Al Gore ordered the raid on Ariel’s house; as Lizet punched the hole in her ballot, she never could have known the voting scandal that would unfold in the wake of the election, or the fact that though her vote in all likelihood would not be counted, her choice in the election would hurt no matter what she chose.