As Lizet Ramirez grows over the course of the novel, which charts her first year in college, her ambitions expand. Her first year at Rawlings College in New York tests and tries her, but she ultimately encounters teachers such as Professor Kaufmann (and friends such as Ethan) who take a vested interest in her success and attempt to help her seize her own potential. Lizet, a first-generation college student and the daughter of Cuban immigrants, has trouble getting her family to understand her desire for more. As she chases down opportunities that will broaden her horizons and help her to survive in the world of academia and research science, Lizet is forced to confront the idea of familial duty—what her family owes her, and what she owes to them in return. Ultimately, Crucet shows Lizet, having chosen to leave her broken family for the summer and pursue an internship on the West Coast, struggling with the realization that whether she had chosen to “betray” her own ambition or her family’s needs, she would still be hurting someone either way. In this way, Crucet—herself a first-generation college student—argues that it is necessary to prioritize oneself, even if such action feels like, in Lizet’s own words, a “betrayal.”
Crucet’s book is in many ways an exploration of what constitutes betrayal—and whether prioritizing one’s duty to oneself is more a fulfillment of a kind of familial duty than the betrayal it might seem to be. Lizet’s parents, Ricky and Lourdes, use the word betrayal “over and over again” to describe their daughter’s decision to go off to college. They say it “so much that the word stop[s] meaning anything” to Lizet eventually—she comes to understand that the only way her parents can communicate how hurt they are by her choice to leave them and pursue her own education is through that one loaded word. Lizet’s parents see her choice to go off to college as a betrayal for several reasons: they are hurt that she wants to leave them, they are burdened by the financial demand college imposes on them, and they are confused as to why Lizet is placing herself ahead of the rest of her family when they have worked so hard to secure a safe life for her in America. They see Lizet’s choice as a breakage of the bonds of familial duty; they believe she owes them more, though what, precisely, that is never quite made clear. The nebulous nature of their frustration and disappointment deepens Lizet’s desire to strike out on her own; as her parents express their mounting frustrations with her, Lizet longs to escape their ire, and thus does, actually, ultimately wind up abandoning them when they need her most.
Lizet’s pursuit of her own education is something she longs to be congratulated for. She wishes her parents would be proud of her for getting into such a selective school, and is instead heartbroken when they see her choice to leave Miami as a treacherous one. All throughout her first year of college, as Lizet navigates the ins and outs of Rawlings alone, she wishes her parents would be supportive of her in the ways her friends’ parents are. When she secures a nomination to participate in a prestigious internship, she cannot move herself to pick up the phone and tell her parents. Instead, she imagines how the conversation would go if she were to call her roommate Jillian’s parents instead: “Oh my god, honey! That’s fantastic! When does it start? Maybe we can come out at the end and make a vacation out of it. Oh, sweetheart, what an opportunity! We’re thrilled for you, so thrilled…” Lizet tortures herself with visions of parents who “recognize good news when they hear it,” and it becomes clear that she feels her family has shirked their duty to her—their inability to understand or appreciate her achievements is its own betrayal, and this, in part, perhaps fuels Lizet’s actions towards the end of the novel. Lizet decides not to take the internship opportunity, at first, feeling she’s needed more at home, where Lizet’s sister Leidy is struggling to raise her son Dante alone and Lourdes is reeling from the government’s decision to deport Ariel Hernandez. After several weeks home in Miami, though, Lizet realizes how badly she wants the spot, and calls the program to inform them she’s coming after all. When she breaks the news to her family, her sister rails against her for abandoning them—and not even having “the balls to go away and stay away,” like their father Ricky—and her mother kicks her out of the house. Again, Lizet’s choice to further her own success has been met not with the congratulations and support she craves, but with an accusation of betrayal yet again. Her family cannot see that her desire to make more for herself carries with it an invisible weight, along with the promise that because of Lizet’s own sacrifice, things will be better for further generations of their family in the future.
In the novel’s conclusion, Lizet reveals that the choice she made “the summer [she] left [her family] behind” has reverberated through the years. Her mother never formally forgave her for leaving, and Lizet has been forced to reckon, time and time again, with the realization that no matter what she had chosen that fateful summer—or that first year of college more broadly—she would have hurt herself. Leaving her family behind created one kind of pain, but sacrificing her own ambitions would have engendered another. By concluding the novel on the note of this massive revelation, Crucet solidifies her argument that if things are going to be painful either way, it is necessary to prioritize oneself—even if it seems like the selfish choice to do so, education, edification, and advancement are fulfillments of familial duty in their own way.
Familial Duty and Betrayal ThemeTracker
Familial Duty and Betrayal Quotes in Make Your Home Among Strangers
[…] I started to tell anyone who asked that Omar was a monster. He was an animal—more like an animal than a human. It seemed like what other people wanted to hear. […] Other girls would feel bad for me and claim they understood: the girl who'd made everyone hot chocolate, Caroline, even went so far as to mention she'd read The House on Mango Street in AP English. She said she knew about the kinds of relationships that plagued my community, had nodded in a solemn way when I told her yes, Omar could be rough. […]
I was happy to have something to add to those late nights in the dorm's common room when I was otherwise quiet, to be included in conversations even if I didn't totally understand the part I was playing. When everyone around you thinks they already know what your life is like, it's easier to play in to that idea—it was easier for me to make Omar sound like a psycho papi chulo who wanted to control me. At the very least, it made trying to make friends simpler than it would've been had I tried to be a more accurate version of myself.
I was exhausted and very near tears, actually. I was shocked to find that it did not feel good to be home, to have seen her standing there in the airport. The entire three hours of the last flight, though I’d been nervous about seeing her, I mostly felt very happy to be getting away from Rawlings and that first semester. But spotting her before she saw me in the terminal—in that fake gold outfit, her face oily, her hands fidgeting with the rings on her fingers—had made my stomach turn […] I'd seen my mother in that moment as not my mother; I saw her as a tacky-looking woman, as the Cuban lady the girls on my floor would've seen, alone in an airport. And I did not like that I suddenly had this ability to see her that way, isolated from our shared history.
As much as I was ashamed of my hearing results, by what that long letter stated the committee had decided—that I was the product of a poor environment—I willingly took it: I wanted to be at Rawlings, and I was grateful that they'd taken my background into consideration. I wanted to rise—I used exactly that word in the thank-you e-mail I wrote to the committee after printing out the resource list—to rise above what I'd come from. I'd felt sick as I typed it, felt like a traitor after I hit send, but now at the clash of my mom's bangles as she turned the steering wheel to cut off a car in retaliation for them cutting her off moments before—all the while lowering her window, her arm extending out, then her middle finger at the end of that arm, waving a fuck you as she yelled the same phrase in Spanish at the driver—I knew I'd meant it.
—You don't know shit about sacrifice. You don't know shit about shit!
—Zoila's right, you only care about Ariel because what else do you have going on?
She shoved me again and the room spun […]she was letting me fall. So I reached back instead and caught myself, slid my hands against the sandpaper of the wall, pressed my spine against it and sank to the ground, my butt hitting the floor too fast and too hard.
—You can go to whatever college for as long as you want, but about some things, you'll always be fucking stupid, she said.
She tossed the paper at me on the floor and said, You think you have problems? You, your sister, your idiot tía out there? You made your problems.
She turned her back to me and walked out of the room, screaming as she left, Nobody has any idea what Ariel and Caridaylis are going through right this second, but I do. I know what it means to lose so much. None of you know shit because you haven't sacrificed shit for anyone. Selfish pigs, that's what you and your sister are.
—Damn, El, he said. Do I need to ask if that's a yes? He laughed at his own joke. I didn't look at him—I couldn't yet. I looked at the ring. My
almost-engagement ring. A ring that said, You're a good investment. It felt heavy on my finger.
Her version of our life made me more Cuban than I technically was, degrees of Cuban-ness being something I'd never thought about until Rawlings, until the Where Was I From From question. Mami's invented version made me a more authentic Cuban, and part of me wanted to hear her tell it. I wanted to see how she pulled it off—if she had to convince herself before she could convince anyone else, or if just saying something and having people believe it could make it real.
[…] Did you see that? There’s something so special in her. God bless her, she is trying so hard.
[…] My mom knew I was the first student from Hialeah Lakes to go to Rawlings even though she never acknowledged it. In the grand scheme of human achievement, I recognize this is not a big deal, but still, when I eventually showed Mami the acceptance letter and pointed out the handwritten note near the bottom stating I was the first, she’d said, Maybe you’re just the first one who ever applied? […]
—Mom, I said. It's not the first time someone’s taken care of a kid. I mean, I get it, but it's not like what she’s doing is actually that hard. She's – she's a glorified babysitter.
She released my arm, almost threw it back at me. Her now-shut mouth, the way she rolled her shoulders to push out her chest, the ugly flash of a tendon in her neck: I knew then this was the wrong thing to say. I didn't even really believe it, but I needed to say it to her. I was trying hard. What I was doing was fucking hard. My mom stared at me so long that her eyes seemed to shake in her head.
Mostly I was disappointed in Leidy and Omar for not recognizing what was really going on with Mami: she was becoming her own person finally, trying to learn who that even was via a newfound passion. So maybe she’d retrofitted the circumstances of her life to fit in to her new surroundings. So what? I of all people couldn't fault my mom for having the wherewithal to adapt her behavior, for being a creature thrust into a new environment and doing perhaps exactly what it took to survive there.
I slapped my own chest and yelled, Why don't you watch the news and figure it out yourself like I did?
—That’s why you're mad at me? EI, what the fuck were you gonna do from up there?
I pointed at him and said, Exactly, Omar! That right there, what you just said? That's exactly why I'm here. To fucking do something since you and Leidy obviously didn't.
—Oh! Okay yeah, he yelled. So now you know how to handle everything, huh? You got it all figured out, don't you. You think you're so fucking smart.
He threw the car in reverse, shook his head as he turned the wheel. I'd made it halfway up the concrete leading to my dad's door when Omar lowered the passenger-side window and yelled my name, made me stop.
—Whose fault is it that you weren't here, huh? Maybe you need to think about that.
I already know what each would say should I ever have to tell them about an upcoming research trip to Cuba: my dad would talk about being a little disappointed in me, about the unfairness of me being able to travel to a country he can't enter, but he'd mostly not say anything, only leave me guessing at his meaning […]; my mother would bring out familiar words—betrayal, loyalty, traitor—words that have come to define our relationship no matter how much time passes but whose sting has faded and turned into something I can manage […].
To tell them would also mean inviting them along in a way. We still have family there. […] And when I tell them there'll be no time for that, that this is a work trip, that I'll mostly be on the water, in or under a boat, that what they want me to do takes me clear across an island I don't know: Oh, I see. You don't have time to take a piece of paper and a crayon to your grandmother's headstone? You don't have time to do that for me who will never see it? Oh, that's right, of course you don't. I should've remembered how busy you always are. I shouldn't have even asked.
I almost threw the whole thing out. This is too hard […].
But we all know the history, and I'm sure my vote was never counted. I'm sure it sits—even now, probably in that state's capital—in some vault, the envelopes unopened, the paper moldy and dank […].
I wish I'd known as I sat there hovering over that radiator-warmed punch card—having waited until the postmark deadline to commit a decision to it; the little pin that I'd detached from the instructions, which mandated I use only that tool to puncture the spot that proved where my loyalties lay, slipping in my sweaty hand—how pointless it would be. I wish I'd known that no one would ever see it or count it. I wish I’d known, as I pushed through one choice over the other, how little it mattered which side I ended up betraying, how much it would hurt either way.