Makina tells herself that she is dead—a sinkhole has just opened up in the street and swallowed a man, car, and dog. It almost engulfs her, too, but she outruns it. Makina’s “slippery bitch of a city,” The Little Town, was an old silver mining center, and parts of it periodically cave into the “underworld” that lays below. This is Makina’s first time seeing this happen, and she “empathize[s] with the poor soul [the old man] on his way to hell” before going on with the task her mother Cora had given her: to deliver her brother a paper. As usual, Cora embraced Makina and comforted her before sending her off.
The novel’s first sentences, written in Herrera’s signature, informal lingo, are full of imagery associated with death and the underworld, which point to the novel’s basis in the ancient tale of Mictlán (the Mexica, or Aztec, underworld). While in the novel Makina outruns and survives the sinkhole, it is also possible to read this moment as the symbolic death that begins her journey through an allegorical underworld. Her Little Town is also infused with history, ravaged and undermined by the Spanish who only left their mark through force. Herrera wastes no time in introducing Makina’s mission—but only in time will the reader learn where and why she is going.
Following Makina’s “longing for water,” she visits Mr. Double-U at the baths, passing the “proud, sanguine” sentry with whom she once had awkward sex. He nearly tries to stop her, but she storms past and meets the rotund Mr. Double-U in the steam room, where he is reading the newspaper. He offers her a beer and they chat about Cora, who once sheltered Mr. Double-U when he “was on the run” and remains in his debt. Makina mentions her “assignment” and Double-U confirms that she is “off to the other side.” His man will “get [her] across,” he explains, and they share an agreeable silence. Knowing she is not supposed to be with Mr. Double-U, Makina thanks him and “verse[s]” (or leaves).
According to narrative conventions, Mr. Double-U and Makina should belong to opposite worlds, as Makina is a young girl and the mysterious Mr. Double-U is clearly a gangster figure with ties to a criminal underworld. But Makina is unfazed by the apparent challenges of meeting with him and navigating his male-dominated world. Their ties are deep, passed down a generation on the principle that family members can redeem one another’s favors, and this further shows how embedded Makina is in the social world of her area. Finally, it becomes clear that she is planning to cross the border from Mexico to the United States to deliver Cora’s message, a journey that has very real political connotations for readers who are familiar with the fraught issue of immigration in the U.S.
Makina then goes to visit Mr. Aitch. His guard once courted Makina, but reportedly murdered a woman once, and dodged the question when she asked him about it. She meets him outside the “Pulquería Raskolnikova” and asks to enter. He grudgingly agrees, blocks the door for some time, and finally lets her in. Makina passes the drunks and opens a curtain to find “Mr. Aitch playing dominoes with three of his thugs,” who have no names or defining characteristics except for their pistols.
Mr. Aitch seems much more threatening and dangerous than Mr. Double-U: Herrera playfully characterizes him as a stereotypical Mexican gangster, and his references to nameless and faceless thugs (who represent a kind of cold, depersonalized violence) poke fun at these stereotypical depictions while also conjuring the sense of danger they are created to transmit. Similarly, the name of Aitch’s establishment is a playful joke on classic literature: it refers to the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who (like Makina is about to do) makes a kind of moral deal with the devil, committing a crime in the hopes of jumpstarting a new life.
Makina asks Aitch where to find her brother and confirms that she is “gonna cross.” Aitch orders Makina pulque in a language she does not understand and insists that he will help her. She knows he wants a favor in return and remembers his fraught relationship with Cora, and that there must be a good reason she does not know the details. Aitch asks her to “deliver something” in exchange for information about her brother. The barman brings Makina her pulque but she sends him away, demanding a different kind. He brings it. Mr. Aitch’s thug brings Makina a small cloth-wrapped packet and then sends her away with it after insisting she drink.
Makina’s harsh words to the barman demonstrate that she is deeply respected—perhaps even feared—in the Village. Although Makina does not know (and nobody ever reveals) what is in the packet the thug gives her, the clear implication is that it contains something illegal, presumably drugs, which Makina must help him smuggle across the border in exchange for Mr. Aitch’s help. Makina has no doubts about doing what is necessary to get to her brother and fulfill her promise to her mother—Herrera therefore implies that Makina’s crime is far from black-and-white.
“You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business,” Makina believes, which is “why she was respected in the Village.” She operates the Village’s only telephone switchboard, answering calls and fetching the residents so they can receive them. She has to answer the phone in “native tongue or latin tongue,” or even the “new tongue” that they speak in “the North.”
At last, the reader learns about Makina’s role in the social world in which she is clearly so embedded. Although her job might look mundane to readers used to advanced technology, in fact it is crucial to the functioning of her rural village. Her multilingualism suggests a capacity to bridge communicative divides and connect people to one another, and those around her appear to repay her with loyalty and respect.
Makina then goes to visit Mr. Q at his restaurant, Casino. She used to shuttle messages between Q and Aitch when violence nearly erupted between their rival bands during the elections. The messages and envelopes she delivered convinced candidates to quit, and pushed people to make decisions. At least according to the locals, Mr. Q never stoops to violence, and regardless Makina has no qualms about playing part in his politics. Makina has planned the crossing and knows how to get to her brother, so she is visiting Mr. Q to make sure she can get back. One of her friends spent too long in the North and returned to find their home “somehow all different,” their old friends and relatives strangely foreign.
As at the switchboard, Makina’s role with Q and Aitch was to create lines of communication that could resolve an important, tense situation. This won her protection and respect, and her strong desire to return to the Village suggests that her investment in the community is probably even deeper than the gangsters’. Indeed, while most migrants to the United States hope to stay and work for higher wages, Makina wants just the opposite: to get home as fast as possible and reunite herself with her family and community. Already used to friends leaving, she realizes that migration can fundamentally change people’s desires and senses of self, giving a sense of fragility to the rural Mexican culture to which she is so attached.
Makina approaches Mr. Q, who always wears all black. He silently gestures for her to sit, and a waiter brings her coffee. Makina tells him of her plans to cross, and Q already knows and begins telling her how difficult the journey will be, but that she will “wind up where [she] need[s] to be.” He tells her that “there will be people to take care of everything you require” and she verses. “In the mirrored hall” on her way out, she thinks about Q’s efficient, poised manner: he wastes no words. She looks at herself and around the hall of mirrors, seeing her back ahead of her and the way forward behind her. This path “invit[es] her to step through its thresholds,” and if she manages to do so, she will “reach the right place,” even if she cannot trust that place.
Although Mr. Q appears to be guaranteeing that he will help Makina return home, in reality he never says any such thing, only that she will end up where she truly belongs—he seems to have a foresight that she lacks about her own fate. When she looks in the mirror, which itself represents self-awareness and a reflection on identity, Makina sees her back and front—perhaps her past and future—inverted, and her journey now neatly divided into thresholds (like the nine-stage journey through Mictlán which parallels the nine chapters of the novel). The mirror’s distortion of her body foreshadows the way her journey will transform her identity.