Whenever she visits “the Big Chilango,” Makina travels underground, by the subway trains. Otherwise she risks “get[ting] lost or captivated” in the city—she is needed at home, where she is the only person who can properly run the switchboard in all three languages, and where her little sister needs her guidance.
“The Big Chilango” is Mexico City, and Herrera’s euphemism for it points to the way he deliberately avoids place names throughout this book in an attempt to mythologize the familiar and thus strip readers of their preconceptions about various places, groups, and cultures. Makina’s decision to travel underground, in a subterranean world parallel to Mexico City, is a means of resisting this temptation and refusing to give up her duties to her family and community.
Makina also has a boyfriend of sorts—although “they’d never discussed it, […] he act[s] so much like a boyfriend” that she calls him one. She casually brought him to bed the day of the elections, and after he went to and came back from the Big Chilango, they started sleeping together every weekend. When it seemed like he wanted to talk about their relationship, she always “kiss[ed] him with extra-dirty lust just to keep his mouth shut.” They nearly break this silence the night before Makina’s departure, but she tells him they will “talk when [she] get[s] back” and he verses “with the weariness of a man who knows he’s being played and can’t do a thing about it.”
Independent to a fault, Makina is nonchalant about love and sex, perhaps in part because the pattern of migration from her town makes committed relationships difficult—it is impossible to know if or when one’s significant other will abruptly leave to move North. It’s also likely that she maintains an emotional distance from men in order to prevent them from controlling her.
Three years before Makina’s journey, “one of Mr. Aitch’s thugs” convinced her brother “that they owned a little piece of land” across the river. Makina’s brother set out to claim it, and he never came back—he only sent occasional notes.
The reader finally learns about Makina’s brother’s motives for moving north: although he went to prove his family’s blood right to a plot of land, he ended up cutting ties with his family, with little warning. Just as it disrupts romantic love, migration shatters families. His quest to prove his right to land north of the border also subtly references the fact that most of the land comprising the Western United States belonged to Mexico prior to the Mexican-American War in the mid-19th century.
As Makina waits to buy a bus ticket, two young men harass her. They take the same bus, and one of them sits next to her and begins intentionally brushing up against her. She makes a “shh” gesture and then twists the boy’s finger until it nearly breaks and he nearly screams in pain. She sends him back to his friend, threatening that she will ruin his hand for good the next time. Crying, he “stagger[s] back to his seat,” and she falls asleep watching “the gray city fleeing past” out the bus window.
While this scene shows how patriarchy is deeply entrenched in Makina’s worlds, it also provides a roadmap for resisting it. The boys are probably used to getting away with groping women, but Makina insists that sexual violence not be normalized and instead shows the boy what it feels like for another person to act as though they are entitled to his body.
In the night, Makina wakes up while the rest of the bus passengers sleep. She suspects “she’d dreamed of lost cities” and gazes out on the familiar countryside, wondering “what the hell might be festering out there: what grows and what rots when you’re looking the other way.” She imagines that “a whole slew of new things” might suddenly and unexpectedly reveal itself to her.
Makina is both thrilled and terrified to journey into the unknown, an experience she knows will change her but hopes will not upset her existing sense of identity. Her dreams of “lost cities” again point to the hidden and forgotten worlds that populate Makina’s universe: both the worlds of Indigenous Mexico that, forgotten by much of the world, are central to her identity, and the invisible underworld that, for the Mexica, coexists with what most people consider reality.
The young men leave her alone for the rest of the trip, until “the bus reache[s] the end of the land, at almost midnight the following day.” Makina checks into one of the cheap hotels lining the river, and enters “a very sizeable room” full of bunk beds and “people of many tongues,” mostly single men. She goes to the bathroom and takes a shower. A “woman in her second youth” enters the bathroom, pulls Makina’s lipstick out of her rucksack, and starts putting it on. Fully aware that Makina sees her, the woman “smack[s] her lips together” and tells herself in the mirror, “Me? I tell you, I’m gonna start off on the right foot […] no one can say I showed up scruffy, you know?” Makina compliments her and the woman thanks her, returns the lipstick, and verses.
Although again unnamed, this border town is clearly somewhere on the Río Grande that forms the border between Texas and a handful of states in Northern Mexico. The woman who uses Makina’s lipstick in this passage exemplifies the stereotypical hopes of migrants from Mexico to the United States. Literally rejuvenated by the prospect of starting a new life (“in her second youth”), she wants to look as good as possible when she crosses the border, as though she is presenting herself to a new land for the first time. While Makina and the woman both recognize that she is stealing, the prospect of condemning her never crosses Makina’s mind—she willingly shares what is hers with the woman, reflecting a deeper sense of solidarity and community that makes what would ordinarily be a faux pas seem trivial.
Makina spends the night awake, like so many others “waiting for their contact,” and advises fellow travelers who have questions about language, or about what to do when they cross over. She goes outside and sees two “small groups” preparing to cross, and two “anglo” men debating how much to charge them. They agree to “put these scrubs out as bait” while they help another, better-paying group cross. She warns the group that they are about to get scammed, and they move on.
Although she has largely kept to herself during the novel thus far, Makina now starts going out of her way to aid those in need—especially those who need help navigating a language barrier. It becomes clear that she is a translator not only by profession, but also by disposition, and that she sees this role as a means of putting disparate groups and experiences into communication with one another.
At sunrise, Makina sits on the riverbank and notices a man waving a light. She realizes that the man is trying to communicate with her and waves back. The man pulls out “an enormous inner tube” and “tiny oar,” and starts crossing the river. As he approaches and then climbs out of the river, Makina notices his suntan, greying beard, height, and strong build. He jokes that she is “going over for a lil land”—she laughs and explains that she is going because of her “stupid” brother’s quest “for a little land.” The man introduces himself as Chucho and offers her a cigarette. Makina asks how he recognized her—“they sent me a picture,” he says. She is surprised he does not take the opportunity to “make some comment about her looks.”
Although Makina has no idea what to expect, fate—or the men from the Little Town—have set up a path across the river for her. Here, Chucho is presented as a stereotype of a traditional migration narrative’s protagonist: the macho patriarch who makes it across the border and succeeds in the U.S. using his physical strength. Personable and caring rather than greedy, manipulative, or sexually opportunistic, he is also the opposite of the typical coyote (human smuggler) encountered in such narratives. Herrera pokes fun at this ironic reversal in Chucho’s character—a manly hero transformed into a woman’s assistant—with this first image of Chucho crossing the river in a comically small, ill-fitting inner tube.
Makina asks Chucho if it is right for them to cross during the day, but he explains that border security is “tied up somewhere else.” They get in the inner tube together and she notices him “lean in close and sniff her hair.” The current drags them away and tears them from the inner tube—Makina struggles to swim but soon gives up and trusts that “she’[ll] wind up where she need[s] to be.” Chucho heaves her out onto the other riverbank. Lying on the ground, Makina decides that the sky looks different on this side. Chucho promises her that the “next part’s easier.”
In a scene right out of a conventional romance or fantasy novel, Chucho saves Makina from drowning—but this does not consummate a relationship or even represent an act of love, for it is simply his job. In fact, this scene has an entirely different significance: Chucho (whose name is a slang term for “dog” in Mexico) represents the dog Xolotl from the Mictlán myth, a divine figure who was charged with helping souls cross the dangerous river Apanohuacalhuia, similar to Charon ferrying the dead across the River Styx in Greek mythology.