Waiting to enter the military base, Makina realizes she has no good options if her brother turns out to be dead or untraceable. After a few minutes, the uniformed soldier she is looking for comes to talk with her—and turns out to be “her very own brother.” But at first, Makina does not recognize him—he is “hardier, and more washed-out,” than her brother had been, although she soon sees the resemblance and recognizes her error. They verse outside and “walk awhile in silence.” He asks about her search for him and about Cora. Instead of passing along Cora’s message, Makina asks her brother about the land they claimed.
Makina’s astonishing change of fortune comes the first time she goes to an address hoping she will find someone other than her brother there. Her first moments with her brother make it clear that her comments about family at the end of the last chapter were prophetic: his identity, too, has changed, and they scarcely seem like family anymore. She almost fails to recognize him because of how he has changed in the United States, and he is strangely cold and formal when greeting her and asking about their mother, whom he has not seen nor heard from in years. Curiously, Makina follows his lead, taking on the same disposition and hinting that she might be in store for a transformation, too.
Makina’s brother tells Makina “an incredible story.” A woman employed him to “save” her family by “help[ing]” her “bad-tempered” son. This son was of a similar age as Makina’s brother, and he had recently signed up for the army “to prove his worth as a man.” He was about to go across the world and “fight against who knew what people.” The frightened boy “acted like a child,” and Makina’s brother “didn’t speak enough of their [anglo] tongue” to tell the boy about his own backstory. Of course, the family was paying Makina’s brother (or, if he died, his family) to take their son’s place in the army—and then to take on his identity forever. He heartily agreed.
This “incredible story” offers a profound commentary on American racism. Makina’s brother takes the job a white person refuses to do, cleaning up for the boy’s immature mistake because the family is not courageous enough to hold their son responsible for his decisions. He ends up in the most unlikely job imaginable for a Mexican immigrant: an American soldier, charged with defending the interests of the very country that initially rejected and spit him out.
Makina’s brother “felt an unspeakable fear” when he shipped out for the war, which he reluctantly tells Makina was “not like in the movies.” It involved a lot of waiting, and then a few surprise acts of violence. When a fellow soldier died, it was impossible to know who killed them—but the rest have to retaliate, so choose an enemy and “just gotta believe it was them.” Makina’s brother never got hurt, and after a few months he returned to the house of the family who sent him there. They were “astonished to see him there,” because they assumed they had sent him to his death. They also did not have the money—the father told him the family could not keep its promise, but the mother insisted on doing so. They gave him what they could and moved far away.
Makina’s brother’s story is also an important commentary on American militarism—both its effects overseas and its consequences for the people it turns into soldiers. Makina’s brother’s mission is just as ill-defined and pointless as the process by which he became a soldier: there is no insight into whom he is supposed to fight, why he is supposed to fight them, or what the war is supposed to defend or achieve. Rather, like the scores of Mexican laborers whom Makina sees dutifully obeying their white bosses, Makina’s brother and his fellow soldiers become pure functionaries, deprived of human agency or even the dignity of knowing whether their job serves any purpose. In other words, Makina’s brother must subject himself entirely to the whims of the U.S. government and throw away his own identity in order to win his place in its society. And the family who sent him to war later reveals their true colors: they thought they were sending him to his death and had no qualms about doing so, nor about falsely promising him a glory and payment it would never deliver. Just like the lackluster experience of migrants who successfully make it to the United States, Makina’s brother’s success is bittersweet and disappointing.
As Makina’s brother walks with her, they meet another soldier who briefly describes his previous night at the bar, but in the future tense. When this soldier leaves, Makina’s brother explains that he is “homegrown” but still learning English, and practices by speaking entirely in the past, present, and future tenses on alternate days.
Makina and her brother are united by their abilities with language and use of these abilities to benefit others. The soldier’s description of his previous night entirely in the future tense suggests alienation and displacement from the present, pointing to the way that Makina and her brother’s very different experiences are linked and become mixed. This passage also lets Herrera comment more directly on his strategy of playing games with language to force people to reconsider their perspectives.
Makina’s brother now has “money and a new name, but no clue what to do.” Like everyone else who crosses the border, he “forget[s] what [he] came for.” And he is not ready to leave, because he “already fought for these people.” He and Makina return to the barracks, where he gives her some cash for her journey back. He hugs her and asks her to send a kiss to Cora, but his nonchalant way of doing so makes Makina feel like “he [is] ripping out her heart.” Makina’s brothers returns inside the barracks, and Makina pulls out the undelivered message Cora gave her to deliver to him. For the first time, she opens it. It says, “Come on back now, we don’t expect anything from you.”
Although he has achieved a level of integration and belonging that would make the vast majority of migrants jealous—not only does he have a stable, well-paying job, but he is a citizen—Makina’s brother remains completely lost and confused. He is both enabled and stymied by his new, intermediary place in the world. He feels loyal because he has “fought,” not vice-versa; by extension, it seems he feels and wants to be American only because he has been driven here by events beyond his control. This also offers interesting insight into Makina’s own brewing conflict over what to do from this point forward. The fact that she never delivers Cora’s letter suggests that she is ready, however reluctantly, to let her brother go.