Herrera’s writing and Makina’s story are steeped in an intensely local vision of rural Mexico, one with deep ties to the land, language, and culture as they have existed since many centuries before the Spanish invaded the Americas. Makina’s sense of duty to her town and grounding in her local culture are closely related to her deep loyalty to her family—one that seems unflappable for almost the entire book, until it becomes suddenly impossible for her to preserve at the novel’s end. Like her brother, then, Makina goes north to save her family, but ends up sacrificing her family in order to stay in the north. Makina’s story illustrates that one’s familial and cultural ties are important to preserve, but are often deeply fragile and thrown aside in the process for migration, although this does not make them impossible to recover later on.
Mexican Indigenous culture is at the forefront of Makina’s sense of self, rather than the Latinized urban culture that is strongly associated with modernity and continues to carry social prestige in Mexico and much of the rest of Latin America. In this novel, following tradition means sustaining a denigrated and fragile cultural identity, but people are inherently products of tradition and therefore often perpetuate it without even realizing the significance of what they are doing. From the start, the narration notes how Mexico’s long history of colonialism and violence has, quite literally, undermined the Little Town where Makina lives: people’s search for silver has left a patchwork of holes beneath the town, and sinkholes periodically open up, drawing people, structures, and animals down into the “underworld.” Of course, it is impossible to understand this book without realizing that Makina’s entire journey is based on the template of Mictlán, the underworld according to the Mexica people. Each chapter of Makina’s journey parallels a stage that deceased souls must pass through in order to reach their final resting place in Mexica mythology, and by using this story as the basis for his novel, Herrera shows how indigenous culture plays a foundational, archetypal role for the people of Mexico, even if they tend to forget it. There are also numerous references to local indigenous languages, ingredients, and recipes. Makina drinks pulque and carries products made of ingredients like xinthé and amaranth, all of which are historically important indigenous staples. And at work on the switchboard, Makina speaks the local indigenous language on the phone. Like the Mictlán frame story within the broader narrative of the book, these specific examples are largely buried in the novel’s plot, but show how the fabric of Makina’s world (and rural Mexico broadly) is deeply shaped by indigenous influences that predate Spanish rule.
Makina is profoundly loyal to both this indigenous culture and to her family, which are closely tied to one another. Like many young adults, she hopes to contribute to her native community, and Herrera suggests that this is a noble desire. Throughout the story, Makina insists that she will come back home to take care of her little sister and report on her brother to her mother Cora. Her strong attachment to home and her family accounts for her sense of urgency throughout the book: unlike most migrants, she does not think of staying or working in the north, but only of doing her duty and then returning to care for her family. She thinks of herself as embedded in the community that reared her, rather than as a separate individual. Makina’s sense of duty extends to her work at the switchboard: she feels responsible for connecting those who only speak the indigenous language to their relatives who might not speak it at all. Makina feels responsible for keeping the traditional world alive in a modern era, and associates returning home with affirming and supporting family and culture.
And yet, despite her sincere desire to return to Mexico, Makina tragically and inexplicably does not: like her brother, she is forced to sever their ties with their family and stay in the United States, a painful experience that shows the fragility of family and tradition in circumstances that provide strong motives for migration and modernization. At the beginning of the novel, Makina is deathly afraid of following in her brother’s footsteps and becoming “lost or captivated” in a place like the Big Chilango. She clearly realizes the appeal of staying in another place, which creates the tension between the possible opportunities she can gain through migration and the existing attachments she has to her family. Although Makina’s brother started out trying to find roots for his family (the land that was supposedly his father’s), he ends up doing the opposite and losing his sense of self, literally sacrificing his name for the new one offered to him by the white family that trades him their son’s papers in exchange for his military service in their son’s place. At first, he does not realize that he is choosing himself over the collective back in Mexico. And the same thing happens to Makina at the end of the book—she ends up getting a new identity of her own, with new papers that destine her to stay in the north. As with her brother, this is not an intentional change of plans, but something unexpected and transformative that threatens her very sense of self. If even the most loyal family-oriented migrant ends up staying on the other side despite her best intentions, then Herrera seems to be suggesting that migration does fundamentally undermine traditions and the family, at the same time as they make it possible to support them financially. Herrera’s characters’ abandonment of this culture becomes his own means of preserving it, just as these characters’ willingness to sacrifice their close connections to their loved ones might, in the long run, end up actually supporting their families.
Family, Heritage, and Sense of Self ThemeTracker
Family, Heritage, and Sense of Self Quotes in Signs Preceding the End of the World
I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect
circle and Makina was saved.
Slippery bitch of a city, she said to herself. Always about to sink back into the cellar.
The Little Town was riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust, and from time to time some poor soul accidentally discovered just what a half-assed job they’d done of covering them over.
You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.
Sometimes they called from nearby villages and she answered them in native tongue or latin tongue. Sometimes, more and more these days, they called from the North; these were the ones who’d often already forgotten the local lingo, so she responded to them in their own new tongue. Makina spoke all three, and knew how to keep quiet in all three, too.
She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only the never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.
She couldn’t get lost. Every time she came to the Big Chilango she trod softly, because that was not the place she wanted to leave her mark, and she told herself repeatedly that she couldn’t get lost, and by get lost she meant not a detour or a sidetrack but lost for real, lost forever in the hills of hills cementing the horizon: or lost in the awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces. That was why she chose to travel underground to the other bus depot. Trains ran around the entire circulatory system but never left the body: down there the heavy air would do her no harm, and she ran no risk of becoming captivated. And she mustn’t get lost or captivated, too many people were waiting for her.
Rucksacks. What do people whose life stops here take with them? Makina could see their rucksacks crammed with time. […] Photos, photos, photos. They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.
In hers, as soon as she’d agreed to go get the kid for Cora, she packed:
a small blue metal flashlight, for the darkness she might encounter,
one white blouse and one with colorful embroidery, in case she came across any parties,
three pairs of panties so she’d always have a clean one even if it took a while to find a washhouse,
a latin-anglo dictionary […],
a picture her little sister had drawn in fat, round strokes that featured herself, Makina and Cora in ascending order, left to right and short to tall,
a bar of xithé soap,
a lipstick that was more long-lasting than it was dark and,
as provisions: amaranth cakes and peanut brittle.
She was coming right back, that’s why that was all she took.
When she reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning. One came to perch on her eyelashes; it looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a palace, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate, and when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world—some countries, some people—could seem eternal when everything was actually like that miniature ice palace: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile. She felt a sudden stab of disappointment but also a slight subsiding of the fear that had been building since she’d versed from home.
They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.
Neither one at first recognized the specter of the other. In fact, Makina stood up, greeted him and began to express her gratitude and ask a question before picking up on the soldier’s uncanny resemblance to her brother and the unmistakable way in which they differed; he had the same sloping forehead and stiff hair, but looked hardier, and more washed-out. In that fraction of a second she realized her mistake, and that this was her brother, but also that that didn’t undo the mistake.
He’s homegrown, he said. Joined up just like me, but still doesn’t speak the lingo. Whereas me, I learned it, so every time we see each other he wants to practice. He speaks all one day in past tense, all one day in present, all one day in future, so he can learn his verbs. Today was the future.
1 guess that’s what happens to everybody who comes, he continued. We forget what we came for, but there’s this reflex to act like we still have some secret plan.
Why not leave, then?
Not now. Too late. I already fought for these people. There must be something they fight so hard for. So I’m staying in the army while I figure out what it is.
Makina took the file and looked at its contents. There she was, with another name, another birthplace. Her photo, new numbers, new trade, new home. I’ve been skinned, she whispered.
When she looked up the man was no longer there and she tipped briefly into panic, she felt for a second—or for many seconds; she couldn’t tell because she didn’t have a watch, nobody had a watch—that the turmoil of so many new things crowding in on the old ones was more than she could take; but a second—or many—later she stopped feeling the weight of uncertainty and guilt; she thought back to her people as though recalling the contours of a lovely landscape that was now fading away: the Village, the Little Town, the Big Chilango, all those colors, and she saw that what was happening was not a cataclysm; she understood with all of her body and all of her memory, she truly understood, and when everything in the world fell silent finally said to herself I’m ready.