Rafael Toro tells the story of his life Born in 1967 in “a little country by the name of Panamá,” Rafael grew up an only child. His father, who had “political ambitions,” had a terrible temper, and Rafael developed a temper as well, “even as a young boy.” Rafael’s father died when he was thirteen years old, and his family’s house was sold to the bank. Rafael stopped going to school, started drinking heavily, and floated from place to place.
Rafael Toro’s story is the first “point-of-view” chapter that doesn’t come from one of the novel’s main characters, Alma and Mayor. In giving minor characters a chance to speak up and relay their life stories directly to the audience, Henríquez seeks to complicate her audience’s perception of these smaller characters, allowing readers to understand how they have come to be who they are.
After meeting Celia on the beach one day, when they were both eighteen, Rafael’s life, he says, was “saved.” Rafael got a job at a restaurant and worked hard in order to be able to treat Celia to gifts and nights out. He saved enough money to buy Celia a ring, and the two were married. They had their sons within a couple years of their marriage, in the midst of the U.S. invasion of Panamá—an operation to depose the country’s dictator, Manuel Noriega. After the worst of the fighting was over, Rafael and Celia saw nothing but “destruction and more destruction” around them, and they never felt safe in Panamá again. After three years, they left for the United States.
In Rafael’s story, he describes his isolated and tumultuous adolescence, his joyful union with the beautiful Celia, and their shared devastation at the destruction of the country they knew and loved. It’s notable that the United States caused the instability in Panamá that made the family flee their home. Despite that U.S. involvement made Panamá inhospitable, the family isn’t always welcomed in America, which implicates Americans in their inability to belong in either their native country or their adoptive one.
Rafael says that he and his family are Americans now—he is a line cook at a diner and he provides for his family. His children are doing well in school, and their success has made the move “worth it.” Both Rafael and Celia miss Panamá, but Rafael feels it would be “even more unrecognizable now” after so many years. Even so, he knows he will never stop loving Panamá.
Rafael’s desire to return to Panamá, combined with his fear of finding it unrecognizable after having been isolated from it for so long, speaks to deep feelings of loss, regret, and longing. Knowing all this information about Rafael sets audiences up to understand his character more deeply as the novel unfolds, and to see, perhaps, the deeper motivations behind his words and actions.