It is January of 1980, and Reyna’s mother is preparing to leave on a trip to El Otro Lado. Mami, an Avon saleslady, often leaves Reyna alone or with her mother, whom Reyna calls Abuelita Chinta, when she goes out on the town. This time, though, Reyna can sense that her mother is going on a longer trip and will not be back for a long time—Reyna has no idea, though, that after her mother leaves, she will never “really” get her back.
“El Otro Lado” (Spanish for “the other side,” meaning the other side of the border) refers to the United States. Reyna Grande, narrating from the future, wastes no time in informing her readers that Mami’s departure will calibrate the entire emotional tenor of the book—and Reyna’s life—and will have repercussions no one can yet foresee.
Reyna’s Mami ushers Reyna, Mago, and Carlos out of the house they’ve been renting—the children are going to stay with their paternal grandmother, Abuela Evila. As the children round up their belongings, Reyna takes from a box a framed picture of her papi, insisting on taking it with her to her grandmother’s house, despite the fact that there are many photos of her father there already.
Reyna’s attachment to the idea of her father that she has gleaned through studying his picture is intense. Though there are other pictures of her father in her grandmother’s house, this specific picture is important to Reyna—and one of her few belongings.
Reyna, now four, was only two years old when her father left for the United States during the “worst recession Mexico had seen in fifty years.” He went to “El Otro Lado” to make money so that he could build his family a dream house—as a bricklayer, he spent most of his life building homes for other people, and he now longs to build his own house for himself and his family. Having fared poorly in the United States, Papi has now sent for Mami to join him and hopefully double their income to fund the dream house.
Papi believed that he would be able to quickly earn the money he needed to supply his family with a good life, but things have not turned out the way he planned. Now, Reyna’s mother too will have to abandon all she knows and venture to El Otro Lado in hopes of securing her husband’s dreams.
Mami and the children arrive at Abuela Evila’s large house. Mago and Carlos beg not to have to stay with the “angry” Evila and instead ask to stay with Mami’s mother, Abuelita Chinta, but Reyna doesn’t want to stay with either grandmother—she only wants her mother, and begins asking to be taken along to El Otro Lado, too.
Even though Evila is, by the poor town of Iguala’s standards, well-off, Reyna and her siblings do not want to leave their mother’s side—they don’t care about the spoils of a better life, and only want their parents.
Mami tells Reyna to stop whining and calls out from the gate for Abuela Evila. As Evila emerges from the house, Reyna looks at her grandmother, an old woman with silver hair whose body is shriveled and wasted from a childhood bout of measles. Evila greets Mami and the children brusquely, asking how long they’ll be staying and reminding Mami of her promise to send money weekly for their upkeep.
Evila is clearly not excited about having her grandchildren come to stay—and despite her relative wealth, she is not shy about letting Mami know that she expects prompt and frequent compensation.
Evila assures Mami that soon she and Papi will raise enough money to build their dream house, and she points out her daughter María Félix’s house nearby. Though it was finished long ago and is one of the biggest on the block, María Félix remains in El Otro Lado, and has left her own daughter Élida in Evila’s care.
The fact that Papi’s sister has built her “dream house” and still chose to stay in the United States foreshadows the ways in which Mami and Papi will soon find their own dreams insufficient compared to the allure of El Otro Lado.
Reyna, Mago, and Carlos beg their mother one last time to stay behind, insisting that they don’t need a dream house—they just need their parents. Mami insists she must go, and promises to return. She urges the children to head inside, and Evila opens the gate for them. Mami kisses Reyna goodbye one final time, leaving a lipstick print on her cheek. The three of them watch, crying, as a taxi takes their mother away.
Reyna, Mago, and Carlos’s entreaties to their mother fall on deaf ears. Her abandonment feels like an immense betrayal—but as the story progresses, Reyna will outline how Mami’s motivations for leaving are complicated.