One afternoon in June of 1983, Abuelita Chinta makes hot chocolate for Reyna, Mago, and Carlos before going out in the rain to visit her daughter, Tía Güera, whose baby daughter Lupita is ill. While their Abuelita is out, the three of them sit around drinking their cocoa, and Mago regales her younger siblings with stories of Papi—stories that only she, the eldest, can remember. When Abuelita Chinta arrives home, Reyna asks her to tell them some stories about Mami as a young girl, and she tells them one about a time their mother tried to tame and ride a donkey, but failed. Chinta explains that now Mami thinks she has failed again, just as she failed with the donkey—and is afraid that everyone else thinks so, too.
As Reyna asks her Abuelita for stories about Mami, Abuelita zeroes in on one story in particular which explains, at least in part, Mami’s reckless and insensitive behavior. Chinta reveals that Mami is afraid to fail, and to fail in front of others. In running off with men, she is hoping to disguise the fact that her marriage has failed and that she has been plunged into disgrace and unhappiness.
The rainy season descends, bringing with it floods and destruction. Abuelita Chinta’s shack floods, and later in the week, the river behind the train tracks floods. The neighborhood adjacent to Reyna’s is completely underwater. One morning, a neighbor knocks on the door frantically, asking for Abuela Chinta—he has bad news about Reyna’s cousin Catalina.
The extreme poverty that Reyna’s family and their neighbors live in makes them more susceptible to natural disasters such as floods, which debilitate entire communities in this part of the world.
Abuelita Chinta, Reyna, and her siblings make their way to Tío Gary’s house—Catalina is his five-year-old daughter. When they arrive, the river just thirty feet away from Gary’s shack is raging. Though Catalina has fallen in, her mother expresses hope that someone downriver has pulled her out and saved her. That evening, Abuelita Chinta stays at Gary’s house to pray while Reyna, Mago, and Carlos go home. Reyna cannot sleep, and asks Mago to tell her a story. Mago tells her about the three little pigs, and Reyna imagines Papi’s dream house as the brick-and-mortar house of the third little pig, standing sturdy amongst all the stick and straw houses in their village.
When confronted with the reality of a terrible natural disaster, Reyna longs for a reliable kind of safety. She equates Papi’s dream house with the safety of the third pig’s house in the fairy tale of the three little pigs, and longs for a place where she will feel totally, unassailably safe all the time.
The next day, Reyna and her siblings return to Tío Gary’s house—Catalina’s body has been found. Gary and his neighbors hang Catalina from a tree by her feet so that the water can drain out of her bloated corpse. As Reyna stares horrified at the spectacle, she is paralyzed by fear—she worries that by the time Papi finishes his dream house, there may be no one left to keep safe. She worries that a “wolf” will come for her and her siblings, just as the flood came for Catalina.
The discovery of Catalina’s body floods Reyna with fear. She realizes that there’s the possibility that, because Papi has been gone for so long, he will miss out on his chance to be there for his family when it matters most—and might even lose them along the way to circumstances beyond anyone’s control.