One sunny day in May of 1985, when Reyna is four months away from turning ten, her cousin comes to pay her and her siblings a visit, informing them that Papi is going to call on the phone at Abuela Evila’s in an hour. Reyna and her siblings dance around in a circle, overjoyed. They set off immediately for their other grandmother’s house, anticipating what Papi could possibly be calling about with overzealous excitement. As they arrive at Abuela Evila’s house, Élida stands at the gate to greet them, and chastises them for dressing in rags and looking like beggars. Mago points out that they’re just having a phone call with their father—he won’t be able to see how they’re dressed. When they step into the house, however, they see their father sitting right there on Abuela Evila’s couch.
Reyna, Mago, and Carlos are pranked by one of their cousins in this passage, and greeted with the biggest surprise of their lives—their Papi, the Man Behind the Glass, has returned home at last. This scene mirrors the scene in which Mami first returned home—unlike with Mami, though, the children have hardly any basis of comparison for their father, having known him so little before they left. They don’t know the man sitting in front of them—and don’t know whether or not the years have changed him.
Tía Emperatriz urges Reyna and her siblings to go and say hello to their father, but Reyna is paralyzed. For so many years she has been studying her father’s photograph, wishing that he could truly be looking at her rather than just gazing out from a picture frame. Now that he is here, though, she is terrified to face him—she knows that he must be ashamed of the poor, dirty girl dressed in beggars’ clothing in front of him.
Papi hugs Mago and Carlos and then beckons Reyna to him, too. He hugs her briefly and then introduces them all to a woman sitting beside him on the couch—her name is Mila, and she is his new girlfriend. Mila is fashionable and pretty, but Reyna feels bad for thinking so, knowing she should hate the woman on principle. While Emperatriz goes out to pick up some food for lunch, Papi unloads a suitcase full of dolls, toys, and clothes for Reyna, Carlos, and Mago. As the evening goes by and the three of them play, eat, and enjoy their father’s company, Reyna finds herself wishing that Papi had brought something for Élida, too, and also wondering in the back of her mind what the true purpose of Papi’s visit is.
For once in their lives, Reyna, Carlos, and Mago are the loved and lucky ones. Being in the spotlight this way after so many years of being neglected, however, leaves at least Reyna feeling bad—despite all of Élida’s cruelty over the years, she still feels bad for her cousin and wants her to be included in the fun and festivities.
Reyna, Carlos, and Mago spend the night at Evila’s house. In the morning, Papi shaves Carlos’s hair to get rid of his lice, and takes Mago and Reyna to the hair salon to have their hair deloused and cut short. On the way back, they stop at the “dream house,” and are surprised to see that it is nearly finished. Mago asks Papi which room is going to be his room, but he does not answer her.
Papi can clearly see that his children aren’t being taken care of, and he takes it upon himself to tend to them, all the while stoking their dreams of what life will be like when they all live together in their dream house.
That evening, when Papi reaches into his suitcase, a bunch of scorpions come out and nearly bite him. Frightened, Mila asks when the two of them are going “home.” At this, Mago is surprised—she points out that the dream house is basically finished, and there’s no need to return to El Otro Lado. Papi insists they can discuss everything later, but Mila urges him to tell his children the truth. Papi announces that he cannot stay in Mexico—though the house is finished, there are no jobs, and if he returns they’ll never escape the “miserable poverty” they live in. Mago accuses Papi of making excuses and she runs out of the room weeping.
Though Papi’s dream house is finished, it is, unfortunately, no longer his dream. The allures of El Otro Lado are too strong to resist, and what is a dream in Mexico perhaps seems dim and unappealing when seen through eyes that have glimpsed “The Other Side.”
The next day, Papi sits Reyna, Carlos, and Mago down and announces that though he’s leaving in a few days, he has decided to take one of them with him. He sees that their mother is not taking care of them, and that things are only getting worse in Iguala. He announces that he is bringing Mago, the eldest, along with him. Reyna protests, insisting that Mago is all she has. If Mago leaves, she thinks, she won’t be able to survive. Carlos and Reyna beg to be taken along. When Papi promises to come back for them soon, Reyna points out that the last time he left, he was gone for eight years.
Papi only has enough money—and perhaps only enough patience—to bring one child with him, but he has not accounted for the ways in which being abandoned together has bonded his three eldest children.
The next day at school, Reyna’s classmates, having heard that her father is in town, ask her if she’s at last going to El Otro Lado. Reyna lies and says that she is, bragging about the fancy new life she is going to have in the United States. After school, at Abuela Evila’s house, Reyna begs Papi to take her, saying she’ll die of shame if her classmates find out she lied. Mago speaks up and says that she won’t go with Papi unless Reyna goes, too. Carlos adds his voice and begs to go along as well. Papi relents, and promises that he will take all of his children with him. When Reyna asks if the crossing will be dangerous, Papi assures her it’ll be fine—but shares a nervous look with Mila.
Carlos and Reyna refuse to be left behind. Their reasons for wanting to travel to El Otro Lado are a combination of a desire for escape and a desire not to be left behind yet again, and as they beg Papi to take them with him, they are unaware of how swiftly and totally their lives will change when he agrees to bring them over the border.
The next day, Mago and Reyna go to tell Mami the news. Though they anticipate having to beg, plead, and convince her to let them go, she quickly says it’s fine if they go—though they need to tell their father that he can’t have Betty. When Mago delivers Mami’s message, Papi is furious, claiming that Mami has robbed him of his youngest child. Mago volunteers to go talk to Mami one last time, and try to convince her to let Betty go.
Reyna and Mago are shocked—and perhaps a little hurt—by the ease with which their mother accepts their departure. When Mami attempts to turn their departure into another way to battle with Papi, they are truly confused about what their mother’s true motivations and feelings are.
As Mago and Reyna arrive back at the record shop, they see their mother smiling and dancing while dusting the counter. They startle her from her daydream and beg to take Betty with them, asking how she could bear to separate her children. Mami is resolute, though—Betty will stay in Iguala with her. Mago, realizing they’ve reached an impasse, turns to leave. Reyna hesitates, but eventually follows her sister out the door and into the street. As they walk away from the shop, Reyna resolves to try to remember her mother as the woman dancing in the record shop, rather than as the woman who left them behind again and again and again.
Reyna and Mago come upon their mother in a moment of total happiness. Though once they startle out of it they are forced to confront their stubborn and selfish mother once again, Reyna wants to hold onto an idea of her mother—just as she hung onto an idea of Papi for so many years—to get her through the painful separation ahead of them.