In September of 1985, Reyna and her siblings have been in the United States for three months. Reyna is about to start the fifth grade, while Carlos will be in seventh and Mago will be in eighth. They do not speak a word of English, and are worried about how they will navigate school, but Papi is less concerned about the language barrier than he is about the children disclosing that they are in the U.S. illegally. He urges them not to tell anyone—friend, student, or teacher—about their status. He also warns them that if they don’t all do well in school, he will send them back to Mexico himself and force them to live with Abuela Evila again. They each promise to do well.
Papi has very high expectations for his children, and is not shy about letting them know that if they step a toe out of line he will not hesitate to send them back to where they came from. He wants them to prosper and do well, but he also insists on total control over them, creating a high-pressure environment in which there is no room for failure.
At bedtime, Mago, Reyna, and Carlos pull out the sofa bed in the living room where they have been sleeping (as Papi and Mila’s apartment has only one bedroom) and they huddle together, listening to the sounds of sirens, helicopters, and cars out on the street. Reyna, nervous about starting school the next day, reflects on the long summer she and her siblings spent staying home all day every day at Papi’s apartment, watching TV, and slowly adjusting to life in America. Her favorite memory of the last few months is visiting the ocean for the first time. Though she was reluctant to swim, Papi assured her he’d help her and wouldn’t let go. Sure enough, Papi helped her into the water, and didn’t let go of her once as she played in the waves.
In this passage, Reyna’s memory of her father helping her to swim—by holding her tight and refusing to let go—mirrors her mother’s own story of Papi teaching her to swim in the pool at the hotel in Iguala. This foreshadows the fact that just as Mami was later abandoned by Papi in El Otro Lado, Papi is soon to abandon Reyna—if not physically, emotionally.
In the morning, Reyna begs her siblings to walk her to her elementary school four blocks away, but they are afraid to miss their bus. They point her in the right direction and then head off without her, leaving Reyna to enter the enormous, intimidating building alone. Reyna has no idea where to go or what to do, and as the halls empty, she stands alone crying. A woman approaches her and asks her, in Spanish, if she’s lost, then helps her to the office, where an assistant leads her to her classroom.
On her first day in school, Reyna is forced to navigate things on her own. Because of her trauma related to her feelings of abandonment and betrayal—not to mention the language barrier—this is harder for Reyna than it is for other children.
Once in class, Reyna introduces herself to her teacher Mrs. Anderson, but then realizes that she’ll be learning from the teacher’s assistant, a man named Mr. López, along with a small group of other Spanish-language students. Reyna sets to work learning the English alphabet, but is nervous at the end of the day when she has not memorized it to perfection. She doesn’t want to disappoint Papi—she feels a desperate desire to please him, and to prove to him that he was right in bringing her to El Otro Lado.
It is Reyna’s very first day in school, and yet she can hardly enjoy herself because she is so focused on listening well, learning quickly, and proving to Papi that she has worth, value, and potential in El Otro Lado.
After school, Reyna goes to a neighbor’s house. The kindly Mrs. Giuliano makes Reyna some soup, and though they speak two different languages—Italian and Spanish—they have a nice afternoon together. As Reyna helps Mrs. Giuliano clean out her backyard chicken coop, she is reminded of Mexico, and briefly grows homesick. She feels torn, and unsure of where it is she truly belongs.
Reyna’s first day has been overwhelming for her, and as she encounters a space which reminds her of her home in Mexico, feelings of homesickness are stirred up, creating an even greater tension within the young Reyna.