In May of 1986, a year after Reyna and her siblings first arrived in the U.S., Papi falls off a ladder at work and injures himself. He has to take several days off from work to heal, but as he’s not the type to sit around and do nothing, he takes the bus downtown to walk around a little bit. When he gets back home, he cracks open a beer and announces that Mami is in Los Angeles—she has been here for months now, and hasn’t contacted any of them. Papi says that he ran into her downtown—she lives there, on a street called San Pedro. Mago asks if Betty is here, too, and Papi drains his beer before replying that Mami left Betty in Mexico to come here with her boyfriend Rey.
Papi’s accident leads to a coincidental and fortuitous meeting with Mami. As Papi relays the news that Mami is living in Los Angeles, he is enraged by her failure to contact her own children, and attempts to use her betrayal to gain even more favor with, and thus control over, Reyna, Mago, and Carlos.
Carlos wants to go see Mami, but Papi is outraged that he would want to see a woman who has been here for months without trying to get in touch with them. He urges his children to “have some pride.” Before heading to bed, he informs them all that their mother has a new child—a boy, who is not even three months old. Reyna is dizzied and sickened by the news—but still, despite it all, yearns to see Mami again.
As the horrible secrets about Mami continue to come out, Reyna finds herself feeling abandoned and betrayed all over again. And yet, just as in Mexico, she feels the undeniable impulse to keep returning to her mother time and time again.
As the weeks go by, Reyna and Carlos continue begging Papi to let them see Mami. The more they ask, though, the more he withdraws from them, locking himself up in his room after railing against Mami for using Betty to get back at him. Mago is on Papi’s side—she doesn’t see why they should go see Mami after all the times she abandoned them.
Mago is the only one who seems to have had enough of Mami’s repeated abandonments and failures. Back in Mexico, she was quick to disparage Mami and idolize Papi, and in the U.S.—despite Papi’s abuse—she is the same.
Mago writes to Abuelita Chinta to ask about Betty, and a month later, Tía Güera writes back. She explains that come summer, Mami is returning to Mexico to bring both Betty and Güera back to the States. Lupita, however, will have to be left behind with Abuelita Chinta. Reyna is saddened to hear this news, and hopes that “one day the cycle of leaving children behind [will] end.”
Once Tia Güera and Betty arrive in the U.S., Reyna and Carlos at last convince Papi to let them go see Mami. They tell him that it’s not Mami they want to visit, but their sister—even though this is a lie. Together they all take the bus downtown, and when they arrive in Mami’s neighborhood, are shocked to see that the trash-laden street is full of bums, beggars, and prostitutes. Mami’s apartment is almost worse—it is a tiny room full of vermin, with a dirty carpet and filthy walls. Nevertheless, she is happy to see them. Reyna and Carlos rush to greet Betty, but the five-year-old girl barely remembers them.
Even in El Otro Lado, the land of plenty, Mami is living in squalor. The children are nonetheless excited to see her and Betty—even as they realize that though the physical distance between them all has lessened, there are greater distances still to reckon with.
Mami introduces the children to Leonardo, the new baby, and then tells them all about her miserable job at a garment factory. Still, Mami says, the poverty here cannot compare to the poverty back in Mexico. Mago asks why Mami never contacted them once she arrived in the U.S., and Mami explains that she wanted to give the children a chance to get to know their father without her interference. Reyna understands, but knows this can’t be the only reason. She sees, at last, the kind of person her mother has become—and how little space there is in her life for Reyna, Carlos, and Mago.
Though Mami insists that her intentions were actually pure when she chose not to tell her children she was living in the same city as them, Reyna sees clearly that Mami has other priorities. Mami is as desperate for a chance to be loved and feel worthy as her children are—and as she pursues those feelings with Rey, she neglects her own children.
Reyna and her siblings visit Mami every Sunday, though this displeases Papi. He only allows them to go because of Betty. Mami frequently takes the children out to parks and shopping malls, but everywhere they go, she brings along huge plastic bags and collects cans and bottles off of the street to sell at the recycling center.
Mami is not doing very well in El Otro Lado, and is struggling to get by. Having their family back together again is a balm of sorts for the children, but they are forced to see, every Sunday, just how much their mother is struggling.
Mago, Reyna, and Carlos slowly get used to their new “double lives.” Papi and Mami refuse to be in the same room together, and won’t even reconcile to attend Reyna’s fifth-grade graduation. Reyna is happy that the “distance between [her and her mother]” is no longer two thousand miles, but can’t help noticing that there is still a sizable gap.
In this passage, Reyna articulates for the first time what she has been feeling for so much of the book: that closing the physical distance between two people does not erase the emotional distances, too.