Papi constantly tries to impress upon Reyna, Mago, and Carlos how important an education is. He tells them that without one, they won’t be able to secure good jobs with benefits and start saving for retirement. At only eleven, Reyna doesn’t understand why she already needs to start thinking about retirement—but Papi assures her that life only gets harder. Reyna worries that without papers she won’t be able to get a job at all, but Papi assures her that soon they are all going to change their immigration statuses. He and Mila have been officially married, and she is going to use her privileges as a citizen to help everybody apply for green cards under President Reagan’s amnesty program. Papi looks forward to the day when they can all, together, “stop living in the shadows.”
Despite his cruelty and abuse, Papi does truly have dreams for himself and his children. More than anything, he wants them to truly be able to participate fully in American society, and has taken several steps to ensure that his children understand the pressures of life in the U.S.—and will one day rise to meet them.
In September of 1987, Mago becomes the first person in the family to go to high school. When Papi takes her to buy new clothes to celebrate, Reyna becomes jealous and upset that Mago will always get to do everything first. Reyna decides to step out of the shadow of her older sister.
Reyna’s jealousies again rear their head as she privately laments that she will always have to compete with Mago, her best friend and ally, for Papi’s approval and praise.
Reyna starts junior high at a place even bigger than her elementary school. When her teachers all recognize her as Mago’s younger sister, she fears she will never escape her sister’s shadow, but when she walks into her last class of the day—a band elective—she finally has the chance to set herself apart. Her music teacher tells her that she can borrow any instrument she wants from school for free, and Reyna selects an alto saxophone. Though it is heavy and the neck strap digs into her skin, Reyna loves playing an instrument—for once, it doesn’t matter whether she speaks perfect or poor English. She doesn’t need to speak at all—she just needs to play.
Upon entering junior high, Reyna fears she’ll never be able to carve out a place for herself—but discovering the alto sax, and a way of expressing herself that isn’t based in language, opens up a world of possibilities. Reyna looks forward not just to her own personal edification, but for the chance to at last stand apart from Mago and be the first in her family to do something.
When Reyna brings the saxophone home and shows Papi, he is amazed and asks her to play. She squeaks out a few meager notes, and Papi reminisces about playing drums in elementary school before he was forced to quit school to work. Reyna goes into the yard and practices, playing with all her heart for herself and for Papi, who never got the chance to experience the delight of playing an instrument.