In 1993, during Reyna’s senior year of high school, Mago decides to go with Mami on a trip to Mexico. As a legal resident of the U.S. under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1976, Mami can travel back and forth between the two countries as she pleases. Mami is back to selling Avon—though she remains on welfare and without benefits, she isn’t motivated to learn English and try to get a better job. She frequently pulls Leonardo and Betty out of elementary school to take them on trips to Mexico—she doesn’t care much about their getting an education. Reyna writes that, later, it would come as no surprise to anyone when Betty and Leonardo dropped out of high school, or when Betty got involved with gangs and became a teenage mother.
Whereas Papi’s house is a place of strict control and high expectations, Mami seems to have no expectations for herself or for her children. Somewhere in the middle is the sensible way of parenting, but Reyna’s parents have gone to such extremes that their children are winding up confused and incapable of making healthy decisions.
The real reason Mago wants to go to Mexico is to visit Acapulco with one of her work friends. Reyna accompanies Mago to the travel agent’s office, and Mago offers to buy Reyna a ticket to Mexico, as well. Reyna reluctantly accepts, not wanting to take Mago’s money but feeling suddenly homesick.
Even though it seems like Mago has different reasons for going to Mexico than Reyna does, Reyna accepts her offer and begins looking forward to returning to the place where she was born.
A few weeks later, Reyna joins Mago, Mami, Leonardo, and Betty on their trip. Papi is furious that she is missing a week in school, and Reyna too feels awful about the missed time, but arranges to get her homework in advance so that she can stay on-task while she’s away.
Reyna, constantly torn between her parents, accompanies Mami on a journey—but makes sure to please Papi, too, as she prepares to leave.
In Mexico, Reyna is shocked by how things in Iguala have deteriorated. The river behind Abuelita Chinta’s house is now nothing more than a “dumping ground for trash,” and the once-lively train station has been permanently shut down. Despite the changes to the town, Reyna can tell when their taxi is approaching Abuelita Chinta’s house, and her heart begins beating faster as they pull up in front of the little shack.
Though Iguala was already a poor town when Reyna left, the changes that have befallen it in the years she’s been in El Otro Lado stun and shock her. Though she has closed the physical gap between her and her hometown, there is a new kind of distance she feels as she drives down its roads.
Seeing for the first time through new eyes the poverty in which she grew up, Reyna realizes how her father must have felt when he came back to Mexico to retrieve her and her siblings. As she reunites with her cousins, her aunts and uncles, and her Abuelita, Reyna is struck by how malnourished and dirty everyone is. Over the next several days, Reyna reconnects with some of her childhood friends—the boys all want to marry her so that they can go back to El Otro Lado with her, and the girls, many of whom are married young mothers, refuse to let her into the houses, shamed by their poverty. Reyna is surprised how poor her Spanish has become, and begins to realize that to the people she grew up with, she is no longer “Mexican enough.”
As Reyna’s visit to Mexico unfolds, she is surprised by the ways in which she has become distant from the people, places, and customs she once knew so well. She has changed, which makes her return to Iguala different than what she thought it would be—she is no longer the girl who left, as she has changed in irreversible and profound ways since she’s been living in El Otro Lado.
When Reyna returns to Abuelita Chinta’s house from visiting her friends, Mago is cross with her for spending her time with “trash.” Reyna, furious, reminds Mago that she, too, comes from Iguala, before pushing her. Mago and Reyna get into a physical fight, and though Mami begs for them to stop, Reyna is too furious to let up. She is angry at Mago for severing the ties that bind them to this place, and angrier still at Mago for squandering her chances at an education and still acting superior. Reyna feels the two of them owe it to their cousins, friends, and all the others living in poverty here in Iguala to make the most of their opportunities in El Otro Lado.
While Reyna feels conflicted about having left Mexico—and the part of her identity connected to it—behind, Mago is all too ready to sever her ties to Iguala. This hurts Reyna, who sees it as her duty both to nurture the Mexican part of herself and also to do as well as she can, knowing that so many people stuck in cyclical, generational poverty in Mexico cannot achieve the things she and her sister can.
As Reyna runs crying into the house, she realizes that while she herself still speaks English with an accent, Mago no longer does—she has done everything she can to erase all her ties to Mexico. Reyna, on the other hand, knows deep down that she will never be able to do so—nor will she ever want to.
Reyna decides that she does not want to give up the part of herself connected to Mexico, even if Mago does. This is the first major rift in their relationship, and it creates a small but profound distance between them.