Never having had a TV in Mexico, in El Otro Lado, Reyna, Carlos, and Mago become obsessed with television. One day, near Christmastime, they are watching cartoons when Santa Claus appears on television during a commercial break. The siblings are concerned because they have no money to buy Papi a present, and Mago decides to call the number on the screen and ask Santa Claus for some presents. When Carlos says that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, Mago argues that they are in the United States—“everything exists here.” Mago’s English is still pretty poor, and she has a hard time hearing what is happening on the other end of the phone. She leaves a message and asks for a Barbie and a bike before passing the phone to Carlos and Reyna, who ask for a Nintendo and a pair of skates.
Mago’s childish and comedic belief that “everything exists” in El Otro Lado—even fantasies like Santa Claus—actually reveals just how much she has built up life in America in her head over the years. She and her siblings do truly believe that anything is possible here—and this naïve belief will soon get them into trouble.
Two weeks later, none of their presents from “Santa Claus” have arrived, and Mago, Carlos, and Reyna are still nervous about finding something for Papi. They decide to shoplift from the corner store—Mago volunteers to distract the clerk while Reyna and Carlos hunt for something Papi might like. In the store, though “nothing seem[s] good enough,” and Carlos and Reyna panic. They walk out with a can of hair spray and a bottle of hair polish.
Reyna is not the only one desperate to please her father—Mago and Carlos, too, want to find a way to impress him, thank him, and, in a way, pay the debt they feel they owe to him.
The next day, on Christmas morning, the children present Papi and Mila with their “gifts,” and Mila and Papi present them with theirs. Reyna gets a pair of tennis shoes, Mago gets a pretty dress, and Carlos gets a Tonka truck. The gifts from Santa Claus never arrive, and Reyna lies awake at night, wondering why.
Christmas is a joyous occasion, and the children enjoy their gifts from Papi and Mila—but Reyna still wonders in the back of her mind whether Santa Claus really exists in El Otro Lado.
Two weeks later, Papi calls the children into the kitchen one evening as he and Mila are going through the mail. He points out an exorbitant bill and asks who the children called. Mago confesses that a few weeks ago, they called Santa—she didn’t know they’d get charged for the call. She apologizes, and Papi and Mila reprimand her. Papi leaves the apartment in a rage. A half an hour later, he returns, and puts a lock on the rotary phone so that the children can’t call anybody.
Papi is desperate to control his children, but he can’t account for the small ways in which they’re adjusting to life in America and figuring things out. The lock on the phone—an extreme measure—shows just how little patience he has for their slip-ups, and how far he will go to make sure his children do not go against him.