In June of 1999, Reyna becomes the first person in her family to graduate from college—with honors to boot. Her whole family comes up to Santa Cruz to celebrate. As part of a school tradition, Reyna writes an essay about the teacher who has most inspired her—Diana. Reyna’s essay is chosen to be read aloud at graduation, and Diana flies up for the ceremony.
In the end, it is Reyna’s accomplishments, after all, that bring her family together, surmounting—even just for a day—the distances that remain between them all.
In 2000 Reyna becomes an ESL teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She hopes to be an inspirational teacher, like Diana. She teaches immigrant children and finds that, like her, all of the children she teaches have spent time away from their parents. In 2003, when she begins teaching adult school, she encounters many parents who have been forced to leave their children behind. In them, she sees her own parents, and wonders when the cycle of leaving children behind will end—or if it ever will.
Reyna teaches both abandoned children and the parents who did the abandoning. She sees the cycle of children left behind from both sides—she understands how painful it is to be left, but knows how high most parents’ hopes are when they come to El Otro Lado seeking a better life.
In 2002, Reyna becomes a United States citizen, though she continues to consider herself Mexican-American. Both countries are within her, and her writing becomes her way of bridging both identities. In 2006, Reyna publishes her first novel, and the following year it wins an American Book Award; in 2009, her second novel follows. She repairs her relationship with Mila and her father. When Reyna has children, they call Mila “Grandma Mila.”
Reyna’s writing her allows her to bridge the distances between her many selves, and the strength she draws from her success—not to mention the cathartic use of her own experiences to tell a story—allows her to repair the fractured relationships in her life.
After Papi is diagnosed with liver cancer in 2010, Reyna finds herself having to once again reframe her idea of who her father truly is. The sick man lying in a hospital bed is not the same father she came to live with over twenty-five years ago, and Reyna must force herself to leave her complex emotions about Papi—anger, bitterness, and resentment—at the door of his hospital room. Often, she and her siblings become overwhelmed by their emotions and find themselves talking about how their father has at last gotten what he deserved. Reyna tries to remind herself, though, of her “other father”—the one who wanted, above all, a better life for his children.
Even at the end of Papi’s life, as he is sick in bed, Reyna and her siblings struggle with how they see the man. They have been betrayed, abandoned, abused, and let down by their father, and yet in his hour of need, they cannot deny him a brief reprieve from their judgement. Reyna’s past experiences combine to allow her to see her father as a flawed being, but one who ultimately wanted to give his children something he never had.
Towards the end of Papi’s struggle, Reyna knows that what he truly needs is her forgiveness. The day before her thirty-sixth birthday, she stands over his hospital bed with Carlos and Mago as his life-support machines are turned off. She holds her father’s hand, and finds herself wondering whether she would still have followed him to El Otro Lado if she had known what life with him would be like. As Papi takes his last breath, Reyna decides that the answer, against all odds, is yes—her father has made her who she is.
Though it’s difficult to do, Reyna puts aside her pain, judgement, and anger and has a moment of recognition, reflection, and forgiveness with her father. It has all been worth it—all the sorrow, all the abuse—to arrive at the place where she is now, and to have achieved so much.