At long last, the family arrives at the clinic, a white trailer in an empty lot. As they pull in the gas gauge hits empty, not moving when Perfecto checks if it’s stuck. Even after he removes the key the car continues to clank and grumble. He sits behind the wheel as if the rest of the family has exhausted him beyond repair. Petra also sits quietly until Estrella gets out, marshals the family, and marches into the clinic.
After taking physical responsibility for the car, Estrella also takes on the mental responsibility of overseeing the clinic visit. As she handles critical decisions in the next chapters, Estrella will emerge as the uneasy and reluctant head of her family, even as she realizes how powerless she is to advocate for them.
In fact, they only managed to get here by luck – after hours of laboring over the car, some piscadores showed up and helped them push it out of the ditch. The men look briefly at Alejo but seem determined not to talk about him or his illness. Petra feels disappointed that they put so much effort into arriving at this uninspiring, makeshift building. Perfecto tests the poles that uphold the clinic and notices how they wobble, hoping to barter his services for care.
The piscadores’ willingness to help with the car indicates the spirit of community among the impoverished laborers, but their silence on Alejo’s condition indicates their fatalistic view of his prospects, and emphasizes Estrella’s isolation as she tries to actively defeat his illness.
Inside, the empty clinic smells like “bad plumbing.” Estrella guides Alejo to a chair and everyone waits uneasily for the doctor. As the fan rotates slowly and no one appears, they wonder if the clinic is even open. Perfecto runs his hands over the walls, looking for “signs of disrepair.” The twins explore the long counter full of gauze pads and cotton balls.
Perfecto knows that he can pay a fair price for Alejo’s care with his own labor, but this potential trade depends on the staff recognizing and respecting the value of his work, and is thus uncertain.
The cotton looks white and fake to Petra, nothing like the material she harvests in the fields. Seeing the scale reminds her of all the times she wet her cotton or put rocks in her sack to make it weigh more. For her, scales are the arbiters of how much she’s worth and how much she gets to eat. Perfecto catches sight of himself in a mirror; his reflection looks dirty and old.
Like Estrella’s earlier observation about the raisin boxes at the supermarkets, Petra’s thoughts now indicate how invisible her labor is in the society around her; moreover, they show that this erasure makes it impossible for her to feel at ease in that society.
Suddenly, a young woman emerges from the bathroom; she’s wearing fresh lipstick and seems disappointed to see them. As Estrella explains that Alejo is ill, she realizes how dirty she and her clothes are, especially compared to this uniformed woman. The nurse is clearly annoyed to postpone her departure, but she retrieves her stethoscope out of the door. On her desk is a photo of two grinning boys.
The clinic visit is one of Estrella’s only interactions with someone outside her own socioeconomic status. Throughout this episode, the nurse’s appearance and behavior will remind her of her own poverty and the gulf between her and the middle-class (and white) society this woman represents.
The nurse asks Estrella about Alejo’s personal information and origins. Estrella lies about his last name and says that he’s a relative. She has to translate everything the nurse says to Petra, who is standing by impatiently. Estrella asks how much the doctor will charge, but the nurse says that only she will examine Alejo, since the doctor won’t come to the clinic for another month. Cloyingly, the nurse asks Estrella to tell Alejo to get on the scale; she tersely explains that he’s from Texas and therefore speaks perfect English.
Petra and Perfecto’s inability to speak with the nurse emphasizes the leadership role that Estrella is unwillingly acquiring. Meanwhile, the nurse’s assumption that Alejo doesn’t speak English shows that because of his race, it’s impossible for her to consider him a “real” American – even though Estrella has told her more than once where he was born.
With difficulty and Estrella’s help, Alejo drags himself onto the scale. The resistance of his body reminds her of the futile task of pushing the car out of the hole: both moments seem to prove that “God was mean and did not care and she was alone to fend for herself.” She wants to return to the cool, dark barn and cry.
For Estrella, each new assumption of responsibility convinces her of the pointlessness of her labor. Growing up erases her earlier sense of possibility and causes her to acquire her mother’s fatalism.
The nurse makes some notes and then helps Alejo to an examination table, asking why Estrella didn’t bring him in sooner. She banishes everyone from the exam room except for Estrella, who speaks English. Petra mistrusts all the nurse’s writing, and she’s annoyed by her carnation perfume, which is so noxious to pregnant women that she wants to vomit. Everything on the nurse’s desk – from the boys smiling too hard to the cloyingly sweet kitten statuette, and even the nurse’s overly clean appearance – seems like a sign of falsity.
The nurse’s photos and kitten statues seem like the innocuous accessories of an American workplace, but to Petra they represent the middle-class society which both relies on migrant labor and refuses to respect the people who perform that level. The novel encourages the reader to observe the hypocrisy that underpins many scenes of “typical” American life.
Alejo says he doesn’t want Estrella to watch the examination, but the nurse reassures him that she’ll stand behind a curtain. Petra spits into a trash can and wonders aloud about the cost of the visit.
Petra’s irreverence for the nurse is a way of reminding herself that she has value, even in the midst of an encounter that devalues and disrespects her.
The nurse concludes that Alejo has dysentery, but she has no way to test her hypothesis; he needs to go to the hospital in Corazón before he becomes too dehydrated. Petra and Perfecto are frustrated and resentful when Estrella translates this verdict, saying that it’s not their responsibility to take him to the hospital. Estrella angrily reminds her mother that Gumecindo has gone back to Texas; there is no one except them to take him. Petra points out that Alejo doesn’t have papers with him, or money to pay for medical care. The twins ask if Alejo is going to die, and Petra sends them outside. Perfecto asks where Corazón is.
The nurse is both unable to provide meaningful care and clearly uninterested in Alejo’s predicament – showing that even when the family manages to get to the clinic, they don’t enjoy the standard of care accorded to more privileged patients. Estrella’s stalwart acceptance of the new responsibility of getting Alejo to the hospital shows that she’s growing into her mother’s shoes – even if it puts her in opposition to Petra at this moment.
All the while, Alejo lies on the examination table and Estrella holds his hand. She notices that his body is unnaturally white. The nurse returns to her desk and says magnanimously that although the visit is supposed to cost fifteen dollars, she’ll only charge ten, because “times are hard these days.” Estrella looks at the nurse, thinking about “how easily she put herself in a position to judge.” She tells Perfecto the price and Petra explodes in anger, asking why they have to pay so much simply for the nurse to confirm what they already knew.
The nurse’s offer and Estrella’s offended reaction shows the fundamental disconnect between the different social classes they represent. The nurse thinks she’s doing something charitable, but she’s still just siphoning away the family’s scarce resources.
Perfecto opens his wallet and pulls out eight dollar bills. With the change in his pocket, he’s able to put together $9.07. Estrella asks if Perfecto can fix the toilet and the wall in exchange for the visit, but the nurse dismisses this offer and collects their money. She says that she’s not allowed to authorize repairs. She carefully sorts out all the coins into a cash box, which she locks in the drawer.
Perfecto’s ability to provide for the family with his mechanical skill depends on people valuing that skill – which the nurse clearly doesn’t. While the inherent dignity of work can give satisfaction on an individual level, it often fails to provide social rights or benefits.
Estrella explains to Alejo that he will get sicker unless he goes to a hospital. Alejo hazily asks her to take him home, which frustrates Estrella since she doesn’t know how to do that. The nurse urges them to hurry up, because she needs to pick up her kids. Estrella doesn’t know what to do; they can’t really leave the clinic, as they don’t have enough money to go anywhere else. The situation seems especially unfair given that the clinic visit was so unhelpful.
Frustrated at Alejo’s confused request, Estrella realizes that even as she takes on new responsibilities, she can’t really fulfill any of them. It’s impossible for her to get Alejo back to Texas, or even care for him in California. While they used to relate to each other as young lovers, his dependence on her now likens him to her younger siblings and emphasizes her lonely position as head of the family.
Estrella stares at the exhausted Perfecto and tries to think. She wonders if she’s experiencing the kind of panic that has plagued her mother for years. She wishes that the nurse would agree to barter – then she would at least have enough money to get Alejo to the hospital. She resents the woman’s refusal to compromise; after all, she was suggesting a trade, not begging for money.
Perfecto and Petra’s inaction shows Estrella that she has to think of a solution to this problem. Her deep identification with Petra at this moment shows that she conceives of motherhood as a long period of “panic,” rather than a pure relationship between a woman and her children.
Estrella thinks back to the tar pits. It seems that her family’s bones create the oil in the pits, the oil that makes the nurse’s car to run and allows her to pick up her kids. Really, the nurse owes them more than they owe her.
The nurse sees Estrella and her family as people who depend on her for charity. But with her deep knowledge of her own labor, Estrella reframes the situation to show that in fact it’s the middle class that is deeply indebted to the migrants on whom it depends.
Estrella walks out of the clinic towards the car, where Ricky and Arnulfo are playing. She opens the trunk, pulls out the crowbar, and stalks back in. Perfecto, Petra, and Alejo watch as she holds the crowbar over the nurse and tells her to give them back the money. She threatens to smash everything in the clinic; when the nurse tries to protest, she brings the crowbar down on the desk, shattering the photograph of the children. The nurse starts to cry. Estrella holds out her hand.
In one of her early flashbacks, Estrella held Perfecto’s crowbar and remarked on the “significance it awarded her.” Back then, she thought the tools were an avenue to a meaningful existence within American society. Now the crowbar gives her power, but it’s a power that establishes her as a criminal in the eyes of society and cements her marginalization.
Shakily, the nurse retrieves the cash box and counts out $9.07. Now that she has it, Estrella doesn’t even want to hold the money. She feels like two girls: one who does chores for her mother, and another who threatens people for money. The bills feel as sweaty as her dirty body. She says that the nurse should have let Perfecto fix the plumbing, but the other woman is too busy sobbing to listen.
Referencing the tar pits, Estrella articulated how the work of providing for her family subsumes her thoughts and identity. Here, providing for her family warps her identity by forcing her to express a harsh and violent side of her character that she doesn’t particularly like.
Near the clinic, Perfecto buys five dollars worth of gas. Estrella looks out the window, where she can see a valley full of grapes and some piscadores. Alejo asks weakly if Estrella hurt the nurse. Wearily, Estrella muses that “they make you that way” by refusing to listen until “you pick up a crowbar.” Alejo asks again if Estrella hurt the nurse, and tells her that it’s not worth it. She becomes frustrated and thinks that he’s being impractical. Alejo tells her not to “make it so easy for them.”
Estrella’s remark implicitly argues that criminal behavior is often caused by desperation, not bad character. Alejo’s exhortation not to “make it easy for them” expresses his persisting aspiration to succeed within American society, but Estrella is now convinced that she can only interact with that society as a powerless migrant or a menacing figure with a crowbar.
Still looking out the window, Estrella remembers a long-ago visit to a ranch store filled with bell peppers in brilliant colors. At the time, the arrangement of fruits had seemed miraculous, and Estrella was about to point it out to Petra when a woman plucked up a few peppers, disrupting the work of arranging the fruit in an instant.
Estrella’s memory argues that all beautiful things in her life – from the arrangement of produce to her relationship with Alejo – are frighteningly fragile, liable to crumble at an instant.
Frustrated, Estrella tells Alejo that he’s being stupid, but he insists that “they want us to act like that.” Estrella doesn’t want to keep talking about this, because none of Alejo’s protests can change what she did. She reflects that for her, neither “Elvis’s glitter” nor “the heavenly look of La Virgen” are as beautiful as the idea of the bell pepper.
Here, Estrella invokes consumer goods and religion, the two things that often signify stability to Petra. For her, neither of these things are as comforting as the joy derived from the beautiful environment or intimate relationships with others. This is both a demonstration of Estrella’s disillusionment with her society and an important affirmation of the power of one’s inner life, rather than external institutions, to provide fulfillment.
Petra says that the nurse had better not call the police. Estrella reassures her, saying that she and Perfecto will start tearing down the barn tomorrow. Perfecto feels the car struggling beneath them, and knows that it makes “no promises.” Ricky says hopefully that they should stay in one place for a while, but when Petra, indulging him, consults Perfecto, he concurs without really meaning what he’s saying.
Estrella’s new willingness to tear down the barn – which has been her refuge and allowed her to cultivate her own identity – reflects her brave willingness to sacrifice that identity for her family’s welfare. Yet, it’s clear that even that sacrifice probably won’t provide them with the stability that Ricky so plaintively wishes for.
Perfecto exits the highway and follows signs for the hospital. The twins are fidgeting and drawing faces in the window. When he pulls into the parking lot, Perfecto keeps the ignition running because he’s worried that the battery will die. He instructs Estrella to take Alejo inside and leave him; the nurses will take it from there. Estrella thanks him and hauls Alejo out of the car. Watching them walk away, Perfecto reflects that although he’s “given this country his all,” no one has ever thanked him as sincerely as this young girl.
Like Estrella, Perfecto has despaired of finding a meaningful place in American society, which fundamentally disregards his contributions. The only alleviations of his oppression are the personal connections he forms with those who share his plight, just as one of Estrella’s few comforts in her isolation is her strong bond with Petra.
In a few minutes, Estrella reemerges from the hospital, feeling empty without Alejo by her side. To impress the twins, she makes a big show of exiting through the automatic door. Cookie and Perla can’t believe their eyes; they fight to sit next to Estrella in the car and feel warm and safe all the way home, thinking that their sister has the power to “split glass in two.”
The twins’ perception of Estrella as powerful and awe-inspiring contrasts with her actual powerlessness – she set out to cure Alejo and has been forced to leave him alone in the hospital.