In the fields, Estrella carefully harvests a bunch of grapes, lets them fall into a basket, and pours them into a carefully-prepared wooden frame which will dry them into raisins. Estrella thinks about the raisin boxes in the supermarket, which show a woman “wearing a fluffy bonnet, holding out the grapes with her smiling, ruby lips.” This woman can’t know anything about the backbreaking work Estrella is doing now, or the sun that is stinging her eyes. In the field conditions, her beautiful outfit would be useless.
Estrella’s work is grueling, absorbing all her focus and energy, yet her meager wages and the perception of field labor promoted by corporations completely ignores this reality. Throughout the novel, the omnipresence of work in Estrella’s life will contrast with the invisibility of that work in the wider society.
In his row, Alejo accidentally cuts himself and stops to suck on his wound. In the distance he hears a toddler crying and looking for his mother; it’s a common scene throughout the day. He thinks of his own grandmother, who has worked so many different jobs in order to keep him in school. Estrella has accompanied her mother to the fields since she was four. Even while hugely pregnant, Petra hauled enormous sacks of cotton which grew “like the swelling child within her.”
The crying toddler is a reminder that Alejo himself – unaccustomed to fieldwork and struggling – is also barely more than a child. In this passage, several vulnerable groups – from children to the elderly to pregnant women – are forced to work dangerous jobs for low pay because they lack social rights and protections.
At lunch, Alejo eats the burrito he’s packed while watching Estrella drink water under the shade of a vine. All morning he’s been struggling to arrange the frames for the grapes, a finicky task. His grandmother has promised him that this job is only temporary, and he gets himself through the day by imagining his first day of high school. He wants to go to college and study geology, which he loves because it roots him in the history of the earth and keeps him from feeling lost.
Alejo loves geology because it gives him a sense of belonging – exactly the thing he lacks in a society that marginalizes him and devalues his work. It’s notable that although geology gives him comfort and security, it’s through the geological phenomenon of tar pits that he’ll later articulate his feelings of social exclusion and erasure.
When Estrella was little, she tried to stay awake in the fields but always ends up falling asleep on her mother’s sack of cotton. She doesn’t realize until much later how much weight this must have added to Petra’s daily burden. Instead, she remembers these moments of sleepy proximity to her mother as happy and tranquil. In his own row, Alejo sees the young boy with the harelip from the night before. The boy ignores his greeting and walks past him down the row.
Estrella’s memory emphasizes the tenderness and strength of her mother and the extreme difficulty of parenting without any access to social resources. It’s interesting that Alejo sees the harelip boy – representative of the plight of migrant workers – just as he’s feeling overwhelmed and oppressed by the day’s work.
Looking sick and dehydrated, Ricky wanders up to Estrella and says he’s feeling poorly – but all she can tell him to do is sit under the trees until it’s time to go home. She looks at the flatbeds of grapes on which she’s worked all day, and wants to cry when she reflects that she’ll be doing this for the rest of her life. As she continues to work, her muscles feel like “barbed wire”; to soothe herself, she thinks about the cool dark barn, where she can sit and relax once she’s home.
Estrella feels intensely responsible for her brother’s welfare, but she’s also powerless to protect him from the heat of the fields – much less keep him in school. Her sense of family obligations contrasts with her desire to cultivate her inner life, which she articulates by imagining the calm solitude of the barn.
Alejo imagines his grandmother bringing him a used copy of Reader’s Digest and remembers rubbing her cold hands with Vaseline at night. He hopes that she’s received the money he sent. When they hear the railroad bells, all the piscadores briefly stop working and think about the difficulties and small pleasures awaiting them after the workday. When the woman next to Alejo unties and rearranges her bandana, he realizes he’s been working next to Estrella all along. She doesn’t notice him.
Like Estrella, Alejo is also taking on familial responsibilities that should belong to adults. The image of the train moving purposefully towards a specific destination contrasts with the listening piscadores, who are trapped in the same routine day after day without gaining anything from their labor.
When Estrella glimpses her own shadow, she’s shocked at how “hunched and spindly” it looks. For a minute, she thinks she sees another shadow looming over her, but when she stands up and calls out, she realizes it’s another field worker. Embarrassed, she gives him a peach she’s been saving for the walk home. When the trucks honk, the workers straighten up, collect errant children, and prepare to go home. Alejo catches sight of Estrella walking down the railroad track, away from the group.
The illusion created by Estrella’s shadow is an unwelcome look into the future that awaits her if she continues to work in the fields. Viramontes often describes her young and healthy body with lyrical language, but these ominous moments qualify the youth and strength that characterize her right now. For Estrella, coming of age is a process of loss and decline.
Alone, Estrella walks to a nearby baseball diamond, where she watches a Little League game as the sun sets. Lots of parents are sitting in the stands with coolers of food, and she wishes she had her peach. She loves watching the baseball fly through the air and the applause that breaks out when someone scores a point.
For Estrella, this is a rare moment of leisure and ease, but she’s actually peeking into the lives of more privileged children her own age, whose lives are characterized by leisure. This poignant moment epitomizes the distance between Estrella and the middle-class society whose lifestyle her work facilitates.
Suddenly, Estrella is confronted by bright headlights – she’s worried that it’s border patrol, and she can’t remember “which side she was on and which side of the wire mesh she was safe in.” She doesn’t know if the lights are meant for her or the players in the field. Suddenly, the entire game seems confusing and nightmarish. She grabs her knife and runs into the night.
Estrella’s sudden sense of dislocation and uncertainty indicates that she doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in either America or Mexico. By describing borders as trivial “wire mesh,” the novel draws attention to the inherently constructed nature of national identity and critiques the discrimination Estrella suffers because of her complex heritage.
Petra is surprised to see Estrella approach the house at a run. Estrella opens Perfecto’s tool chest, pulls out a pry bar, and says she’s “gonna teach someone a lesson.” Patiently, Petra says that La Migra is targeting everyone these days. She’s in the midst of bathing Cookie and Perla, who are fighting each other and their mother. She has ground up yucca roots for soap, and the veins of her legs are standing out. Usually she eats garlic every day to sooth her veins, but they haven’t been able to buy any lately.
Through her anger, Estrella expresses both her frustration with the circumstances of her life and her belief that she can change them. By contrast, Petra’s patience indicates acceptance of her lot in life. Petra’s devotion to the difficult task of bathing Cookie and Perla contrasts ironically with Estrella’s memory of the teacher who dismissed her as “dirty.”
Petra advises Estrella not to let the threat posed by La Migra affect her. She shouldn’t be ashamed of “picking the vegetables they’ll be eating for dinner,” and if she ever gets stopped, she should tell them that her mother is here providing for her; she’s not an orphan. Moreover, her birth certificate is “under the feet of Jesus.” Estrella closes her eyes.
The constant threat of arrest and deportation strips away Estrella’s sense of belonging in America – even though she was born there. Petra’s cryptic words both refer to the icon in the bungalow and suggest that Estrella’s fate is in the hands of God – human powers can’t be trusted.
While waiting for Alejo near the trucks the next day, Gumecindo chats with another piscador, introducing himself. Impatient, the driver almost leaves without Alejo, and two of the men have to lift him into the truck bed as he runs. Estrella is sitting on the bench, cradling Arnulfo’s sleepy head. When she nods hello at Alejo he tries to begin a conversation, saying how beautiful her name is. She explains that her father chose it, but admits that he’s gone now, saying that “things just happen.” When Alejo continues to ask questions, she becomes hostile and suspicious.
Although Alejo’s crush on Estrella is the stuff of conventional teenage romance, it’s obstructed by Estrella’s ingrained suspicion of outsiders; at the same time, their feelings for each other quickly become intense due to the rarity of making connections in the midst of their difficult lives.
That night, Alejo jiggles the change in his pocket and holds a bottle of Coke. Estrella sits next to him on a corral fence, watching an eclipse. Other men are gathered around fires singing and drinking, and it reminds Estrella of the words in her grandmother’s Christian pamphlet: “the Holy Spirit came in the form of tongues of fire to show his love.” She notices Alejo’s gelled hair and his prominent Adam’s apple.
For once, Estrella gets to enjoy a date like a normal teenager. Her description of the night in apocalyptic religious language creates a somewhat eerie atmosphere, however.
No other women are present tonight because of a superstition that being out during the eclipse will cause them to give birth to deformed children, like the harelipped boy sometimes visible in the moon. Petra is very angry at Estrella’s determination to leave the house, but now the young girl shakes out her hair luxuriously as the moon gradually reappears. Alejo apologizes for making her angry earlier, but Estrella says it’s not his fault. She shows Alejo how to blow on the mouth of the Coke bottle and produce an eerie sound. As she walks away, she thinks of her mother’s warning, but is relieved to hear Alejo blowing notes until she’s out of earshot.
Although this superstition may be fallacious, it is true that exposure to the poisoned environment of the farms leads to birth defects. Just as Estrella doesn’t feel safe in America because of the constant threat of deportation, it’s hard to feel at home in an environment that could be poisoning her future children.
After the next full day of work, Estrella wearily trudges to meet Perfecto behind the bungalow. She’s too tired to jump over the fence as she normally does. In the distance a biplane is preparing to spray the fields, even though the bosses said they were doing this next week. Perfecto asks abruptly if Estrella can help him tear down the barn; they can make extra money by selling the material. Estrella hates the thought of using the barn until it’s “all used up” and then destroying it, thinking that this is what will happen to her as well.
In this passage, Estrella identifies herself explicitly with the barn. This comparison firmly establishes the old building as the place where Estrella feels most calm and at home with herself, but also emphasizes the difficulty of cultivating a strong identity and inner life when society treats her as a commodity to be used and discarded.
Estrella tells Perfecto to get someone else to help. Perfecto says that someone once died in the barn, which is why no one comes there and why it needs to come down. Estrella says that “the harelip boy” comes all the time, but Perfecto thinks she’s daydreaming.
Estrella’s offhand comment and Perfecto’s dismissal suggest that the harelip boy is actually a metaphorical representation of migrant workers as a whole, rather than a real character.
Alejo is high up in a peach tree when he sees the biplane overhead. Yelling for Gumecindo to run, he struggles down from the tree but gets caught in the white mist. He breathes in the poison and immediately starts choking; the pesticides spread through his body, causing burning pain and making him feel as though he might vomit. Alejo imagines himself disintegrating into the tar pits he once studied at school, his body gradually losing shape and leaving behind no trace. When he wakes up, bloody and bruised, he’s looking into his cousin’s worried face.
This visceral moment epitomizes the link between environmental degradation and human health. It’s important that Alejo references the tar pits here, a metaphor Estrella will later use when she feels that her hard labor is futile. In this sense, Alejo’s feeling of “disintegrating” reflects not just his physical pain but his existential dread of belonging to a society that treats him and his work as completely dispensable.
After Estrella leaves, Perfecto stays by the corral, thinking. He’s becoming more and more preoccupied with returning to his hometown before he dies or forgets how to get there. Last night, he dreamed of waking up next to a young woman and making love to her; the dream, in which he recognized his first wife, Mercedes, seems more real than his actual life. He still feels guilty about having sex with Mercedes before their marriage; he’s sure that this transgression led to the stillbirth of their first child. He’s always been haunted by this death.
Perfecto’s reverie gives rare insight into his life before he met Petra and became part of her family. His desire to return to his hometown reflects his desire for belonging and stability – things that, given his social circumstances, he can’t actually achieve.
Alejo is battered and sick the next day, but with Gumecindo’s help he boards the truck to go to work. Everyone stares at him and Estrella touches his forehead in concern. He doesn’t reveal that he’s been caught in the pesticide spray, and she tells him that he should be more careful not to fall out of the trees.
Even though Alejo has suffered life-threatening injuries, he still has to go to work the next day. His insistence to go reflects his desire to be an independent adult, but actually emphasizes his vulnerability to sickness and calamity.
Perfecto is beginning to think of his home all the time. He feels that “everything he did like eat and sleep and work and love was prohibited,” and he wants to make things right before he dies. He knows he has to pull the barn down, so that he can give some money to the family before he leaves. He stabs the soil with his knife, letting it dull the blade as it does “his own life.”
Perfecto is feeling trapped, both by religious strictures that make him ashamed of his relationships and by the grueling monotony of migrant life. However, if he extricates himself, he will sink Petra and the children even deeper into poverty and desperation.
It’s so hot this week that two piscadores faint. At lunch, people huddle in the shade and comfort their sweaty children. Estrella sees a girl her own age nursing a baby. On the radio Estrella listens to people call in and make jokes about “mojados” (an offensive term for immigrants). The program is constantly interrupted by commercials.
Radio is supposed to be a form of entertainment accessible to all listeners, but the casual use of racial slurs on the air shows that it actively excludes minorities like Mexican Americans. This chance moment emphasizes Estrella’s marginalization from the most basic aspects of American culture.
Estrella moves to some unclaimed shade under one of the trucks, carefully avoiding the dripping oil. Soon Alejo approaches and scoots under to join her. He explains to her that oil comes from tar pits, pools of of dead animal and plant matter that have accumulated under the sea for millions of years. While he talks, he holds her hand; Estrella is used to close contact with the bodies of her siblings, but this is something entirely different.
Estrella immediately compares the experience of holding hands with Alejo to contact with her siblings. While she usually thinks of herself entirely in relation to her family, blossoming romance with him gives her the opportunity to consider her individual identity.
Alejo says that once while he was picking peaches, he heard people screaming and it made him think of the prehistoric animals who got stuck in the tar pits and died. He says that in the La Brea tar pits they even found a human girl’s bones. He unfolds Estrella’s hand and kisses it gently. She touches his chin and cheek.
Alejo’s observation builds on his earlier comparison of himself to a person sinking in the tar pits. Both he and Estrella repeatedly use this image to articulate the extent to which their work corrodes their bodies and identities.
In the afternoon Estrella wishes she could talk to Maxine; in her friend’s absence she runs home to the quiet barn. She holds her hands up in the sunbeams coming from the ceiling and the safety pins on her cuffs sparkle. Again, she examines the large hanging chain, wondering if it’s part of some grain storage mechanism. When she tries to yank it, her hands are covered with red rust.
Estrella’s wish shows how deprived she is of friends or connections outside her family. However, the barn gives her the space for introspection – even joy – that she often lacks amid her busy and stressful family life.