Negi says that she and her family came to Macún when she was four years old. Their house is made of metal and sits up on stilts. Negi touches a hot metal wall and burns herself, and Mami scolds her before rubbing Vick's VapoRub on the burn. Papi replaces parts of the floor to make it useable, but says he'll need to rip the whole thing out. Mami shudders at the possibility of the snakes and scorpions that live under the floor, while Negi imagines a fascinating world of crawly creatures.
Though Mami cares for Negi's burn, she also makes sure that Negi knows that touching the hot wall wasn't appropriate. This begins to set up the idea that Mami requires Negi to meet certain standards of conduct and behavior, even if those standards aren't made common knowledge outright. It essentially sets Negi up to fail, and gives Mami a lot of power over Negi.
Later, when Papi pulls up the floor, Negi helps him collect the nails that are still useable. Mami calls for Negi to help gather kindling, but Negi insists on helping Papi. Papi ignores Negi, though she wishes he'd ask her to stay and help. Negi slowly goes to help Mami. Negi asks why her younger sisters, Delsa and Norma, don't have to help. Mami swats Negi for talking back.
Papi supports Mami's parenting efforts here; he doesn't try to put Negi in the middle of an adult argument. This shows initially that Papi respects Mami. Negi seems to idolize Papi and wants to participate in men's tasks rather than feminine tasks like cooking, suggesting that Negi is a “tomboy.”
Mami leads Negi to a thicket. A butterfly flies close to Mami's head and she swats it away. Delsa and Norma join Negi and Mami and show them a hen's nest. Mami says they can't eat the eggs and helps her daughters pick up their piles of kindling. She then leads them back to the kitchen and tells Negi to help her make supper. Negi ignores Mami and stares at Papi working. Papi tells Mami to allow Negi to stay, and Mami goes to the kitchen shed in a huff.
Mami evidently isn't charmed by the natural world, while Negi is. This creates distance between them even at Negi's young age. Papi finally challenges Mami and Mami gives in, which shows that Papi seems to have the final say in this family.
Papi gives Negi some old boards and tells her to put them in the pile of wood for the kitchen fire. Negi tries to avoid Mami, but Mami asks to see the board. Mami starts screaming that the board, and now Negi, are covered in termites. Negi feels the bites and starts screaming as Mami lifts her into the washtub and strips her clothes. When Mami has scrubbed enough, she wraps Negi in a towel and carries her to hers and Papi's bed. Mami lies down beside Negi and soothes her, and Negi relishes the closeness and comfort of her mother. Mami says that this is what happens when Negi doesn't listen to her, and Negi curls up in shame. She wonders how the termites knew she'd disobeyed Mami.
Again, Negi wants to obey, be good, and earn praise from both Mami and Papi, but the way that Mami speaks to Negi sets Negi up to be consistently unsuccessful in this endeavor. This creates a very bittersweet experience for Negi—her "disobedience" creates the opportunity for her to get true comfort from Mami, but Mami also turns it into a teaching experience and makes Negi feel ashamed for "disobeying." Notice though the intensity of Negi's desire to please Papi: it's so great that she didn't even notice the termites.
Negi tells the reader that as children, she and her siblings slept in hammocks hung from the ceiling, and a curtain separated the children's side of the house from Mami and Papi's bed. When Papi works, he leaves before dawn, but when he doesn't work, he and Mami stay in bed and Negi tries to listen to their murmurs. Negi isn't allowed out of bed until the sun rises.
Negi is very aware of the things that differentiate her as a child from her adult parents. This creates the sense that there's a huge gulf between children and adults, as well as a sort of puzzle to solve as Negi grows up. Her language here also shows her youth; she doesn't seem to understand that her parents are having sex on those mornings that Papi doesn't work.
The morning after the termite incident, Negi gets out of bed and runs to her parents, who are sitting behind the shed drinking coffee. Mami inspects Negi's termite bites and instructs her to stay out of the sun. Papi hums to the radio, which plays romantic ballads and the news. Negi says that every morning, they listen to "The Day Breaker's Club," which plays traditional “jíbaro” music and poetry. Negi wants desperately to be a jíbara, but Mami says she can't be a jíbara because she was born in the city, where jíbaros are mocked. She scolded Negi once for wanting to be a jíbara.
Jíbaros (masculine singular jíbaro; feminine singular jíbara) exist throughout Latin America, and the term refers to poor country people, often farmers, with a distinctly nationalistic worldview. As a child, Negi's primary connection to the jíbaro way of life is through their music and poetry, which is revered throughout the country. However, even if their art is enjoyed by everyone, the people themselves are looked down upon as poor and provincial.
Negi wonders why her family lives like jíbaros, but she can't call herself a jíbara. Negi says that jíbaro stories and poems are required reading in school, and her grandparents are real jíbaros. She recognizes the hypocrisy of looking down on real jíbaros while celebrating the jíbaro arts, but says that there's no arguing with Mami.
Even though Mami's insistence that Negi not aspire to be a jíbara hurts now, it shows that Mami does want what she thinks is best for her children and wants Negi to succeed (and being a jíbara isn't considered being successful). At this point, though, Negi's relationship to the jíbaro way of life is representative of her split identity.
Delsa and Norma come out for their oatmeal. Negi says that Mami calls Delsa "Muñequita" (little doll) and Norma "La Colorá" (colored one). She says she thought that she didn't have a nickname until the day Mami said that her real name is Esmeralda, and Negi is a nickname she got because as a baby, her skin was very dark. Mami told Negi that her nickname means that they love her. Negi asks about Mami, Papi, and other family members' nicknames. Mami explains that only people who don't know you well, such as the government, use a person's official name. Negi thinks it's very complicated that everyone has two names and seems to have two identities: one self that's loved, and an official self that isn't.
Negi learns that she's not the only one with a split identity, though she seems to be the only one bothered by it. The discovery that Negi has a "real" name creates a way for the reader to tell who loves Negi and who doesn't, depending on what they call her. Mami's careful explanation situates family (those who use nicknames) as safe and loving, and pits this idea of family against the rest of the world.
When Papi puts in the new floor, Mami asks Negi and Delsa to find stones to plug the holes in the dirt floor of the house. Delsa suggests that they check on the hen, and they begin to circle the hen to try to make her dizzy. The hen watches the girls and finally, Mami yells and asks what Delsa and Negi are doing. Delsa and Negi giggle and say they were checking on the hen, and Mami tells them to leave the hen alone.
It's unclear whether Mami is upset because the girls didn't find stones or because they were pestering the hen, but it's clear that Mami is disappointed that they didn't follow her directions—her high standards of behavior apply to all her children, not just Negi. At the same time, this scene shows the sisters just having fun and being mischievous kids.
Negi and Delsa creep past Mami, who looks very angry. As they pass her, Mami hits both girls on their heads. They go to Papi, but he tells them they know better. Negi wishes that Papi would scold Mami, but he continues working. Negi then screams in anger, pushes Delsa, and they wrestle until Mami and Papi separate them. Negi runs into the oregano bushes and cries, feeling alone.
At this point, Negi would like Papi to use his power as a man very differently than the way he actually uses it. Negi wants Mami to suffer the same kind of scolding that she herself suffers, which indicates that what Negi really wants is for Mami to understand her pain.
Several days later, Negi wakes to Mami groaning. Negi gets up and asks Mami if she's okay, and Mami tells Negi she's going to have a baby. Negi asks Mami for breakfast, but is saved from Mami's anger by Papi arriving with two neighbor women, Doña Lola and Doña Zena. The women usher Negi, Delsa, and Norma up the road. Delsa and Norma wail.
Even though Negi often feels angry at Mami, she still cares deeply for Mami's wellbeing. Though Negi's sudden request for breakfast is somewhat humorous, it also suggests that Negi expresses her love for Mami through demands, and shows that they're not always met.
Negi doesn't understand why they have to leave and thinks that she never put Mami's swollen belly together with babies. She realizes that another baby is going to put even more distance between her and her mother, and she fears that Mami will forget her. Negi sits on Doña Zena's steps and thinks of jíbaro poetry.
Negi realizes that her demands will be met even less with another baby to distract Mami. Multiple younger siblings so close in age essentially forces Negi to grow up and become independent very early in life.