- Makina – The novel follows Makina through her journey North to find her brother. She is the operator of the switchboard telephones because she is bilingual, and consequently she is up-t0-date on all of the town’s gossip and knows, intuitively, how people operate. Throughout the novel, Makina is perceived as tough and protective, making her the perfect candidate for the journey.
- Makina's Brother – The plot of the novel is centered around Makina crossing the border to find her brother, who had crossed years earlier to make something of himself and return home with something to offer. He is a proud man, too proud to return when he realizes America is not as he imagined it'd be. Her brother works as a house keeper for a family whose eldest son enlists in the Army, and they ask him to assume the identity of their American son to take his place so their boy doesn't die at war. Makina's brother does so because in return he will get to keep the man's identity and be paid a large sum upon return, which he will be able to bring home and prove he has made something of himself.
- Cora – Cora is Makina’s mother who sends her on the journey to find her brother, passing along the message— revealed at the end— to “come on home, now, no one expects anything of you.” She is a strong, no nonsense woman who wants her son back to the Village.
- Chucho – The man charged with aiding Makina across the border and into America. At the end of the novel we find out he had been watching Makina the entire time to ensure her safety, but ultimately he plays a paternal role during their interactions and seems to be the only male character who doesn't sexualize Makina, but risks his life for her and helps her.
- Doña – Maternal restaurant worker who helps both Makina and her brother upon their arrival to America. She provides a sense of comfort to Makina in a place that is so unfamiliar: she describes her as trustworthy and hardworking, and reminds Makina of Cora.
- Family – The plot of the novel is centered around getting Cora's family back together. After her son immigrates to America to make something of himself, Cora sends Makina to find him with a note that explains she expects nothing of him, and just wants his return. The fact that he feels as though he must return with something for his family, and the fact that he risks his life in many ways to do so, is telling of his commitment to his family. Makina's fearlessness while crossing the border into an unfamiliar and unpredictable territory, also putting her life at risk, is telling of her commitment to family, too.
- Displacement – Displacement is a huge theme in this story between the novel itself never resting– it follows the journey of Makina across the border– and between the translated language disrupting the prose of the novel, Herrera and Dillman sought to disorient the reader in ways similar (though obviously not comparable) to the protagonist.
- Hell – The first two words of the novel are "I'm dead," as it begins with a massive sinkhole angry enough to kill masses, and ends with Makina creeping down a set of stairs into an underground world where she is to assume a new American Identity. Throughout the novel, there are several references to hell, and the novel itself serves as an allegory.
"You don’t lift other people’s petticoats…
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business…
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot…
You are the door, not the one who walks through it."
On the temptation weaved throughout the novel:
"She couldn't get lost. Every time she came to the Big Chilango she trod softly, because that was not the place she wanted to leave her mark, and she told herself repeatedly that she couldn't get lost, and by get lost she meant not a detour or a sidetrack but lost for real, lost forever in the hills of hills cementing the horizon: or lost in awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces. That was why she chose to travel underground to the other bus depot. Train ran around the entire circulatory system but never left the body; down there the heavy air would do her no harm, and she ran no risk of becoming captivated."
Apologizing for existing:
We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians
Of the people in the North:
"They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.
More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born."
Zoe James-Collins ’19