Elena is a teenage Puerto Rican girl who lives in Paterson, New Jersey in 1963. Her family lives in an apartment complex called El Building, and she likes to go out on the fire escape to read. Her friend Eugene lives next door and she likes to look down into his backyard as well as into the kitchen. She first started watching the yard and the kitchen next door when an elderly Jewish couple lived there before Eugene's family moved in.
"Over the years I had become part of their family, without their knowing it, of course. I had a view of their kitchen and their backyard, and though I could not hear what they said, I knew when they were arguing, when one of them was sick, and many other things."
Elena likes looking at the yard and the kitchen because they represent peace, family, and having one's own space to call home--unlike an apartment. She would like to have a kitchen table or yard so she can sit and read in a comfortable place rather than the fire escape of a big, ugly building.