Lucas is Isabel's handsome and athletic fiancé. Because he was in love with Isabel, Lucas broke off his previous engagement to Teresa, Isabel's best friend. Isabel accepted his proposal, and he began planning for their future.
Lucas' belief system is very traditional and reflects the attitudes of the village. He is a hard worker, finding work wherever he can. For a while, he works with the men who are digging the water-line channel that will provide running water to the village. He loves Isabel, and also needs to know that she loves him. When he sees how curious she is about Allan, the American visitor, and sees her interact with him, he becomes very jealous and begins to doubt their relationship. When Lucas is hurt, he becomes stubborn and unwilling to talk.
Lucas' hesitance to work out personal problems almost leads to the breakup of his relationship with Isabel. Confused by jealousy, Lucas allows Teresa, who secretly wants him back, to fill his head with doubts about Isabel. Ultimately, the truth emerges, and Lucas and Isabel realize they are meant for each other. In fact, he loves her enough to agree that they will try to make her dream of becoming a teacher come true, although he cannot see how.
Isabel is the novel's main character. She is a Mayan teenager who is forced to stay home from school and take care of the family because her mother is ill. Isabel handles all of her usual errands in addition to the work that her mother would normally do. Isabel loves school and misses going every day, but her responsibilities at home prevent her from continuing her education. Already, many of Isabel's friends have left school to get married, as is expected of girls their age. Isabel's dream is to be a teacher, a position that would allow her to fuel her own love of learning while educating and inspiring children. In her village, however, it is unlikely that her dream will ever come true, as she is expected to marry soon and take on the full-time role of wife and mother. As Isabel comes to terms with her own identity, she grapples with the conflict between the tradition of her village and her desire to follow her dream.
Isabel is miserable with her additional responsibilities to the family, and she feels selfish because she is not more willing to make sacrifices. She sees how her mother suffers physically and wonders what gives her the right to feel that she, in perfect health, is really suffering at all. At confession, she is told that her feelings are perfectly normal and that she is doing nothing wrong. Still, she cannot shake the feeling that she is somehow deficient as a woman because of her private resentment.
Isabel is engaged to handsome Lucas Choy, who broke his previous engagement with her best friend, Teresa, because he was in love with Isabel. She is amazed at Teresa's willingness to be her friend despite what happened with Lucas. While Isabel loves Lucas and wants to marry him, she is not ready to give up her dream of being a teacher. She is very sensitive to Lucas' moods and feelings, and when he is upset with her, she is determined to talk to him and resolve their problems.
When the American Allan Waters comes to town, Isabel seems to be the only one who is not afraid of him. She is fascinated by what she can learn from this foreigner and senses that he is harmless and can be trusted. Unlike the others in her village,...
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Isabel is not afraid of change and seeks ways to combine the old traditions and beliefs with new ways of thinking and doing things. In the end, after a talk with her teacher, Isabel finds a way to make peace with Lucas without losing him, and even does so without agreeing to sacrifice the dream that means so much to her.
Manuela is Isabel's very ill mother. Her illness is incapacitating, causing her to suffer weakness, fatigue, swollen limbs, severe chest pains, and fits. Her infrequent walks are extremely difficult and taxing. During the course of the novel, the reader only sees Manuela in her weakened state, although Isabel's memories provide occasional flashbacks to the vibrant and joyful woman she once was. Manuela is a very devout woman, carefully performing all the rituals as instructed by the village healer. Not wanting to cause undue trouble, she often says she is fine when it is clear that she is not. Only twice does she admit in front of Isabel how bad her condition really is.
Although Manuela agrees to go to Sololá to the Western hospital, she refuses any tests beyond a basic examination. Isabel stays with her while the doctor listens to her chest and heart, but Manuela refuses to allow the doctor to draw a blood sample or take X-rays. She is stubborn and resolute. Isabel later explains that taking Western medicine is unthinkable to Manuela because it is like something from another world entering her body and staying there forever.
One scene allows the reader to see Manuela's soft and maternal side. Seeing how badly her daughter wants to go with the rest of the village to see the soccer game, she insists that Isabel go. She understands that her daughter spends most of her time in the house or running errands and knows that a young girl needs to have fun, and, moreover, that Isabel deserves it. She squeezes Isabel's hand and says of her daughter's domestic duties, "I know this is hard for you." In this moment, Isabel realizes that her mother is still a loving and understanding person, despite the illness from which she suffers.
Allan is an American medical student visiting Guatemala as part of his studies. His father was a doctor who traveled through Central America on medical projects, and Allan hopes to follow in his footsteps. Isabel is struck by Allan's appearance the first time she sees him: He has long, wavy blond hair and blue eyes that initially make Isabel believe he is blind. Allan gestures broadly to make his points, while the natives keep their arms close to their bodies. His clothes are unusual, and later, when Isabel talks to him, she is aghast at how much he has spent on items like his backpack, camera, and ticket to fly to Guatemala.
Allan hopes to create a book of symptoms that will enable Guatemalan people of all languages to communicate with any doctor to get the medical care they need. The book is to contain pictures of symptoms, so all the patient has to do is point. To create this book, Allan needs to observe and interact with natives to better understand what symbols and artistic styles are most meaningful to them. Unfortunately, Allan is greeted with mistrust and suspicion because he is a foreigner; the political climate is such that trusting strangers can bring disaster.
When Isabel persuades Alfredo and Manuela to go to the Western hospital in Sololá, Allan accompanies them. He hopes to gain their trust while at the same time finding the elusive cure for Manuela's worsening condition. When Manuela refuses to submit to tests, Allan convinces the doctor to give him the medication for her anyway.
Although Allan initially feels that he is doing the Mayans a favor by trying to help them, he learns that he must be patient among people who do not feel they need help. Instead of being arrogant and patronizing, he learns to be respectful and observant.
Eziquel Coxol Eziquel is the sanjorin, or town healer. He is an older man, in his sixties, with as much energy and vigor as an adolescent. His medicine is based on the principles of appeasing the traditional gods, casting spells, and performing rituals. Isabel describes him as "mystical" and imagines him as "someone who spoke directly to the gods and who had power over the bric-a-brac of nature.’’
Not until he has exhausted every treatment he knows does he agree that perhaps Manuela, Isabel's mother, should visit the Western doctors in Sololá. Due to a fight with Isabel's father, Alfredo, however, Eziquel does not accompany the family and Allan on their trip to the hospital. When the family returns and Manuela has another fit, Isabel implores the men to give her mother the medicine Allan has gotten from the doctor in Sololá. Both Alfredo and Eziquel agree.
Alfredo Pacay Isabel's father, Alfredo, is a hard-working man who earns just enough to provide for his family while at the same time making himself emotionally available to them. He makes a special effort on behalf of Isabel, as she fills the role of the woman of the house. One morning, Alfredo even sneaks out of the house and sacrifices a chicken to the gods (both native and Christian) while praying specifically for Isabel. Alfredo knows Isabel would rather be going to school, but also respects her as a maturing woman capable of handling life's difficulties.
Alfredo enjoys telling legends and stories to his children. He also teaches them that there is danger in accepting new things. Even when Isabel expresses her disagreement with him on this point, he explains that he once believed he could enable his children to become educated and to better their lives, but now he sees that there is no use in trying to change the way things are.
Diego Pacay Diego is the younger of Isabel's two brothers. He is a typical young boy who plays with tops, likes to be with his friends, and admires his older brother.
José Pacay At twelve, José is the older of the two brothers. He is among the last of his peers to remain in school and is eager to be finished. José dislikes school as much as Isabel loves it. He much prefers working in the fields, cutting wood, and fishing. José is also very athletic and enjoys showing off his soccer skills.
Marcelina Pacay Isabel's much younger sister, Marcelina, helps Isabel as best she can by carrying small bundles, taking food to their brothers in the fields, and flattening dough into tortillas. Marcelina is a playful and spirited child who loves Isabel like a mother.
Teresa Isabel's best friend, Teresa, keeps her informed of what is going on at school in her absence. Isabel feels she can confide in her good friend Teresa, and when she begins to have problems with Lucas, it is Teresa to whom she turns. Teresa promises to talk to Lucas to try to help resolve matters.
Teresa, however, secretly has feelings for Lucas and tells him lies about Isabel to try to win him back. She says that Isabel does not want to marry him and that she wants an American to take her away from their village. Teresa exploits Lucas' insecurities about Allan, but in the end her schemes do not work. Once Isabel and Lucas talk out their problems, their relationship is stronger than ever.
Maestro Andrés Xiloj Maestro Andrés is the teacher at the village school. Isabel is very fond of him, and he appreciates her desire to learn. To Isabel, he is a wise and understanding man who can advise without judging. When Isabel feels most lost and uncertain about what action to take, it is Maestro Andrés who tells her she does not have to sacrifice all of her dreams for the sake of pleasing everyone else. He tells her that he was once jailed for a teachers' strike and how he suffered in jail. Isabel learns that there can be consequences for making unpopular decisions, but that if she is true to herself, she can handle the outcome. Maestro Andrés also tells her that she should ask herself what she really wants and not be afraid if the answer is unconventional. His advice helps her to see what she must do, thus leading her to make a decision that will bring her fulfillment and personal growth.