Fantasy vs. Reality
Rita comes to the island with what she sees as a realist perspective. Her smart-aleck, know-it-all attitude is authoritatively adolescent and grounded in her American upbringing, as evidenced upon her arrival when she reports, "My friends from Central High would have died laughing if they had seen the women with their fans going back and forth across their shiny faces fighting over ... who was going to sit next to whom." She makes light of her grandparents' spiritual work by calling it Ghostbusting and asserts that her grandfather must be senile because he comforts his troubled rooster. However, as she is drawn into the scenario between Angela, her mother, and her mother's boyfriend, Rita is affected by her grandparents' wisdom and acumen in determining the source of strife in the family. Papá eventually teaches Rita some of his skills of perception, and she comes to call herself a medium. By the end of the story, Rita has assimilated the seemingly mystical in her grandparents' culture into her own version of reality.
Bad and Good Influence
Mala influencia initially refers to the evil spirit that Papá banishes from Angela's house, but the term applies to Rita's summer in several different ways. Rita has clearly been sent to her grandparents in hopes they will be a good influence over her, since her parents think she is on the verge of getting into trouble with boys. Rita and Angela are good influences on each other; in the course of their summer together Angela moves toward wellness and Rita adapts comfortably to island life. Rita and Angela joke about Rita's boyfriend Johnny Ruiz, who was seen by Rita's parents as having a bad influence over her. They agree that he sounds like a troubled young man, and joke that perhaps he is himself under a mala influencia.
Individual vs. Community
Rita arrives in Puerto Rico from New Jersey sporting an individualist attitude; she sees herself as separate and isolated. She tries to get away from her family and feels suffocated by the way her grandparents push themselves into her bedroom and into her life. They touch her too much and she feels suffocated by so much close contact. She tells an anecdote about trying to make a phone call while the neighbors listen and interpret; her mother explains that Puerto Ricans have different ideas of privacy from Americans, and Rita's desire for more space is a very American quality. Over time Rita becomes accustomed to the island lifestyle, and although she and Angela are allowed to withdraw from others and assert their identities this way, eventually she becomes more willing to join the community.
Drama and Hyperbole
On the day Rita arrives on the island, Mamá Ana watches telenovelas and Rita rolls her eyes at her grandmother's dramatic relationship to the Puerto Rican equivalent of soap operas. She takes a critical view of the exaggerated, typically Latino reactions to events around her such as Mamá Ana's shrieks and wails at Rita's feigned asthma. As she depicts the conversations around her, the drama inherent in Latin American culture is apparent in the rapid speech patterns and exclamations that pepper the text. Ironically, Rita's brand of adolescent cynicism bears a similarly overblown quality, as when she characterizes her grandmother, at work trapping crabs, as a murderess. Thus she is inextricably part of a culture that strikes her as foreign.