Carlos agitated against Trujillo's military dictatorship, which led to his family's flight from the Dominican Republic to the United States. As a doctor, he must face the humiliation of having to reestablish his professional reputation and credentials, as not being able to provide for his family in the manner they were used to back home on the Island. He also has difficulty accepting that his daughters will mature and assimilate into American culture. He fights with his daughters when they show a spark of independence or individuality, and insist that they must behave as Dominican women would, even though this is an unrealistic expectation. Because he left the Dominican Republic as a mature man, and his daughters left when they were young children, he is in many ways culturally distinct from them. They have trouble tolerating his Dominican values when they clash with the American attitudes they have adopted regarding sexuality and gender relations.
Laura comes from a very wealthy, privileged and influential family in the Dominican Republic. As a daughter of the de la Torre clan and a doctor's wife, she considers herself entitled to a degree of social respect and material privilege that is unrealistic to expect as a recent immigrant. Her frustration with the challenges of immigration is reflected in her snobbery, yet she attempts to make a new identity for herself as an American wife, mother, and inventor of household gadgets. She defends her daughters' individuality and creativity and supports them through their mental breakdowns. She is intensely proud of her family name, her children and her grandchildren.
As the oldest daughter, Carla felt most out of place in the United States and had the most trouble fitting in to her new social and cultural environment. She was harassed at school by malicious and prejudiced boys, and felt isolated by her limited English language abilities. Her discomfort with puberty was exacerbated by an encounter with a perverted American exhibitionist in a car. She dealt with these issues later in life by becoming a psychologist and analyzing her family's myriad mental problems.
Sandra's artistic abilities were frustrated as a child by poor art instruction and a terrible fall which badly broke her arm. She felt stifled as a child by her parents' desires to fit into American culture and was criticized for expressing her own needs or hopes. She grew disillusioned with American virtue after watching a drunk woman kiss her father. Her inability to express herself artistically or personally led to an eventual mental breakdown, characterized by her belief that she was moving backward through evolution and was losing her humanity. This loss of humanity symbolizes her loss of artistic inspiration and a sense of her own unique identity.
Yolanda was the tomboy of the family and got herself into trouble as a child. She is haunted by the memory of a kitten that she kidnapped from its mother, as well as the fear she felt as the family struggled to leave the Dominican Republic. Once in the United States, she had difficulty interacting with men in sexual and romantic situations, and eventually divorced her husband, John. This heartbreak led to a mental breakdown and the inability to use language in a meaningful way. This was a particularly traumatic experience since language was a particularly important part of her life as a poet. She returned to the Dominican Republic after her divorce in order to reconnect to her cultural roots, though she finds she has forgotten her Spanish and sticks out culturally. When faced with a challenging situation, such as car trouble at night in the middle of nowhere, she feels most comfortable in her identity as an English speaking American woman, rather than a Dominican immigrant. She is the sister who most enjoys taking on the role of storyteller, and she hopes to unfold the past to better understand the trauma that underlies the various struggles of the entire family.
Sofia is the youngest daughter and as a result does not have many clear memories of life in the Dominican Republic. She does remember the Haitian maid, Chucha, who performed voodoo spells. When she got older, she had "non-stop boyfriends," ran off with Otto from Germany, and developed a tense and at times openly hostile relationship with her father. After a failed relationship with a Dominican boyfriend, she embraces American attitudes toward sexual relationships. She challenges sexual double standards that she finds to be more pronounced in traditional Dominican culture and claims her sexual independence. She and her father begin to reconcile when she had her children, but at his birthday party she continues to flaunt her sexuality and his powerlessness to control it by kissing his ear in a particularly seductive way.