Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World details the journey of a young woman named Makina, who crosses the border between Mexico and America in an attempt to find her brother. When one considers the novel, it seems as though its title is unfitting. What does the end of the world have anything to do with going to another country, or finding a loved one?
In order to figure out what the signs preceding the end of the world are, it is important to start with the very beginning of the novel. Part of the answer is right in front of us—the first chapter is even titled “The Earth”! In this chapter and the next few after, Herrera establishes the characteristics of Makina’s world, only to gradually bring it to an end as the novel progresses. The novel starts with Makina nearly falling into a sinkhole, muttering about how her city is “always about to sink back into the cellar” (Herrera 11), instantly demonstrating the instability of the world in which she lives.
Later on, we find out more about the role Makina serves in her city, running “the switchboard with the only phone for miles and miles around”. (Herrera 18). She serves as a bridge of communication between people, is able to speak in three different languages, and stays out of people’s business. This not only makes her incredibly useful in her society, but affords her a lot of prestige. We also later find out that she has some sort of power over men, being able to physically stop a man from sexually harassing her and knowing enough to offer advice to men on multiple occasions.
However, as Makina crosses into America, these things are lost—it is the loss of these things that serve as signs that America is not the same as the world that she came from. Before she even makes it across the border, and after she makes it across, she finds herself running away from men that are trying to arrest her. Right before she meets her brother, she finds herself in a position where is she in serious danger of being beaten or raped (Herrera 73). While she could speak three languages at home, in America, people “spoke none of the tongues she knew” (Herrera 69), and throughout her entire journey in America, she has no knowledge to go off of besides the words of others as she searches for her brother. In Mexico, she is strong and independent, but in America, she holds much less power and has to rely on strangers for help. Her world has not completely come to an end because she’s still holding onto the hope that she will find her brother, but it is these things that slowly tear it apart.
It is the amount of change that her brother has gone through that ultimately ends her world, I think. When she first sees him, she cannot recognize him. She soon finds out that he’d also given up a crucial part of his identity, having received a new name and numbers to even live in America. Their interactions are described as mechanical and not familial, more like a polite gesture (Herrera 93), and Makina leaves having felt as though her heart had been ripped out. Herrera seems to be saying that the ending of one’s world entails a loss of identity. Makina’s brother has a different name, refuses to come back, and is nearly broken by traumatic experiences in the military. Makina no longer has the strength and independence that she had in her city—traits that made her important in her society, and her relationship with her brother, the reason she crosses in the first place, ends up strained.