Act I takes place in an unidentified mountainous region outside of San Juan. The family—Do–a Gabriela, Luis, Juanita, and Chaguito, are packing for their move to San Juan. There is a great deal of tension in this scene as the family remembers nostalgically its traditions as they break away from them. Don Chago, the grandfather, refuses to move, and unbeknownst to the family, intends to live out his days in the solitude of a cave. He is Marqués personified in his love of the land and his attitude against industrial development. He blames his deceased son-in-law for the family’s inability to keep up with the mortgage payments and the subsequent loss of the farm. Luis, technically the head of the family now that his father has died, decides for them that a move to the city will bring prosperity, and they unquestioningly follow out his wishes. In reality, Luis is the son of his father and another woman, but is accepted totally by Do–a Gabriela, who cautiously guards this “secret” from him, not realizing that he indeed knows. Luis’ strong determination to secure a better life for his family in a mechanized world can be seen almost as overcompensation for the gratitude he feels as an undeserving stepchild who enjoys the rights and privileges of a blood-relative. Juanita is ambivalent about the move as a local farmer, Miguel, is now courting her. Her mother worries about the sexual implications of this relationship and is relieved to know that it will be severed by their move. Ironically, her attempt to preserve the family honor fails when Juanita falls into prostitution in the city. There is a touching farewell scene as the oxcart approaches to carry them away and their nosey neighbor, Germana, provides comic relief.
Act II finds the family in a San Juan slum, ironically called “The Pearl”. They live alongside a noisy bar and Lito is introduced as a liason between the family and this establishment. He infers that Luis is involved in gambling and in an illicit love affair with the owner’s wife. By the end of this act, Luis has been unsuccessful in 5 factory jobs and ironically ends up as a gardener for a wealthy family, thus returning to the land he had hoped to flee. Chaguito has taken on all the influences of the street and his thievery results in incarceration. The first threads of Juanita’s prostitution appear, encouraged by her friend, Matilde. She is torn between her traditional upbringing and the lure of the streets and unsuccessfully attempts suicide after an abortion. Do–a Gabriela is distraught with grief and accepts Luis’ suggestion of yet another move—this time to New York City as a solution to their problems.
Act III develops in Morrisania, a Puerto Rican area of the Bronx. It is wintertime and they are suffering the bitter cold for the first time. Juanita is “working” and rents a room in another part of town. Luis is disgusted by her independence and wants her to move back so that he can support her. She refuses a marriage proposal by a Puerto Rican radio announcer who perceives her sensitivity beyond her citified faCade. Do–a Gabriela refuses to confront Juanita by not believing in the obvious source of her income. She is overwhelmed by the changes in the family and gradually loses her fiery spirit. She silently accepts her fate, continuing to accept whatever Luis plans for them. Luis is obsessed by his job in a boiler factory as he provides the family with the trappings of a “better” life. The play ends as the tragic hero succumbs to his flaw when the machine which he idolizes causes his death. The family returns to Puerto Rico to bury him, again ironically, in the land which he fled.