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The movie begins in a Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles. An old woman is standing at her front gate, singing enthusiastically. The camera brings us into the living room of home on the same street. Estela (Ingrid Oliu) trying to convince her younger sister, Ana (America Ferrera) to go look after their mother Carmea (Lupe Ontiveros). Carmea is moaning and groaning in bed, looking quite ill.

Ana rolls her eyes and goes inside her parents’ bedroom. Carmea asks Ana to come nearer, whispering that she needs Ana to cook for the family that day. Ana erupts and says she absolutely refuses to miss her last day of high school and stomps out of the room. Moments later, Carmea gets out of bed and is apparently quite alright.

Ana catches 2 buses to get to her Beverly Hills high school. At the end of the day, her teacher asks her to consider applying to colleges. Ana explains that her family won’t be able to afford it, and wasn’t it too late anyway? Her teacher says no – he knows the dean of admissions at Columbia University and could possibly have her application looked at, even if it is past the deadline. Ana tells him she’ll think about it.

That night, Ana’s family throws her a little party to celebrate the end of her high school years. Soon though, the festivities turn to well-worn topics: Her mother tells Ana not to eat too much cake because she is too fat, and the need for Ana to get married and have children. Ana’s grandfather and father tries to diffuse the situation, so her mother and Estela start discussing the family factory – a very small run-down dressmaking warehouse that Estela runs, and Carmea works at. Carmea tells Ana that it’s time she started working at the factory. Estela protests, saying there isn’t enough to pay Ana. Carmea insists, saying it’s time Ana starts working for the family, no matter how little money she gets paid. Ana wants to do something else, but doesn’t have a job. At that moment, her high school teacher arrives at the house, and asks to talk to Ana’s parents about the possibilities of Ana going to college. Ana’s mother is resolute, saying that there is absolutely not way Ana will go away. Carmea says Ana belongs at home and that’s the end of the story. Ana’s father seems open to the idea, but does not say anything in the face of his wife’s strong stance. He does assure Ana’s teacher that he will think about it.

The next day, Ana goes to the factory with her mother. Estela is already there, along with 5 other women who work in the factory. Estela is already in quite a state, reminding the women that they are dangerously behind schedule and they won’t get paid until they make the full shipment by the due date. Estela introduces Ana to each of the women and stations her at the ironing board.

Ana’s job, she says, is to iron all the finished dresses before placing them in plastic bags. Ana asks Estela how much the dresses cost. Estela answers that the distributor pays them around $18 per dress, but the dresses are ultimately sold for around $800 at Bloomingdales. Ana is outraged, but all the women simply shrug, saying it’s just a fact of life. Ana slogs through the afternoon, the steam from the iron making her sweat. She asks to turn the fan on, but Estela refuses, saying it will blow dust on the dresses. Ana gets so mad she purposefully leaves a burn on one of the dresses.

Carmea is furious that Ana has wasted their hard work. Ana storms out. Carmea chases after her. When Ana turns around on the street, she sees her mother, out of breath, on the sidewalk. Ana helps Carmea up, apologizes and she walks her mother back to the factory. That night, Ana finishes up her application to Columbia.

When Ana hands her application to Mr. Guzman (her high school teacher), we find out that she didn’t write her personal statement. Mr. Guzman gently pushes Ana to complete this one final essay. Ana agrees. As she’s leaving, she bumps into one of her classmates, Jimmy. Jimmy is from one of the more affluent neighborhoods of LA, and seems to really like Ana. Jimmy gives her his number. Ana is embarrassed and leaves.

That night, Ana calls Jimmy and they agree to meet up. Ana falls asleep happy, but is woken up in the middle of the night by her mother. She tells Ana she has a secret that only Ana could know. Ana finally wakes up a little. Carmea breaks the news: she’s pregnant. Ana rolls her eyes, tells her mother that she can’t possibly be pregnant and it’s probably just gas. Carmea is convinced.

The next morning, her mother, using the pregnancy reasoning, convinces Ana to go back to the factory. The women work and work and work. During a break, Ana overhears the landlord telling Estela that she is 3 weeks behind on the rent. Estela apologizes profusely. Ana convinces Estela to go see the distributor to get an advance. Estela caves.

The two sisters arrive at the offices of the distributor. They are not allowed through to see their contact, and would have been turned away if she didn’t happen to be leaving for lunch. Estela pleads and begs, but the women (who is very cold, very stiff and very rude) refuses to allow for the advance. Ana derides the woman in Spanish, but she is overheard and Estela gets another patronizing comment thrown at her. The two women go home, deflated.

That night, Ana and her grandfather leave the house, telling Carmea that they are going to the movies. When they get to town however, it’s obvious that each had their own agenda. They agree to meet up in 2 hours and go their separate ways. Ana meets up with Jimmy. The two have an awkward start, but end up having a nice dinner (even though Jimmy started the night by staring at Ana’s breasts… Ana chides him but did not blow up at him). Jimmy kisses Ana goodnight before she meets up with her grandfather again. Ana falls asleep that night with a big grin on her face.

The next scene brings us to a doctor’s office. Ana is finally convinced her mother to go see a doctor about this “pregnancy.” The doctor looks up from his report and tells them that Carmea is not pregnant. Carmea proceeds to argue with the doctor that she is. The doctor looks surprised, but gently reminds Carmea that he’s been a doctor for a while, and she should trust him. Ana is grinning. Carmea is still fighting the fight, telling the doctor that she has not had her period in over 4 months and gets morning sickness. The doctor then breaks it to her: she’s probably going to menopause. Ana continues to grin. Carmea finally surrenders to reality.

That afternoon, in the factory, the women are working as usual, but it is very, very hot. Ana finally gives up, and takes her shirt off. Her mother is scandalized. Ana declares that she is proud of her body and that even if everyone in the world is telling her to lose weight, she insists on keeping all of her fat just so she can say “fuck you” to the world. All the other women at the factory start nodding. Eventually, everyone (except Carmea) sheds their clothes, each comparing her cellulite with the others. Eventually, everyone sits back down to their machines in their bras and panties, feeling liberated that they are no longer hiding their curves. Carmea is so shocked and horrified, she tries to jam a t-shirt back on Ana’s head. Ana tries to grab at her mother’s shirt to get it off and sees a huge scar across her mother’s abdomen. A moment of rare, true emotion is exchanged by mother and daughter, when Ana discovers that it is her Caesarian scar she’s looking at.

Not long after that crazy afternoon, Ana meets up with Jimmy again. They go into Jimmy’s room at his house where they make out. Ana then tells Jimmy that she is ready to have sex with him. Afterwards, Jimmy tells Ana that he will miss her when he goes to Teacher’s College in New York. Ana tells him to put her out of his mind.

Mr Guzman visits the family that night, letting them know that Ana has been accepted into Columbia. Ana is ecstatic. Estela’s face is full of mixed emotions, happy that her sister is going on to something bigger, but sad that she never had the same opportunity. Carmea, though is very upset, forbidding Ana to go.

That night, Ana’s father is trying to tell Carmea that Ana should go. Carmea reveals the reasoning behind her reluctance: “I’ve been working since I was 13. Ana should too. Otherwise it’s just not fair”. The rest of the family band together against Carmea and finally Ana is on her way. Her mother refused to give her blessing to the end, and did not come out of her room to say goodbye.

Ana’s father and grandfather see her off at the airport and soon, she’s flying to New York.

The last scene of the movie is of Ana coming out of the subway station in Time’s Square, walking happily on 42nd street.

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