Setting 1: The Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic, or "the Island" as the family likes to call it, remains an idealized place in the García family imagination, but in reality it's a little more complicated. Sure, it's a lush and tropical paradise, but in the de la Torre family compound, home to the García sisters' maternal family, something is not quite right.
There are all these creepy signs that everything is not copacetic: protective walls surrounding the property, armed guards, and a general paranoia about traveling. On her solo drive through the countryside, Yoyo notices a compound "very like her family's," complete with sturdy wall and iron gate. The guard "seems—glimpsed through the flowering bars—a man locked in a strangely gorgeous prison" (1.1.64).
Though in the present day of the novel (1989 or thereabouts) the political situation of the Dominican Republic has supposedly "stabilized," all of the extreme security measures that the family goes to belie a deep-seated insecurity. Maybe the situation isn't as stable as everyone likes to think it is.
It makes sense that the García sisters would find creepiness in their childhood home. After all, the political threat during their girlhoods was explicit—dictator Rafael Trujillo could have their father arrested, tortured, and even murdered. The secret chamber that Carlos and his wife build in the back of their bedroom closet lets us know just how serious the threat is: it's soundproofed to the point of being claustrophobic, and contains everything a young revolutionary-in-hiding needs to survive for a few days, including an icon of San Judas, patron of impossible causes. And a gun. Don't forget the gun.
Some other creepy facts about the García children's home? It's right next door to the home of the dictator's daughter and grandson. Their grandparents' house, on the same property, is subjected to regular raids. Scary.
But for the children, the creepiest spot on their family's property is probably the coal shed. Rumored to be haunted, the coal shed is the site of lots of important transformative experiences, for those kids brave enough to face the dark and the Devil (3.5.18). It's where Yoyo shows her cousin Mundín her private parts to prove that she's a girl (3.2.38). And it's where Yoyo finds a baby kitten, which she steals and abandons, only to be haunted by its mother for the rest of her life (3.5.24). The scary political stuff of the grown-up world is happening outside; what happens here in the coal shed is scary in a primal, identity-transforming kind of way.
Setting 2: New York, The United States
Before the García sisters ever move to the United States, this is what they know of New York: Russell Stover chocolates, FAO Schwarz, and the Empire State Building. Sounds like a pretty posh place, huh?
But once the girls are actually forced to move to the U.S., they realize they're not getting "the best the United States has to offer." There's is a world of "second-hand stuff, rental houses in one redneck Catholic neighborhood after another, clothes at Round Robin, a black and white TV afflicted with wavy lines" (2.1.3). The family moves from a crowded apartment in the city (with unwelcoming neighbors) to a boring suburban neighborhood. It's nothing to write home about.
No one setting really dominates the García sisters' experience in the U.S. The action takes place in various suburban homes, in mental hospitals, and on college campuses. The lack of a strong U.S. setting contributes to the girls' feeling of being lost in their new country.