Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section and the newspaper’s former Mexico bureau chief.
The great myth of the U.S.-Mexico border — more present in this fact-free era than ever — is that it separates two places, two countries, two ways of life.
Instead, the border is much more like a stubbornly active portal, a 1,954-mile sluice that connects cultures, histories, ideas, businesses, traditions, social networks and institutions in the face of monumental bureaucratic, legal and logistical obstacles. All along its meandering length, lives straddle the line. Your school and your barber might be in El Paso, but your church and your dentist might be in Ciudad Juarez. Or vice versa.
The complexities of this interconnectedness lie at the heart of “Crux,” a gracefully written and nuanced memoir by Jean Guerrero, a reporter at the PBS affiliate in San Diego. In the book, Guerrero — whose mother is Puerto Rican — sets off on a quest to understand her brilliant, infuriating and profoundly damaged Mexican-born, U.S. immigrant father, Marco Antonio Guerrero.
“You are the ultimate migrant, Papi,” Guerrero writes. “How often the theme of crossings comes up in your story. Border crossings. Crossings between madness and sanity. Crossings into parallel worlds.” On his chest, he has a scar. It’s in the shape of a cross.
Papi’s life is plagued by drug abuse, and he is beset with darkly paranoid fears that destroy his marriage and imperil his life. At one of his lowest points, he wraps himself in tinfoil to ward off what he believes are attempts to make him the subject of a CIA mind-control experiment. As an adult, his daughter, the dogged journalist, sends off Freedom of Information Act requests to the government in hopes of reporting out her father’s claims.
One of the many merits of Guerrero’s penetrating examination of her family and its history is that it introduces readers to a multigenerational Mexican American family of the sort that often doesn’t appear in the headlines or on cable news. Abuela Carolina — Guerrero’s grandmother, who emigrated to the United States from Mexico with her children and second husband in the early 1970s — counts stacks of $100 bills and is the matriarch of a successful meat supplier in the San Diego area. Guerrero’s abuela eventually lives in a two-story McMansion with an ocean view.
But Mexico, only miles away, remains a constant presence in their lives. When Guerrero’s father is a young man, he takes ill, and Carolina takes him to Tijuana to see a curandera, a native healer. The woman looks at him and shudders.
“He has the veil of death over his soul,” she says.
Growing up, Guerrero — who was born in the United States but whose father tells her she was conceived on a Mexican beach — experiences a kind of dual identity. As young children, she and her sister speak Spanish. But her mother, a physician, buys “educational books identifying objects with English-language words so we could start transitioning into real Americans, unlike the half-feral outsiders we felt like in public spaces, despite our citizenship and birthright.”
Guerrero’s father leaves the family business in a dispute when she is a young child. His life begins to spiral into madness and drugs. Her parents separate when she is 6. Guerrero attends a private school, where most of the students are Mexican American. The teachers ban the kids from speaking Spanish to ensure their “integration,” and Guerrero writes that she “would renounce my native language, associating it with delinquency.”
Still, Mexico exerts “a gravitational pull” on Guerrero; it is there that her family’s secrets lie, and she jumps at a chance to work as a reporter in Mexico City, marveling as her plane descends into the mammoth metropolis.
“The city — like all cities in Spanish — struck me as feminine (la ciudad),” she writes. “It was evident in the curve of her back, in her maternal embrace of the dead.”
She’d watched a film in which the hero dies while exposing corruption in the diamond-mining industry, and she is “desperate to die young in a similar dramatic way, on an altruistic mission,” she writes.
While she is in Mexico, a friend dies in a mysterious incident. She nearly drowns at a secret beach. In Mexico City’s fashionable Polanco neighborhood, she falls into an open sewer hole, dangling from the chest down before she’s pulled out.
“This was an omen if there ever was one: Mexico wanted me dead and would swallow me whole if it had to,” she writes.
For a time, Guerrero’s father accompanies her in Mexico, but as often is the case, it ends badly. Some suspect he is schizophrenic.
“I prefer to believe in shamans than in lunatics,” she writes. “It is the great gift of my Hispanic heritage.”
He is a shaman, her father tells her. Then Guerrero writes: “Papi swells to the size of a solar system. The rings of Saturn adorn his pinkies. Comets crown his head. Spells spill from his mouth like rivers. He grows. Black holes blow out his pupils.”
You can set adrift in Guerrero’s prose, at times wondering where she is going and what she means. But with writing this luminous, this heartfelt and mystically charged, you really might not care that you’ve lost your way.
By Jean Guerrero
One World. 324 pp. $27