Whether a fence, a river, or open desert, the United States–Mexico border is not just physical. It’s psychic — an inner border that lives inside those who cross the physical one. It’s an affliction and a blessing, this bisected consciousness that both makes war with itself and amplifies its self-perception. Like genetic material, its effects manifest in the offspring of the border crosser.
Playwright Octavio Solis and journalist Jean Guerrero grew up near the border a generation apart, Solis in El Paso and Guerrero in San Diego. Each recently published a book about their experience — personal accounts that are the same but different. That is to say, the immigrant experience and the child-of-immigrant experience have some universal elements, such as the bisected consciousness mentioned above. But these books also reflect the individual lives of the authors, lives whose uniqueness goes beyond a different geography and generation. They are unique simply because they are separate individuals. It’s an obvious but important distinction, particularly when immigrants are seen as a massive, undifferentiated wave — as a relentless caravan, multi-limbed and faceless.
Guerrero’s Crux is a memoir about her pursuit of her father, who is in and out of her life. Determined to know him by knowing the country he came from, she crosses the border into Mexico to work as a journalist where she chases clues about her father in sometimes risky situations. Her book is expansive in time and geography, reaching deep into Mexico, stretching back generations to explain her father’s rootlessness and her own.
Solis calls his memories retablos (thus, he names his book Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border). A retablo is a small devotional painting in Mexican folk art that depicts an ominous or perilous event that is survived by the grace of God or a saint. Solis likens them to flash-fiction accounts of life-altering events. His book is more contained, his immediate family and himself the focus, the stories compact little gems centered around a patch of land that encompasses his El Paso neighborhood, the streets of Juarez, and the border in between.
While Guerrero’s book is very much an investigation into her father’s life and by necessity an examination of her own, Solis’s book is a collection of flash prose pieces that kaleidoscope together the transformative moments of a border kid — moments that, of course, include his family, notably his father. Octavio Sr. intimidates or alarms in one or two of the retablos, and in others, he exists in the background doing regular fatherly things — driving the family to Sunday outings, placating his sullen sons with a Coke after the tragedy of unfashionable haircuts. Regardless, Solis notes the emotional distance between him and this man who toils as the cook at a taco joint, absorbing grease in his clothes, his hair, his skin, reeking at the end of each day, six days a week.
When Solis is twelve, the cops are called to the house to quell a family disturbance. The young Solis is scared and while he grasps, at some level, the underlying causes of his father’s behavior, he doesn’t have the clarity and distance that he would have twenty years later to articulate them:
… maybe it’s ‘cause he hasn’t slept so good in months, or maybe this job serving drunks and whores greasy food all night long doesn’t pay for shit, or maybe he’s realized at last that he’s had five kids in five years by the time he’s twenty three with a woman who deserves better than she’s getting and all the manhood dreams he’s conceived for his life are over for-fucking-ever, ‘cause he’s caught in a country that won’t cut him a break except maybe to clean the toilets for the next shift and no last-ditch scramble back across the border is going to raise his prospects in any way.
Later, in another retablo, Solis is a teenager, leaning on the backyard fence, watching passersby head to the neighborhood bazaar. His father, beer in hand, shambles to his side. Solis, his eyes fixed firmly ahead, waits for his father to speak.
“I hear him say two words…the words of a Mexican beaten down …”
Words that translate into I was a shit. I was not myself. I was something I won’t be from now on. I crapped all over your life, even when I meant well, and I know it… All in two words. They are as close to saying I’m sorry as anything in the lexicon of our culture.
It’s the affliction and the blessing of the border that allows Solis to understand the intention of those two words, swear words his father inflicts upon himself.
Solis writes his retablos fully mindful of the current context of the border. “I am an anchor baby,” he writes. He says that he “anchors his parents to a place and ideal worth living for.” But just as important, he points out, is that they anchor him — to a home, a history, a future, which is to say, a sense of self.
In Retablos, living on the border means seeing the back-and-forth foot and car traffic — people from the south crossing to labor in the homes, yards, restaurants, and hotels of those in the north; residents and citizens north of the border heading in the opposite direction to shop and dine. The retablo titled “Saturday” recalls the once-a-month ritual when the family piles in the car and drives to Ciudad Juárez to get haircuts for the boys and to feast on taquitos that are fresher and tortillas that are tastier than they are in El Paso.
Living on the border also means having a co-worker suddenly disappear one day, swept up in a raid. It means seeing the undocumented crossing furtively in the night in freezing temperatures and your family offering food, blankets, and temporary emergency shelter. Or playing hide and seek in the cotton field and stumbling upon a young girl already hiding there, her clothes wet from having just crossed the Rio Grande. Despite the working-class wages of your family, you’re aware of your privilege and power: “I’m the American she hates and hopes to be, and I can bring ruin on her just for being here,” Solis writes.
Living on the border means the Border Patrol, an “everyday fixture,” can accost you if you’re a brown kid. In the early 70s, Solis begins to notice Chicanos among the ranks of “la migra.” One day, while waiting for a bus, he is approached by a pair of officers who ask him if he’s seen a “mojado” with a red tee-shirt. Solis is wearing a red tee-shirt. They ask him where he lives, they assess his knowledge of Spanish, they tell Solis that if he sees the “mojado” in the red tee-shirt, he’s to call them. Solis gets on the bus to go to the movies, but he can’t shake the experience. “Because they’re right. I am the guy in the red tee. I am he. And he is me.”
What does a “skinny brown kid” on the border dream of becoming? In “The Mexican I Needed,” Solis describes his obsession with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. He names all the Alpert record albums his parents had collected, the same ones my own parents had in their collection, the same ones Latino families across America played on their stereos. He fashions a trumpet out of cardboard and plays it along to the “The Lonely Bull,” and other Alpert hits. When his brothers and parents catch him in this fantasy, they indulge rather than ridicule it. Later when he’s an adult and is told that Alpert actually had Ukrainian and Romanian roots, it matters little. “To me, he’ll always be the Mexican I needed for dreaming.”
Solis’s penultimate retablo “My Right Foot” is about the inescapable Don Juan Oñate monument, the largest equestrian statue in the world. Oñate, the founder of the city of El Paso, led the brutal response in 1598 to the rebellion by the Acoma Pueblo people. Beyond killing 600 of them, he ordered that the right foot of all surviving males be sliced off. As Confederate statues are being dismantled in many cities, there remain memorials to Spanish colonizers who killed, maimed, and raped the indigenous — acts whose consequences reverberate today. Solis writes, “it seems like everywhere I look, people are still hobbling around, walking the slow hulking walk of the lifelong cripple.”
Solis himself is affected. “…I think of how I’ve been lamed by my own past and then I think of how often I’ve walked away and yet always manage to walk back.” It’s the affliction and blessing of the border again, rearing its head the way Oñate’s horse does.
In his introduction, Solis observes, “One thing I have learned from writing these retablos: the shit on the border never changes. There will always be those who want to come across, and those who want to keep them where they are.”
But once they’re across, it’s no guarantee that they will feel at home. In Crux, Jean Guerrero says of her father: “You traverse the border all the time through ports of entry…You could apply for citizenship, but you don’t want to. You reject both countries. You’re a new species.”
It’s a conclusion Guerrero arrives at after a long search for her father that is also a search for herself. She was born and raised in San Diego by brilliant, driven parents. Her Puerto Rican mother worked long hours as a doctor to provide her daughters a private school education, along with other amenities and rewards such as horseback-riding lessons. Her Mexican father was driven by his curiosity and his ability to assess a problem and devise a solution seemingly from scratch. But his ambition for a career in medicine was thwarted early on by lack of money and opportunity. This detour from his original ambition was the beginning of a series of digressions — photography, travel, taxi-driving, gardening — and diversions that included alcohol and cocaine.
While most of the narrative is first person (as you would expect from a memoir), some chapters are written in the third person, such as when Guerrero traces her mother’s life from her Puerto Rican girlhood to her post-residency position in San Ysidro, CA, and the chance meeting with the man who would become her husband. Guerrero also uses the third-person to convey her paternal grandmother’s origins in Mexico and story of immigration. It is the objective telling of events by a biographer.
One section of the book is written in the second person and is addressed to her father. In a tumble of empathy and grief, Guerrero retells the events of his own life to her father: his growing up in Mexico, first the interior and then Tijuana, and later his reluctant arrival in the United States. His family moved across the border when he was seventeen and he elected to stay behind, hoping to attend medical school with his life savings until he learned it wasn’t close to being enough. So he joined his family, got a job at a shipyard, and enrolled in community college classes. The instructors judged his intellect by his accented English. He quit. He would teach himself medicine, he decided. In fact, he would teach himself English. Since he was a boy, he’d had an intuitive understanding of machinery, of the complexities of living organisms, and an ability to teach himself through reading, research and experimentation. But then came cocaine, voices in his head, and a suspicion that the CIA was targeting him for mind-control experiments. He was unmoored, unpredictable, paranoid.
The various first, second, and third-person accounts combine for an engaging, multi-dimensional narrative. Guerrero is reporter, memoirist, and interrogator of her father and herself. She is driven by her early memories of him and the things that connect them — words, for instance, which she describes as tethers that bound them together.
He spoke to me in Spanish so it would be my first language. He explained the facts of the world and I asked questions, simple ones like ¿Por qué?, and he answered if he knew or said, No sé, investigaremos.
The relationship, while cultivating Guerrero’s inquisitiveness, also confounded it.
He thought I was precocious except for one conspicuous flaw he designed in me. I could not distinguish fact from fiction. My inability to separate stories and reality, fueled by my father, would persist until puberty.”
After college, she goes to Mexico City to intern at the Los Angeles bureau of the Wall Street Journal. Though Mexico terrified her as a child, she is ready to embrace it, meet it head on, dare it to make her afraid. “What I had sensed from the plane I could perceive here with clarity: The city was alive. It was alive with death.” Indeed, her exploits in Mexico include a near-death experience, which she attributes to a death wish inherited from her father.
Guerrero’s search for her father includes a search for the causes of his ailments. She researches neuroscience to find answers to her father’s condition. She entertains her father’s claims that the CIA is experimenting on him. She delves into her ancestry, finds shamanism, wonders if her father inherited this gift.
Guerrero is a journalist, carefully distinguishing between conversations she has re-created from memory and those from audio recordings or notes. But she is also descended from a culture that celebrates death and accepts the unseen world of demons and spirits. Her story is riveting for this very push and pull between the knowable and the unseen but palpable.
There’s an urgency to the writing, a beseeching of her father that is intensely moving. Here is one of her most poignant observations:
¿Papi, dónde estás? I sought you in the United States. I sought you in Mexico. But you are neither Mexican nor American. You are not Mexican-American either. You are the dash that lies between.
It’s a marvelous summation of the neither-here-nor-there condition that can isolate immigrants in
a book that vividly captures a young woman’s quest to understand her father and to answer a question: What is a crossing?
What Jean Guerrero’s colorful memoir and Octavio Solis’s sepia-toned retablos tell us is that their stories, their histories of affliction and blessing, arise from both sides of the border. There are no boundaries to them.