When investigative reporter Jean Guerrero moderated the “Border as Character” panel at LitFest Pasadena in May, she raised provocative points about the metaphorical as well as material dimensions of borders, and how the infamous border wall created by the Mexican and US governments has also created and shaped us in complicated ways. Her outside-the-box thinking piqued interest in her book “Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir,” published two weeks ago by One World, a division of Penguin-Random House.
An earlier draft of “Crux” had already earned a coveted PEN/FUSION Emerging Writers Prize for the 30-year-old USC journalism grad. (She also holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College in Baltimore.) The book explores the misty gulf between sanity and myth, and the myriad dimensions of borders — not only physical and political borders between countries, but also those between cultures, between individuals and their fears, and especially the borders of the mind. The fierce pulse of the story is Guerrero’s seemingly quixotic, at times life-threatening odyssey to know and understand her father, Marco Antonio Guerrero, a Mexican immigrant whose mental health struggles separate him from his hard-working, Puerto Rico-born doctor wife and their daughters, Guerrero and her sister (now an LA/San Diego artist who goes by Mr bBaby, and with whom Guerrero is brainstorming a future children’s book).
“Crux” is an intelligent, powerful piece of work. There’s a potent lyricism to Guerrero’s writing, both in the emotions she recalls with startling acuity and the way she uses images and allusions to convey their complexity. As she sifts with clinical precision through surreal childhood episodes and her family’s contradictory history, an intensely personal portrait emerges that explains Mexico-US border conflicts more effectively than dispassionate reportage. Toward the end, while contemplating the dual natures of light, time, nature and society, she writes: “The moon is clear and circular, like logic. It mirrors the self-devouring snake of the ouroboros. It is a symbol of erasure, a formula for nothingness. Like a country demarcating its borders, the ouroboros self-delineates and, in so doing, swallows itself.”
The book’s most hair-raising episodes occur during the years Guerrero worked in Mexico City, where she brushed fingers with death several times. Born and raised in the San Diego area, she returned in 2015 and has since been covering border-related issues for NPR affiliate KPBS. She spoke with Pasadena Weekly from her car after leaving a federal courthouse where she had just reported on US District Judge Dana Sabraw’s ruling concerning 431 migrant children whose parents have been deported.
PASADENA WEEKLY: In “Crux,” you seem to be exploring and even testing various belief systems, and ultimately write that you choose to believe in shamans rather than lunatics. Writ large, how does that transfer to both countries in terms of different belief systems and how they perceive the physical border and its politics?
JEAN GUERRERO: That’s such a good question. I don’t want to create this impression that I believe there’s a true and hard dichotomy between the two belief systems, because obviously there are elements of magic and fairytales in the United States just as there is rigid science and materialism in Mexico. But I do think there’s much more comfort in Mexico, generally speaking, with the concepts of other worlds and of spirits, and this perception of reality as being this porous fabric. I think that just dates back to the origins of Mexico. Relating that to the border is fascinating. This idea of the border that exists between the US and Mexico being this impermeable, hard, material thing — it doesn’t compute for most Mexicans, because reality doesn’t work that way. There’s rarely rigid anything. There’s just much more comfort with the idea of porousness in Mexico than I think there exists in the US. To so many Mexicans the idea of the wall is kind of a joke, because no matter how big and strong and long you build this wall to be, there will always be people who are so desperate that they’re going to find ways around or under or over it, through catapults, through drones, through tunnels, through breaking it, going into the ocean to circumvent it. That’s really very much in line with the heritage in Mexico — this belief that reality is never just what’s right in front of you. It’s always so much deeper and more complex and weirder than that. The border is such a rich metaphor. Every time you start to explore any question around it, you can go into this labyrinth of philosophical inquiry and it leads into so many different directions. It’s this perfect metaphor for pretty much any question we may have as humans, like, ‘What lies beyond?’ There’s more of an inclination among Americans to think, ‘This is it; this is reality, there isn’t necessarily anything that lies beyond.’ But then there are plenty of people on both ends of the border who want to know what lies beyond, where we come from, what happens when we die, why we are here. All these questions we don’t have answers to and which science can’t provide answers to.
In May, we discussed conversations you’d had with migrants who’d caravanned to the border from Central America. Last week you reported on the family reunification at the courthouse. Does it feel more or less chaotic and intense now?
I’ve been covering family reunifications over the past couple months, and the deadline for reunifying families was [last week], and the government partially met that deadline.
Did they actually meet it? Or did they claim they had after removing many parents from that pool without reunification?
Exactly. There are hundreds of parents who have been deemed ineligible for reunification, and we don’t know what criteria the government was using for that and whether it was fair. On top of that, there were more than 400 parents who were removed from the US without their children. The judge highlighted the fact that the government was at fault for losing hundreds of parents … this struggle is far from over. There are still so many people who need to be reunited who are still separated from their children. Even when these families are reunified, there’s no such thing as a happy ending for them right now because there’s severe trauma associated with the separation. … Some children were kept apart from their parents for months. Someone with an absent parent, just like I know and you know, we know there is trauma associated with not knowing where a parent is, or not having a parent accessible to us when we are children. That is a trauma that can last a lifetime. It’s been kind of overwhelming to cover this story when my book’s coming out, because it is the biggest crisis I’ve ever covered. It’s not even an immigration crisis; I don’t know what to call it. The US government has made a huge, huge mistake. It’s incredible to be covering it when my book is coming out.
Both stories resonate with each other. Your entire life spills into “Crux.” Do you still feel enmeshed with that story, or have you moved beyond with your news reporting? Do you feel more at peace?
Absolutely. I felt so tangled up with my father, like I was reliving his life for so long, wanting to recapture him by conjuring him in myself or becoming him. Writing the book for me was in part about disentangling myself from him. I’ve been wanting to solve the mystery of my father since I was a child. I thought there had to be one answer — like he’s either schizo, or he’s a shaman, or he’s a victim of the CIA. That obsession with trying to figure it out was like this never-ending rabbit hole until I realized, ‘Wow, reality can be contradictory sometimes; things can be multiple things at once; I don’t have to worship my father and I don’t have to hate my father or reject him. I can just love him because he’s my father and accept him as this very complicated being who has elements of multiple things.’ When I was able to be at peace with that, which I was able to do through the writing of the book, that’s when I felt like I could just be free of him in a way. He has been so supportive. … One of my uncles told my dad that my dad is portrayed really negatively in the book. I don’t know why he’s saying that, but my dad told me that he told him, ‘This is a memoir; this isn’t a novel.’ He defended the depiction. It was cool. It meant a lot to have my family’s support.
In the acknowledgements, you thank Rob Waller, who’s best known locally as the frontman for cosmic country-rock band I See Hawks in LA. Was he one of your USC professors?
Yeah, I really loved him, because during one of the classroom sessions he said, ‘You have to look at writing as a physical activity just like any kind of exercise; it requires regular practice for you to get good at it.’ And I really loved him saying that. … And Jervey Tervalon — he was incredible. He was encouraging me throughout my time at USC to write about my father. If it weren’t for him, I never would have written this book.
Jean Guerrero discusses “Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir” at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 8; free admission. Info: (626) 449-5320. jeanguerrero.com, vromansbookstore.com