- Painful and Magical
352 Pages; Cloth. $24.30
It's always with a bit of trepidation and dread that I approach any novel that is proclaimed as "magic realism-heavy" or a memoir that touts a "curandera" in the family. Yup, when I read that butterflies are coming out of people's stomachs or that there is a scene where enchanting love potions are created by "abuelitas," I tend to lose interest. I do this because my own mother is a healer/teacher in the Tarahumara tradition of Mexico and some of my earliest memories as a small child are of me accompanying her to readings, healings, and consultations. I learned at a young age that these encounters could be intense, sometimes painful, and very emotional experiences. Very rarely did butterflies appear.
Yet these are some of the many reasons why I came to enjoy my reading of Jean Guerrero's engrossing, well-written account of her family growing up on the US-Mexico border and the challenges of seeking the truth of their family's shadowy past, their eccentricities, and of searching for answers to the demons that haunt their lives to this very day. The PEN America Emerging Writers Prize winner, Guerrero effectively weaves a compelling story: unearthing secrets, filling in gaps in her family history, as well as conducting a personal and original exploration of a Latino family in all its quirks. This is not easy to do, believe me.
So I'm extremely happy to announce that this is not the case with Crux, the debut memoir by this young journalist who takes us on a harrowing trip along the US-Mexico border as she tries to make sense of her family, her culture, and her own emotional and mental state and especially her
maddingly-fraught relationship with her father, Marco Antonio. Jean fills her account of growing up in the area around San Diego and the border with interesting stories of her mystical yet frightening Father's Mexican side of the family, which include the powerful Grandmother, "Dona Carolina," who lives fiercely into old age while guiding the family's successful "carniceria" business. The memoir includes stories of her "curandera" great-grandmother, who was paid to summon spirits from the afterlife, of whom she finds a black and white photo of her standing next to a pentagram dated back to the 1940s and, of course, stories of her father, an erratic self-taught genius who fears CIA-mind control plots while at the same time addicted to crack.
She also gives us a beautiful portrait of her Puerto Rican physician mother, who heroically tries to keep her family together during challenging situations while never denying her daughter of their cultural legacies. Jean lovingly weaves stories in her account of Dona Carolina in her struggles to escape the patriarchy and cruelty of early twentieth-century Mexico to provide a better life for her and her children in the US. She contrasts this story with the fierce and inspiring account of her own mother's inspirational effort to pass all her medical exams to become a doctor while at the same time raising two Latina daughters and being married to a complex, slightly deranged, but in the end, beautiful spirit of a man.
Jean Guerrero, a working journalist and reporter for NPR San Diego who has travelled extensively in Mexico, brings cultural acumen and a riveting authenticity to her family narrative. She also adept at blending scientific analysis and wholistic mysticism to tell her story. She exclaims as such: "Brains are mystical. They perform alchemy in a place no one can measure. Yet the stories they yield are as obvious an effect as gravity." The battle between her science-based Mother and dreamer Father was a vital cornerstone of her life, and their turbulent marriage scarred her in many ways; she pulls no punches in describing their effect on her development as a person. Yet at the center of Jean's story is the heartwarming but ultimately exasperating struggle to know and build a relationship...