MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
These days, the U.S.-Mexico border is a third rail in American politics. Some are obsessed with those crossing the border, claiming there are too many, or they're not the people the U.S. really wants. Others are concerned with why people are crossing to begin with and what happens to them when they do. As a journalist, Jean Guerrero has covered all of these stories, but in her new memoir, she explores a different kind of crossing. It's the story of Guerrero's father, an immigrant from Mexico, a gifted charmer who struggled with what seems to be paranoid schizophrenia for much of his life.
As Guerrero tries to better understand his story and his legacy, she travels back and forth over the border between Mexico and Southern California, until ultimately, she begins to question the nature of reality itself. Her new memoir is called "Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir." And Jean Guerrero is with us now from member station KPBS in San Diego. Jean, thanks so much for joining us.
JEAN GUERRERO: Thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: You know, you could have written a story just about or written a book really just about your experiences as a reporter trying to cover, you know, all of the changes that have happened in the U.S. and in Mexico and across the border over these last few years that you've been working in the region. But you really decided to focus on your own personal story, and I was wondering why that is.
GUERRERO: I decided to focus on my personal story because my father is this character that I've been trying to understand my whole life. And he's probably the reason that I got into journalism in the first place, trying to reconcile the man that he became with the man that he once was. He played a huge role in my childhood. My mother is a doctor, and she was busy with patients. So I would spend most of my time with my father when I was a little girl. I kind of came into consciousness with him. And he was this very playful person, full of wonder, always telling me stories and taking me outside.
So when he became depressed and eventually became convinced that the CIA was after him and that the CIA was beaming voices into his head, I really, really needed to understand what had happened. And, you know, my mother told me he had paranoid schizophrenia. And as a child, I really didn't understand what was going on. It was traumatic for me. And I think I've sort of just been obsessed with trying to solve the mystery ever since.
MARTIN: So tell me a little bit more about your father, if you would. What was amazing about him? I mean, you said you wanted to kind of get back to the person that he was. Tell me about his his amazing side.
GUERRERO: He was a brilliant person who was full of curiosity about the world. I remember him taking me to the coast of Baja, Calif., and telling me stories about all of the things that lived inside of the ocean, mermaids, you know, even things that don't exist. And he was always encouraging me, even as a small child, to push past the boundaries of the known. You know, through my years of conversations with him for the writing of this book, one of the things that he told me was that when he was a little boy, the thing he wanted more than anything in the world was a doll because he could - he saw the little girls in his neighborhood in Mexico playing with these dolls and being really affectionate and tender with them.
And he really wanted to be tender and affectionate with something, but he wasn't allowed as a boy because of the machismo culture that he was growing up in. And he told me that when he had me, that it was like he finally had his little doll. And I could sense that. In my memories, he was just so playful and so excited to just like lavish me with his love and attention. And so when he fell into his depression and became this very troubled person, it was very jarring and very traumatic for that reason.
MARTIN: What part do you think his Mexican-ness played in this? And the reason I ask that is that one of his kind of identities was that he belonged to, in his mind, a kind of a tradition of Mexican folk medicine, of folk wisdom. Can you just talk a little bit about that?
GUERRERO: I think there is this real comfort with the idea of spirits in Mexico and this ability to commune with spirits and with dead relatives. And when I went to Mexico to both become a foreign correspondent, as well as to investigate my father's roots, I found out that he had a great grandmother who was a well-respected clairvoyant in Southern Mexico. But she also heard voices, and she perceived things that nobody else could see. And the society there attributed her with a gift.
So, you know, in the book, I explore these parallels and what they reveal about my father because my father, without even knowing about this ancestor, he created this really intricate beautiful garden and began to cultivate curative crops, different healing herbs and things that he uses to try to cure different ailments in our relatives. My grandmother swears that he cured her favorite Chihuahua of blindness. So there's these parallels that exist between my father and my great grandmother that I wanted to explore in the book and which I had never had never occurred to me until I went to Mexico and learned about his past.
MARTIN: I wonder if you feel like your own family's story offers some broader guidance to this very complex and fraught moment that we find ourselves now in between the U.S. and Mexico?
GUERRERO: You know, I think that my book is relevant to the current, you know, alternative-facts-post-truth situation that we're seeing, not only because of the way that my father as a character plays into this whole discussion, but also because I feel like one of the reasons that we fall into these echo chambers and stop listening to one another is because we think that we have to have all of the answers. And we think that the answers are simpler than they really are. And so what I discovered through the writing of the book was that, wow, OK, so multiple explanations can be true to some extent. And I think that, in that sense, this discovery that I went through in the book can sort of inform and help people sort of let go of this obsession with having just one answer.
MARTIN: And before we let you go, I can't help but draw upon your experience as a journalist. I know you've been reporting on the ongoing story of the separation of children from their parents at the southern border. You know, your own personal situation is obviously different. You know, your mother's Puerto Rican. She's a U.S. citizen. You were born in the U.S. Your father's family had a business in the U.S. They were able to go back and forth. So your situation is not comparable, but I do wonder - if I could just draw on your reporting experience, is there any part of the story that you want to highlight for us?
GUERRERO: Yeah. I mean, you know, one thing that hasn't really been discussed in this whole debate on family separations, which I've been following, is there's a family separation practice that predates the Trump administration. It's been going on for years, and it continues to go on. And it's basically this tendency for Homeland Security to prioritize women and children for release on parole while locking up the fathers in detention.
So, for example, if a family comes to the border and ask for asylum, often the women and children will be released on parole, and the father will be locked up in detention. And, to me, as someone who experienced personally the trauma of having an absent father, it's very bizarre and ironic to me that we are sort of as a society painting men and fathers as irrelevant to families because I've really found that to not be true.
MARTIN: That's Jean Guerrero. She's the author of "Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir." It's the story of her search to know more about her father. She was kind of to join us from KPBS in San Diego. Jean Guerrero, thanks so much for speaking with us.
GUERRERO: Thank you so much for having me.
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