IN THE POPULAR American conception, the Southern border is a place of long lines, green uniforms, and metal fences, an oppressively hot version of the DMV, roasting beneath an unforgiving sun. But for many people coming at it from the other side, the border means hope and freedom.
Two new memoirs — Jean Guerrero’s Crux and Octavio Solis’s Retablos — take on these competing visions with structures that invoke the mythological alongside the depth of personal recollections.
If you stand in between two mirrors, you’ll see your reflection as it echoes infinitely in either direction. This image was hard to avoid as I read Crux, in which Guerrero explores her family’s history in an attempt to see where things went wrong in her life. Billed as a “cross-border memoir,” Guerrero does indeed explore life on either side of the US-Mexico line, but borders she’s crossing also include the ones between sanity and madness, past and present, spirituality and science.
The premise is simple enough. Guerrero yearns to discover more about her father, a recovered drug addict whose presence in her life has been a source of turbulence. Told her whole life that he is a schizophrenic, she begins to wonder as a young adult about the accuracy of this diagnosis. In her pursuit of the truth, she realizes she must dig through the history of past generations to discover the root of her father’s madness.
Her family’s past is marked with dark memories and violence. Some secrets are incredibly difficult. Guerrero finds echoes as she studies the past on both sides of the border and begins to wonder if the source of her family’s problems has a more mystical explanation. New answers lead to more coincidences and more questions.
“Time rhymes to tell us secrets”: this phrase is repeated throughout the book — a mantra that hints at the idea that everything is connected. The narrator’s mother, Jeannette, is afraid of water after a near drowning in her hometown in Puerto Rico; her sister battles anemia as child. She details her adolescence, and her obsession with fantasy books that star heroes she longs to personify. As the narrator zigzags through the past, her family’s history seems to repeat itself: Guerrero nearly drowns in 2011, leaving her with a fear of water that will follow her for years. She falls through an open sewer grate in Mexico, catching herself at chest level just in time, recalling almost precisely a fall her father had in his youth.
The seven parts of the book are named for an ancient Mayan legend about twin brothers who venture into Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, to save their father. There, they face challenges in several places: the house of darkness, razors, cold, jaguars, fire, and bats. They must defeat them all in order to free their father. Guerrero hopes that this legend as well as secrets from her great-great-grandmother, a Mexican curandera, may hold the key to breaking the curse that plagues her family.
The genius of Guerrero’s exquisite creation lies beyond her lyrical descriptions, and visceral phrases (e.g., “I had to learn to keep my sympathy zipped inside my stomach.”) What truly makes this book extraordinary is the careful layering and connections. Details like the fantastical map in the beginning of the book make little sense at first. Their connections in the deeply layered story become apparent near the end of the book, by which point Crux will have already signed a two-year lease and be living comfortably in your head. It’s the kind of story you think about long after you’ve finished reading it, and the kind of memoir that seems to redefine the genre.
Religious symbolism also plays a key framing role in Octavio Solis’s Retablos, which refers to religious paintings or altar pieces. These icons are the basis for a series of stories, each one only a few pages long, if that. Each chapter details a vividly remembered moment from Solis’s childhood in El Paso. Some of these moments are so universal that readers might wonder if the narrator is recounting their own teenage existences.
The stories articulating the overwrought longing for true love while quoting Wuthering Heights will ring familiar to anyone who has experienced this awkward stage of puberty. Other moments are more specific to the experience of being a first-generation American in a country that doesn’t always appreciate the integration of other cultures.
In the chapter “El Mar,” Solis recounts practicing English with a globe. He is humiliated when he tries to show off his shiny new words, but mispronounces “ocean” as “ohkeean” in front of the class. Other stories in the book are exclusive to the author’s own experience, as seen in “World Goes Away,” in which a reading of Anne Frank as a play unlocks Solis’s passion for theater. The book touches on a variety of issues including sex, mental illness, domestic violence, and cultural displacement, but refrains from preaching or offering comment on these topics. Solis instead simply imparts his unique experience with these issues, leaving the readers to interpret the moral of the story for themselves.
The narrative is so thorough that you can practically hear Solis’s El Paso accent. While he sometimes uses phrases that don’t quite follow the rules of the literary road, they’re generally punctuated by words like “perfidious” and “baleful,” demonstrating that he knows exactly what he’s doing. Some passages read more like poetry than prose; parts of the book almost feel as though they’re written in iambic pentameter. But what struck me most about each chapter was Solis’s ability to plant a specific image in your mind. With every retablo, you can see in ferocious detail exactly what the author wants you to see, like a special kind of telepathy. I found myself wanting to paint them. Strangely, this book has no illustrations, and a second edition cries out for them.
When Jean Guerrero interviewed her grandmother for Crux, she opened with the question, “Tell me about your first crossing,” which seems appropriately vague syntax for a place of death and rebirth, a place of trauma that can travel over generations, a place that is both real and imagined. It’s a place where both these authors have lived, and where they decided to open their memories for inspection by strangers.