Shortly before falling into a depression, my father created a beautiful garden in our backyard. He built wire mesh cages for hens, iguanas, cockatiels, and roosters. He stacked wooden logs to create enclosures for strawberries. He arranged rows of cacti. His face brown with soil under his cowboy hat, Papi was making us a Mexican Garden of Eden.
I was two or three when he started sleeping all day and everything in the garden began to die. The roosters killed each other. Our hens toppled into our neighbor’s backyard, where a Rottweiler ate them. The fruit shriveled into wrinkled black sacs. Even the cacti turned a sickly brown. My mother was a busy physician and couldn’t save the garden. She had other priorities: me and my sister and her patients. She helped us bury our pets, wreathing the corpses with flowers. She brought me a blank book and some markers.
I ask my mother for the first book I wrote as a child, an 18-page, sloppily illustrated story about a ladybug and a worm, while fact-checking my recollections for Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir
, my real book about my quest to understand my father. Flipping through the pages, I remember it clearly: the ladybug and the worm can’t be together because they belong to different realms. They both serve the health of flowers –– she by eating the aphids, he by transforming the dead leaves and grass into nutrients for the soil –– but he lives under the earth and she lives above it. I wrote: “One day the worm was very sick so all of the bugs butterflies and bees cryed. Oh no said the [lady]bug I am very sad because he died.”
The worm wasn’t really dead –– I planned to bring him back as a butterfly. Unbeknownst to everyone, he was a caterpillar. His coffin was in fact a chrysalis. The heartbroken ladybug embarks on a search for “a beautiful land” that appears to reside only in her memory. Suddenly, I ran out of pages. My heart stopped. I hadn’t had a chance to bring the caterpillar back to life. He was dead. Really dead. I had killed him. I burst into tears.
More than 20 years later, my father called me and told me he wanted to say goodbye. He was having suicidal thoughts. He had never fully recovered from his depression. For years, he had disappeared from my life on a crack-fueled transcontinental quest to flee alleged CIA operatives. My mother told me he had schizophrenia. When he returned, he built another garden. Then he fell back into silence and sleep, guzzling whiskey. I begged him, through tears, to stop hurting himself. I knew the desire for control that motivated self-destruction. As a teenager, I had mutilated my wrists and experimented with toxic men and substances. For years I struggled against the seduction of danger and death. Writing had helped me work through those impulses. I pursued a career in journalism. It gave me the same sense of control that hurting myself did, but it was healthy: I was reining the whole, wild world into paragraphs, imprisoning chaos within the boundaries of ink and pages. The skills I learned in journalism school helped root me in reality.
Nonfiction is rooted in our own limits.
My father said he would try to survive. He moved into a house in Rosarito, Mexico, that his mother owned, and built another garden: full of curative crops and tall trellises for tomatoes and a wooden enclosure for black soldier fly larvae. He planned to use their excrement as fertilizer. But after a few months, he crawled back into bed. The flowers dropped on their stalks. The tomatoes blackened on their trellises. Seagulls ate his larvae.
I moved to Mexico City, his birthplace, to work as a foreign correspondent and to investigate his past. I interviewed my father at length about his memories. He knew I intended to write a book about our lives. He understood.
My father was the parent who instilled in me my journalistic curiosity in the first place. In my earliest years, I spent more time with him than with my mother. He took me to the Baja California coast to whisper to me about the living, roiling Pacific with so much wonder: all its sunken ships, sirenas
, and squid. He always encouraged me to venture beyond the boundaries of the known.
I thought I was going to write fiction. I liked the idea of a happy ending. But the more I grew as a journalist, the more I saw the unique power of the truth to save me. My imagination was prone to run wild. Without the anchor of fact-checking, I was sure to get lost. Moreover, my father’s story had elements of a fairy tale –– I had no need to embellish to make things interesting. In Mexico, I discovered that his great-grandmother was a respected curandera
clairvoyant in Tlaltenango de Sánchez Román, Zacatecas, in the early 1900s. Juanita Velasquez, “La Adivina,” was paid to commune with spirits. What if my father had inherited some kind of wayward gift from his ancestor, explaining the sinister voices he heard in his head sometimes? I saw in Juanita a chrysalis for my father: an opportunity to liberate him from his dark world into the free and happy place where he truly belonged. But as a journalist, I knew better than to succumb to that belief. In fiction you have the luxury of ending a story however you like. You can place the characters in situations that underscore your main themes. Nonfiction is rooted in our own limits. It provides a fact-based foundation for change. I can’t control my father; he is the one who determines his own path.
I have come to see my father as the ultimate migrant, crossing borders between madness and sanity, substance abuse and sobriety. But he is also a man who creates borders. I believe that writing has always served the same purpose for me that creating enclosures –– cages, fences, and other containers for plants and animals –– has for my father. It’s a way to contain the centrifugal energies of our minds. A way to tell ourselves that the world can be ordered, even as it spills out in all directions and promises to erase us.
Papi gave me the tools to separate myself from him. The child in me will always hope he follows.
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, winner of the PEN/FUSION Emerging Writers Prize, is the Fronteras reporter for KPBS, the NPR and PBS affiliate in San Diego, reporting on cross-border issues for radio and TV. She has also worked for The Wall Street Journal
, won several prestigious reporting awards, and has an MFA from Goucher College. Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir
is her first book.