Jean Guerrero is a “multimedia reporter with experience covering Latin America,” reads her staff bio page for KPBS, San Diego’s public media outlet. But Guerrero is using the simplest words, a storyteller; a skill she picked up strolling along the beach hand in hand with her father as a young girl.
However that was then, and after tragedy, beginning an already prestigious career in journalism, and earning an MFA, she is the author of Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir, her story of how the depression and mental illness of her father pulled her all around Latin America with ardor.
Guerrero now focuses on some of the most heartbreaking stories coming from the Trumpian “zero tolerance” era. As of late, even with the release of her book on the 17th of July, her mind has still been focused on the family reunification and how slow that process has been.
But her career really didn’t start that long ago, only being a journalist for about a decade. In that short time, she has worked at the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires as “a commodities correspondent in Mexico City, trekking through mountains with coffee smugglers, opium poppy producers and maize farmers across Latin America.”
She’s the winner of the PEN/FUSION Emerging Writers prize, as well as an Emmy for her investigative reporting. She contributes to NPR, PBS, among other public media outlets.
It’s this career in journalism and the love of storytelling that has been so prominent in the process of the writing of her memoir. Guerrero herself says that the mystery of her father and his illness was a steady beat that always gave some rhythm to her career and pulled her along.
She received her B.A. in journalism and a minor in neuroscience from the University of Southern California. But it was as an MFA student in creative nonfiction at Goucher College that Guerrero was able to work with her mentor, Suzannah Lessard. Lessard was the one that helped connect the world of journalism and the story of her father.
“Lessard really brought out the journalist in me,” said Guerrero. And Lessard’s advice for the book to be “rooted 100% in truth and journalism” to honor the story and struggle of her father is what gave the book wings.
The book is now out and serves as another authentic, sincere, and heart-pulling story from the border.
Antonio Villasenor-Baca: What specific stuff have you been covering? Have you been able to speak to any of the people affected by the zero-tolerance policy?
Jean Guerrero: Yeah. So I’ve been following one family that, a father had his one year-old baby taken away from him months ago and just [a week ago] he was reunited finally, after eight months in detention. So I followed that story. We put out the story of their reunification but it’s like the struggle for the family is nowhere near over. The little boy is severely traumatized because he was kept in a tender age facility that has since closed for more than a thousand abuses ranging from inappropriate sexual contact between staff and the children to harsh punishment. It’s incredible, so I’ve been following the reunification of families, in particular this one family that has been so traumatized. I don’t know if you saw the question about “where are the girls,” because the government was conducting tours of child migrant shelters but nowhere were the girls visible. So I found one the girls’ shelter in San Diego and I put out a story on that and now I’m finding another one and it’s just never ending. It’s just crazy.
AVB: So in order to not do this interview backwards, before we get deeper into the immigration stuff and the book, let me ask you about your background and origins in journalism. I know you started out working for the Wall Street Journal and the Dow Jones Newswires in Mexico City; is that where you’re from? And how did you get into journalism?
JG: I was born and raised in San Diego. But I was always interested in going to Mexico because of my father and how Mexico represented for me, the mystery of my father. As for how I got into journalism, I always knew that I wanted to be a writer but to me when I was a child and as a teenager as well, the idea of aspiring to be an author of books, always seemed kind of unobtainable. And I thought that a more practical and realistic way of going about eventually writing books was to start out in journalism, in large part because I knew it was going to give me real-world experience and so I was able to see what was happening in the world in our current age. It would give me valuable perspective to inform my writing of books in the future. But I’ve always been a very curious person about Mexico, I guess in particular because of the connection it has with my father who has always been a mystery in my mind. I felt like exploring Mexico was a way of exploring my father, myself, and my roots. I guess my interest in Mexico and my interest in journalism, they’re related to one another.
AVB: What was that transition like? How did you move from San Diego to Mexico and find a job as a reporter?
JG: Well, I had done a couple of internships when I was in college. I interned at the Seattle Times, and then I interned at the Wall Street Journal in Los Angeles. I was at the Wall Street Journal in Los Angeles when I saw that there was an opening for a commodities reporter in Mexico City. And the hiring manager said that you need, three or four years of reporting experience for that job. But she was just like, “yeah you don’t qualify for this job.” But I really really wanted it, really bad, because in the back of my head I always knew I was going to write a book about my dad and my dad is from Mexico City. I knew that if I moved to Mexico City as a reporter I could kind of kill two birds with one stone; learn about where my father was from and what made him the man that he became, and then at the same time pursue my journalistic curiosity. I just remember I had a conversation with the bureau chief at the time at the Wall Street Journal, in L.A., who was Gabe Kahn. I told him how much I wanted the job and I guess he believed in me and so he made some phone calls. Somehow I ended up getting the job. I was very excited.
AVB: Can you talk about the change on reporting on more economic based stories to immigration?
JG: Part of the reason I left, was because I wanted to write my book. I resigned in 2013 because I knew I wanted to write this book. But the other reason was, even though it was a dream job and I was being flown out to different parts of Latin America to cover the stories of campesinos and all different sorts of places; it was incredible, I wasn’t able to cover the human stories that interested me because they always asked me for a market angle. The main question was always “how is this story going to affect commodities prices?” The stories that always interested me were about people and how people were being affected by industry. So like human rights violations at the hands of U.S. and Canadian mining companies, things like that I found myself not being able to explore as much as I wanted to. So then I left and I wrote this book. Now to be able to cover immigration and really focus on the human stories because of the fact that [KPBS] is an NPR and PBS affiliate, we’re public radio so I’m able to cover really whatever I want. The stories that speak the most to me are the human stories. I feel really fortunate to have made this transition. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy my time at the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires, I absolutely loved it there. But this is definitely more my style and I love it so much.
AVB: I read the excerpt or part in a synopsis of the book about your great-grandmother being a curandera. But you keep mentioning your father in the back of your head; what role did your father have in your life growing up? Was he a big part of your life or just a mystery to you?
JG: He was a huge part of my life in my first years because my mother is a doctor and she was always busy seeing patients. He was my primary caretaker when I was born for a few years until he fell into his depression. My very first memories of him involve him being very attentive, this very loving and enchanting father. I just remember exploring nature with him. He would take me to the coast of Baja California and he would talk to me about the ocean. In my memory, him talking to me about the ocean and all the things that live inside of it and the shipwrecks and sirenas; well, he was always making stuff up too. Like he always told me the fairytale characters in books were real. I remember him always spinning these tales. He was a real storyteller in the early years of my life. I think my curiosity for the unknown and the push past the boundaries of the familiar into the unfamiliar, it came from him showing me nature. These are literally my first memories of him taking to me about nature with this incredible awe and wonder and he was very involved. I have dozens and dozens of videos because he was always filming on his camcorder. I think my obsession and impulse for recording everything as a journalist comes from that; comes from him wanting to document every single thing, like every milestone from when I was an infant: my first watermelon, my first word, he just wanted to document everything on his camcorder and he brought it with him everywhere.
But because he played such an involved and magical role in the early years of my life, when he fell into his depression it was such a traumatic experience for me. I spent the rest of my life trying to reconcile the man that he became and the man that he was in my earliest years on earth.
AVB: I totally see the connection between him telling you these stories you becoming what you are today. Can you talk about what his depression looked like to you then, what it meant to you then and what it means to you now?
JG: When he became depressed- we had a ton of pets. we had cockatoos, and roosters, and iguanas, and fish, and hamsters, and all these animals that my father had bought for us. When he became depressed, all of them started to die. Literally all of the animals that we had started to die because my mom was working on-call, overtime, as a doctor and there was just nobody around to take care of them anymore. Even my sister, my little sister, she ended up getting sick because she wasn’t being properly cared for. When my parents finally took her to the hospital it turned out that her heart had swelled to almost twice its size. So when he fell into depression all these terrible things started happening. At this point I was four or five, and everything started to die and I became acutely aware of death very early on in life. And that awareness of death was very linked to, it was just, it arose with my father’s depression. So in my head as a child, it got wired in my head that my father’s depression was connected to all of the dark and scary things about life. All of my existential questions that we all ask as humans, like what happens when we die, why are we here, what is the purpose of life, it all started to happen when my dad fell into his depression. Then I remember it all just exploded when I was 11? It was early 2000’s, my dad destroyed his condominium. My mother had kicked him out of the house and he was living in one of her condominiums. He literally destroyed it. He punched holes in the walls, cut out the electrical system with wire cutters, stripped the floor bare of its carpet, just searching for hidden cameras or radio transistors because he was suddenly hearing voices in his head. He went from several years of being depressing to hallucinating, and that coincided with his use of crack/cocaine. And for many many years I just thought of my father as someone who had schizophrenia and drug addiction. I don’t know, I just thought of him as someone who was very different from me. At the same time he acquired a real magnetism for me. I guess because he was a forbidden subject. My mother said, “you have to forget about your father, you need to not talk about your father,” I guess because she had like a kind of shame. There was a sort of shame associated with his mental illness. And then that made me very curious about him. My dad had always installed this curiosity in me especially about the things that may lay beyond what’s accessible to us. That’s when I really started to wonder what was going on with my dad and that’s when I went to journalism school. And he came back, he was traveling around the world trying to flee the CIA and he came back on my 20th birthday and he started telling me his story about how the CIA had targeted him. I remember him talking and being shocked because the way that he was talking it was not the way I had imagined a person with mental illness talking. He was citing patents and he was citing research. He was citing news stories. He was trying very hard to persuade me in a logical way about what had happened to him supposably.
And so I felt it was my duty as his daughter and someone who was studying journalism, to investigate the possibility that what he was saying was true and that led me down so many rabbit holes. Like one of them was I moved to Mexico City and learned that he had a curandera great-grandmother who was paid to commune with spirits. She made her own living that way, going into these trances and listening to voices and visions that nobody else had access to. Then I was like, maybe my father inherited something from her and he can’t properly manage it because of the different cultural context and the different era. It just led me down various rabbit holes trying to discover the truth about my father.
AVB: And what has been your parents’ response to this book coming out? Since you mentioned your mother telling you to drop it.
JG: That was as a teenager. She was a very private person. She grew up in Puerto Rico. She just has these real strict ideas about propriety but she’s also an incredible human being, my mother, and she realized that this had been obsession of mine for years and she fully supports the book now. When I told her I was thinking about quitting my job at the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones, she never tried to tell me not to. She just said, “you should,” because she could tell that this was something that I genuinely wanted to do and she just kind of gave up. She knew there was no way around it. She just supported me the entire time. I also feel extremely lucky because my father has come around as well. Because at first, he was being open with me about his stories, like I said since I had been 20. But I remember him being a few years into him telling me his stories, I told him I wanted write a book. At first he was concerned about that. There’s a scene in the book where I tell him I want to write a book about him and he freaks out and he’s like, “absolutely not.” Maybe if you become famous one day, otherwise nobody is going to care if the CIA kills you or something like that. He basically says if I write a book about him, the CIA is going to come after me. But I eventually convinced him. He’s been great. I sent him some of the most difficult chapters- he doesn’t want to read the book until it’s out- but I sent him some of the potentially difficult chapters for him to read and I was really pleased with his response. Well, he told me that he liked my style- whatever that means.
AVB: And what is the significance of your and your father’s story? Not just in the societal climate but in the political climate?
JG: Aside from the father-daughter story and the very genuine questions that I had about my father that I think would resonate with anyone who has a family member they have struggled to understand or to love, my father in my mind I have described as the ultimate migrant because he’s crossing border between countries, between the legal and the illegal, between madness and sanity, between science and spirituality, he’s an uncanny mechanic and he’s very into science but at the same time got this other side that I’ve described. So he’s just this border crosser and it’s like no surprise that I was compelled to cross the border into my father’s country. I grew up in San Diego like ten minutes north of the border. And I visited Mexico on a regular basis. But it’s no surprise that I ended up crossing the border and making this country a part of my life and making the binational relationship a part of my life and becoming a reporter who focuses on immigration and on border issues. It’s all tied up with this obsession with my father and trying to understand him. We’re in this era right now of post-truth and alternative facts and very frustrating era for journalists. I feel like like this whole notion of crossing borders appeals to me because curiosity is basically, no one is curious unless they admit that they don’t know something. You will not explore beyond your world unless your recognize that there lies more beyond your world worth exploring. And my father, even though we have so many, I mean there’s a lot of pain in the relationship associated with the relationship with my father. There’s also a lot of beauty in what he showed me which was this cross up, cross the border. And I don’t mean just literally, I mean metaphysically, seeing from an abstract point of view, cross the border into the unknown and see what you find out.
By Antonio Villasenor-Baca