I STARTED READING María Venegas’ Bullet Proof Vest: The Ballad of An Outlaw and His Daughter several months ago but about a quarter of the way through her memoir, the release of several new books that I felt compelled to read caused me to set it aside.
When I finished those other books, I almost didn’t go back to Venegas’ book. I’m glad I did. It is one of the best books I’ve read in the last couple of years. I just finished reading it and I’m sad that I won’t be able to return to it.
Venegas’ father was really an outlaw and he had many enemies, including the police and drug cartel members. The book begins with an attempt on his life and it ends with another attempt, this one successful. That he lived as long as he did is a marvel. He claimed he survived because he had a guardian angel. Most of the people in his small town in Mexico, however, believed the opposite – that he had made a pact with the devil. But he didn’t see himself as invincible; his view on death and when it arrives is simply, el que se chingó se chingó.
The veneration of mothers among Mexicans and Mexican Americans is so strong that, despite the book’s title, and despite reading several reviews, I still assumed that the story would be about Venegas’ and her siblings and their mother’s struggles to survive in the Chicago suburbs where they were living when her father abandoned them to return to Mexico. But, of course, it isn’t.
While Venegas does give us a thorough view of that difficult early life in Illinois — and later of her successes as an actor and writer in New York and elsewhere — the book, it turns out, is really about her father. It’s about the relationship they were able to establish and nourish after, as an adult, she decided to visit him in the small Mexican town where they were both born.
Her descriptions of life in that small community and of her father’s cattle ranch are told lovingly and simply. I wish she had written more about why she felt compelled to return to her father, to re-establish a relationship that seemed lost early on. While she does explain it, it doesn’t seem enough; there are still some blank spaces.
What is clear is that Venegas identifies very much with her father. She is proud that her friends had nicknamed her “Chainsaw,” because of her fearlessness and surmises that “whatever part of me was a chainsaw was fueled by” his blood.
There are few flourishes in Venegas’ writing, it’s basic English narrative language with a few Spanish words or phrases thrown in when necessary. (Most of the time she doesn’t bother to translate them into English, which is just fine because such translations are generally awkward and tend to disrupt the flow of the story.)
However, here and there you will find words meticulously patched together to create beautiful, stirring images. Here, for example, is how she described an approaching storm when she was with her father rounding up cattle at his ranch:
On the way back, the horse and the donkey move at a swifter gait, and by the time we clear San Martín, the clouds seem to be at war with one another. From the four corners of the earth … cloud formations have risen and are now merging overhead, snuffing out the last rays of sunshine. A rumble rips through the clouds above and then a bright whip cracks down against the mountains as if trying to make them gallop.
One minor nit: Venega overuses the phrase “I couldn’t help but wonder” to the point that the reader almost dreads to turn the page for fear of being confronted with another one. But, when you consider the grander treasures she offers, it is indeed a minor complaint.
IRONICALLY, ONE OF the books I read during the time I set Bulletproof Vest aside was Barefoot Dogs Stories by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, a Mexican-born journalist who now lives in Austin.
The two books are different in so many ways (aside from the obvious one that one is fiction while the other is not), yet they are alike in that they deal with similar subjects: a Mexican patriarch and his kidnapping and death at the hands of those who have made life in Mexico so difficult in recent decades affects those he leaves behind.
Ruiz-Camacho is a beautiful, exquisite master of the English language, which is remarkable given that Spanish remains his primary language. (When he speaks, you can tell that he still struggles to find the right English words and the correct way to put them together to form a cohesive sentence.) That he managed to write so beautifully in English is a testament to his talent and tenaciousness.
The biggest difference between these two books is the perspective from which they’re told. Venega writes about the poor, illegal immigrants and about the poor communities from which they emigrated. Ruiz-Camacho writes from the point of view of the pampered wealthy elite.
Venega’s people arrived here seeking work and an opportunity to advance; Ruiz-Camacho’s settled in upper-class communities – in Berkley, West Austin, Connecticut and Madrid – and spent much of their time feeling sorry for themselves.
More important, while Venega refuses to excuse the sins of her father and assigns him his share of the blame for messing up his family and, in a larger context, his country, the patriarch in Ruiz-Camacho’s stories is never heard from.
Worse, his children and grandchildren are too absorbed in their self-pity to ever ask the question: to what extent did this man, and other men and women, members of Mexico’s elite classes, contribute to the sad situation in which Mexico finds itself?