Jean Guerrero

Immigration, Dignity, and U.S.-Mexico Relations

Air Date: October 16, 2018

KPBS investigative reporter Jean Guerrero discusses her new book “Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir” and reporting on Mexico.


HEFFNER:  I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. Today we explore a spellbinding account of Mexican American heritage, a daughter’s coming of age and to terms with her father’s mental health, and the way forward on immigration, political reform and border security in America. Named one of “San Diego’s best people” by the San Diego City Beat. Jean Guerrero is author of “Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir.” Winner of the PEN/Fusion, Emerging Writer’s Prize, Guerrero is an investigative reporter covering immigration for KPBS. Her reporting was cited by a congressional inquiry about the Trump Administration’s family separations policy, months before they captured the national attention. Prior to joining our ranks in public media, Guerrero was Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswire commodities correspondent in Mexico City. And it’s a pleasure to have you here on the east coast. Thank you for making the journey.

GUERRERO: Thanks so much for having me.

HEFFNER: What inspired you to write this book?

GUERRERO: So I wrote this book in large part because my father has been this mystery that I’ve been trying to solve since I was a little girl. He was a huge part of my life when I was a child because my mother is a doctor and she was busy with patients. So my dad, he was actually a stay at home dad and he would, I spent most of my time with him when I was little girl and he was this very magical person full of wonder and curiosity, teaching me about… he would take me to Baja California and tell me about all of the things that live inside of the ocean and the tide pools. So when he eventually fell into a depression and, and became convinced that the CIA was experimenting on him and beaming voices into his head, it was a really traumatic change for me as a child and I didn’t understand what was going on. My mother told me that he had paranoid schizophrenia. My father had his own fantastical tales about what the CIA was allegedly doing to him and I just wanted to figure out, I guess I became obsessed with trying to figure out what was going on with my father ever since and as an adult I decided to do it through journalism.

HEFFNER: When did you recognize as a child that this was not normal? Was there a particular moment?

GUERRERO: Yeah, I mean, my father had started doing things that I could recognize were very strange. He was wrapping himself up in aluminum foil, saying that he was doing so to block the voices of the CIA, at one point he was marching up and down the stairs with a BB gun, to scare off the CIA agents that he said he could see through the window. But I remember the first moment that I witnessed my father’s sort of breakdown was, he destroyed this condominium where he was staying for a little while. He punched holes in the walls. He stripped the floor bare of its carpet. He was trying to find the hidden microphones or radio transmitters and anything to explain the voices that he heard in his head and I remember visiting that condominium as a child and it was just utterly, completely destroyed and that’s when I realized that there was something, something wrong.

HEFFNER: But you also look to your own identity as a source of inspiration to overcome… Were there American or Mexican literature, film that you relied on as an outlet to better understand the mental health issue and how you hoped, you as a family and you individually could overcome that?

GUERRERO: Yeah. So I’ve, in recent years I’ve found incredible inspiration and in the work of Isabel Allende particularly her memoir “Paula,” which she writes as a letter to her daughter when her daughter is in a coma, she starts to give her daughter the family history as a way of trying to resurrect her, her daughter, and it’s a heartbreaking book because her daughter and never comes back to life. She actually dies. But I remember when I found that that book, which was about a year and a half into writing “Crux” I realized that this motivation that I had to save my father, to help my father, to give him a new perspective on himself and on his history, even though it wasn’t necessarily a secure place from which to write, I could make that explicit in the writing. I could embrace these magical elements of my family history and of my heritage and make them explicit in the book and I would say Isabel Allende’s book gave me the courage to do that. And particularly finding out that my father had this great grandmother who was known as La Divina, this is something that I found out in Mexico when I moved there to become a foreign correspondent as well as to investigate my father’s past. He had this great grandmother who was a very well respected, curandera, clairvoyant. She was known as La Divina, the diviner. So she also heard voices and saw things that nobody else could see. But she was attributed with this power that she supposedly could commune with spirits. And in the book, I explore those parallels between my father and this ancestor, as a way of, as one way of understanding my father. There are many ways.

HEFFNER: That’s really one of the most fascinating pieces of this. We, many of us have grandmothers or abulitas, who are dear to us. So retracing that ancestry, did it place your father ultimately in the final analysis in more of a common shared world of the fantastic that you found yourself as a news reporter divergent from, or did you ultimately reconcile those two worlds in a way that was transcending the medical issues, but speaking to the influence of story and storytelling in Mexican culture, which if you read your book or Cuban culture, in the case of Richard Blanco, you’ll find that pretty resonant.

GUERRERO: Right. Yeah. You know, for me, when, what are the things that I discovered through the writing of “Crux” was that I didn’t have to have just one answer that I could actually have the multiple interpretations for what was going on with my father and that this realization that reality can be contradictory, that contradictory things can be true at the same time to some extent, it was really helpful for me to come to that realization.

HEFFNER: So how about American tolerance of medical issues versus the Mexican appreciation of that magical realism as it’s manifested in our lives, not just on the pages of literature. How do you distill those disparate identities in the way that you and your family coped with his illness in, you know, viewing it from the lens being stationed in Mexico City and thinking about it that way was it, was there a different understanding of what might’ve been transpiring with your father in Mexico than in the United States?

GUERRERO: Yeah, absolutely. So I don’t want to. I never wanted to create an extreme dichotomy because is magic and fairy tales in the United States just as there’s a lot of a very rigorous science in Mexico. However, yes, this realization that, that my father had these sort of magical elements to his personality came to me in Mexico also because he was doing things without even knowing about this ancestor. He created this garden of curative crops. And he’s like, I went to visit him a few times and he had a cupboard full of potions and powders and tinctures, things that he was making out of these plants that he was… And this healing aspect was very much a part of my great, great grandmother’s life. She was a curandera as well as a clairvoyant, a healer. So I realized that even though my father is very much a troubled person who has, without a doubt, suffered as a result of the way that he perceives the world. I also found that it was, it was sort of empowering and so sort of liberating to entertain this possibility that if seen from a different perspective, if my father started perhaps listening to some of the voices in his head and not listening to them in a literal way as in I’m going to do what they tell me to or interpret them literally, but rather to seek metaphorical insights from those voices. I felt like that could potentially, you know, liberate him from those voices. There’s actually a group called intervoice that I explore in the book of, of people who have auditory hallucinations and they reject the diagnosis of schizophrenia. I’m not to say that it’s not helpful for many, many people, but in their case, in the case of intervoice, they say that it’s just disempowering to tell patients to reject their hallucinations rather than to engage with them. If they engage with their hallucinations, if they seek meaning in them, if they listen carefully to what they’re saying and try to understand what kind of symbolic thing is being said, then they might actually be able to liberate themselves from those voices or be helped by them.

HEFFNER: The two American representations that came to mind reading your book were A Beautiful Mind and Better Call Saul. I just wanted to give you an open forum if you’ve seen that movie or that show because the tin foil and the hallucinations that, those are unifying themes here. Have you seen, have you seen or read about those American perspectives on schizophrenia?

GUERRERO: I’ve seen A Beautiful Mind and I and I definitely, it definitely resonated with me because of the fact that my father embodies these dichotomies. He, you know, he was very much a, he is a brilliant person and in a way like he always saw through to the mechanics of everything. He could align brakes, he could fix broken pipes, but then there was this dark side of it where he would do things like tap my mother’s telephone line. He would use that innate instinctive knowledge of electromagnetism to do things like that. And then when he was talking to me about his theories about what the CIA was doing to him, he would always use scientific explanations. When I would press him and say how do you know that these are not hallucinations? He would say, well, because you know, whenever I would touch a piece of metal, the currents that they were sending through me with dissipate into that metal, he would do these experiments to prove what was going on. So there was an element of brilliance.

HEFFNER: Since you do courageously grapple with this, I would be very interested in your reaction to Better Call Saul, but we’ll leave that as it as it is right now because there are some common themes you right here about your journey to La Ciudad de Mexico. “I moved to Mexico City on September 30th, 2010. My father’s country had never been bloodier. Drug cartels were diversifying their portfolios with human trafficking, murder for hire and kidnappings for ransom. My job was to report out of the coffee plantations and cocoa farms where corpses accumulated in clandestine graves.” Today in this country, we have a President and an executive branch that is constantly alluding to that fear. How do you look at that fear today from 2010 now to 2018?

GUERRERO: Right, so actually, that, that portrait of Mexico, that was actually what attracted me to Mexico in the first place because I was, my father was always from the time that I was a very small child, always encouraging me to push past the boundaries of the known, the safe, the familiar. And so when he became absent from my life, I sort of tried to recapture him by conjuring him in myself. And eventually that led me to Mexico, which was extremely appealing to me because of the opportunities that I felt it presented for covering things like human rights violations. But, this portrait of Mexico as this place of criminals and rapists that is coming out of our Administration, that’s very different from the way that I have seen Mexico throughout my life. Although when I was a child, there was a time when my mother would always say, you can’t go to Mexico.

HEFFNER: You said it’s terrified you.

GUERRERO: It terrified me. When I was a small child I was terrified of Mexico because of the fact that, that my mother was telling me that it was a place of criminals, that it was a very unsafe place. And also because I went into southern Mexico with my father as a child when he was smoking crack. And so I like had these associations in my mind between Mexico and the darkness of my father, but exploring Mexico…

HEFFNER: You were also a child, so would terrify any child, Mexican, American who ever to be in those circumstances, but continue,

GUERRERO: Right. But this journey that I went on of, of discovering my father through Mexico and just researching the history of Mexico and being a reporter in Mexico made me realize that even though my father is this person that some many would say is detached from reality, he also gave me my journalistic instincts. I think. I think that the instincts that drive journalistic curiosity and madness are very similar. I think that they both are rooted in this sort of restlessness of mind. And I think that my fascination with Mexico that was routed somewhat in fear actually opened my eyes to a lot of the layered and complex realities that exist within Mexico.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk about the geopolitical situation on which you report regularly and virally. From your perspective, what would be the most effective way to handle the border situation based on your expertise having reported this out for the last five, six years?

GUERRERO: Well, one thing I’ve seen and just from my conversations with sources repeatedly, everyone tells me that no matter how strong and impermeable we make the wall, people are so desperate leaving the conditions of violence in Central America that they’re going to find ways across whether it’s under the wall as we’re seeing in San Diego, we have so many tunnels as far deep as 90 feet under the fence, very sophisticated tunnels. And then, or sometimes you see people increasingly you see people going across through the ocean, you see people using drones to get stuff over the fence. So there’s always ways to get around barriers. What I’ve heard and what I’ve, you know, what my sources tell me is that if you really want to stop the problem of illegal immigration to the United States, you need to address the problem at the source and the source involves, you know, poverty, extreme problems of violence that are rooted in impunity and corruption at the governmental levels. And so you need to somehow hold governments accountable in Central America and Mexico as well for some of the problems of impunity that we’ve seen. And then you also need to provide economic opportunities within those, within those countries. That’s what I’ve heard is it’s a much more likely way to stop the flows that we’re seeing.

HEFFNER: The conservative media prompted by Donald Trump insist that this is a crisis at the border. You’re adeptly positioned to affirm that or disagree. Is it a crisis? Is there a crisis at the border? I’m talking separate from the family separation issue.

GUERRERO: So it’s really hard to tell because I mean in, from one perspective, it is a crisis because you have people fleeing violence arriving at the border trying to get across into the United States legally is presenting themselves at the ports of entry and increasingly they are being told that the ports are at capacity. So the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego, it’s one of the busiest ports of entry in the world and the busiest in the United States. And they’re constantly at capacity now; apparently they cannot receive these people. So you see lines of people forming outside of the ports who are desperately fleeing violence with their, you know, mothers with their babies, just people camping out. And so you, you go and you look at that and, and it doesn’t look like, I mean, you, you may want to call it a crisis, but it’s, it’s so hard to tell because then you look at the other side of it, which is the fact that illegal immigration inflows are at a record low. Like if you look at the overall numbers and compare it to the 90s, there are much fewer people coming across the border today than they were before. The asylum claims have increased. But in terms of people crossing the border illegally, that, that is significantly lower.

HEFFNER: And what is the perspective since you left Mexico City, in that country now as it relates to the American leadership or the absence of American leadership and the willingness to break what has been a longstanding alliance with both Mexico and Canada? Do you hear perspectives from within Mexico, especially as the new President is taking office?

GUERRERO: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, he’s being called a populist and he’s, during his victory speech this year, the summer when he won the presidency, he said that his priority was going to be the poor and that, hearing that from a Mexican president that’s unprecedented for the past few decades. So it’s, so a lot of people are seeing Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as the first president in Mexico in a long time who’s going to put the prayer, the interests of, of the Mexican majority above those of the minority who have trade relationships, for example, with the United States. So there is, you’re seeing this sort of push away from Mexico, from the United States, but you’re similarly seeing that in Mexico, I mean Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says he wants to maintain a positive relationship with United States, but people are looking to him to stand up for Mexico in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time.

HEFFNER: On the issue of children’s separation, what do you view as the best-case scenario here for a compassionate treatment of these children?

GUERRERO: So some of them will be sent back to Central America to be reunited with parents who’ve already been deported, but there are hundreds of children who were actually being reunited with parents in the United States. And I would say the best-case scenario, there’s this perception I think that once these families are reunited, the government has done its job and there’s a happy ending or as happy ending is there can be given the circumstances. But in reality, on this struggle is, is far from over because first they have to go through their asylum process in a very small minority of asylum claims are actually accepted. But more importantly, the family separation that took place has caused real significant trauma in children and parents as well. You know, this is something that I’ve seen from talking with families personally, seeing the way that their children have reacted. They’re not happy to be reunited. There may have been a moment of happiness from the reunification and they are so they’re happy to have been reunited, but there’s significant stress and anxiety of, of perhaps being separated again. The children, the children are having nightmares, night terrors, very clingy with their parents, crying, anger. There’s a lot of anger because small children don’t realize that their parents were not at fault necessarily. So the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union is asking a federal judge in San Diego to, to require the government to provide mental health services to the families that were separated. But, we still don’t know if that’s going to happen. But that’s, that’s, that’s something that I would think would be appropriate given the significant psychological injury, which the government itself has recognized has been done to these small children, to provide mental health services because there is significant trauma that is associated with this.

HEFFNER: What did writing this book and your collective body of reporting teach you about how we alleviate the problem at its source, which is the cultural racialized resentment that enabled a president like Trump to be elected into sustained power through a bully pulpit of bigotry against Mexicans, calling Mexicans rapists at his first rally. What is the condition that you discern, in San Diego where you report and maybe more nationally where we can rectify the difficulty we have today with embracing our country is a nation of immigrants. Or maybe we just should not be manipulated by Donald Trump because in fact he represents under a third of this country and in that worldview, maybe backwards, that we’re not a nation of immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants and we’re a nation of proud assimilation and integration at our most ideal.

GUERRERO: Right. Yeah. You know, I think it has to do with empathy, but it also has to do with intellect you this, my book is this exploration of borders, both literal and metaphysical and the border. I see it as a perfect opportunity to advocate for curiosity, for pushing past what we know, pushing past our echo chambers, pushing past the familiar into the unfamiliar in quest of truth. And I think that, you know, when you ascribe to one story or one perspective then you do violence to your concept of reality, you really have to open your mind to the idea that there are other stories and other voices that are worth listening to. And only then can we actually grow as individuals, as societies, as families. When you, when you recognize that there, that reality is extremely complex and extremely layered and you’re able to entertain these contradictory ideas in your mind it’s a hard thing to do. But it’s extremely rewarding when, when we open ourselves up to that.

HEFFNER: They’re so lucky to have you, KPBS and our public media because that word you use, intellect. This book channels your intellectual honesty on a subject where you just have the warlords and the demagogues. You do something far more sophisticated. Thank you for that.

GUERRERO: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.