Photo of Jean Guerrero
Jean Guerrero has covered Latin America, immigration and border issues for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and now KPBS-TV in San Diego, earning an Emmy and a Pen/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize in 2016.
Photo by: Stacy Keck

Jean Guerrero crosses the line

Borders have irrevocably shaped Jean Guerrero’s life. The most tangible one is between Mexico and the United States — specifically near San Diego, where she grew up.

But, for Guerrero, that line on a map intertwines with other boundaries. The lines between sanity and madness, science and mysticism, father and daughter.

Since graduating from USC Annenberg with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism in 2010, Guerrero has followed two parallel passions: building a career as an award-winning reporter covering immigration and border issues, and writing a memoir about her Mexican-born father, whom she grew up believing had paranoid schizophrenia.

“I’d thought I was going to write a novel based on my father’s life,” Guerrero said. “But I was at Annenberg studying journalism when he started opening up to me in detail about his alleged experiences, and I realized that I could do it as nonfiction.”

The resulting debut book, Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir (One World, 2018) recounts her quest to understand her father, his homeland, and her own relationship to both. That journey began in earnest when she moved to Mexico City in 2010 to work as a foreign correspondent for Dow Jones. She describes her flight into the city in the book: 

The city, like all cities in Spanish, struck me as feminine — la ciudad. It was evident in the curve of her back and her maternal embrace of the dead. Every year she sank a few more inches into the buried swamp of Tenochtitlan. Buildings of all shapes and colors rose from her skin. The unapologetic chaos of the landscape was congruous with the man she had conceived. The man awaiting me, the man I had come here to understand. I was plummeting into an alternate universe, into the dream of the city itself, where the laws of fairy-tale physics reigned.

In between reporting on some of the grimmest aspects of Mexico’s drug war, Guerrero delved into her family history. As she discovered how much of her family’s story involved dichotomies and borders — both physical and metaphysical — her drive to understand her father gathered momentum.

“Once I realized that I wanted to explore my father as the ultimate migrant, this concept of crossing borders just took over, and then it was just a matter of finding connections,” Guerrero said. “One of the most fun parts about the book was finding all of the rhymes and echoes and mirrors and parallels — drawing connections between ancestors, between the countries, between the experiences, between philosophies.” 

Her father’s mental illness manifested itself in confusing, terrifying ways. He believed that he had been subjected to CIA experiments, and that he was under constant surveillance. He would leave the family, moving around the world, to avoid his enemies. He would wrap himself in tinfoil to block surveillance. 

When she began formally interviewing her father, Guerrero found that he was open to talking about his experiences, and that her professional remove helped them both through the process.

“That relationship of the journalist and the interview subject made it possible to have these conversations with my father because he is very averse to intimacy and vulnerability,” she said. “He only felt comfortable opening up to me because I was taking this impartial, objective stance toward his storytelling.

“Later he told me that he felt really grateful for the whole process because he’d never been heard like that before,” she added.

Guerrero notes that her book is a lot like the books she’s always liked to read. “My first favorite books were science fiction, fantasy and fairy tales,” she said. “I’ve always gravitated to stories that have magic in them. That’s why I didn’t want to do this book as a journalist at first, because I thought real life doesn’t have magic. Living inside of my father’s imagination and exploring his mystical ancestors, I realized that the real world does have magic in it.” 

This piece was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of the USC Annenberg Magazine.