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Feature Sun Sep 09 2007

Review: The Guardians by Ana Castillo

For our September meeting we are reading Peel My Love Like an Onion by Ana Castillo, but this past month I also had the opportunity to read her latest novel, The Guardians, a harrowing and poignant story about family, spirituality, Mexican identity and the troubled relationship between the United States and Mexico along the border.

The guardians of the title are the Franklins, the hills that mark the border between New Mexico and Mexico. In the beginning of the novel, Regina, a middle-aged widow living alone on the outskirts of a small New Mexico border town, says of the Franklins, "Like giants, they take the sun and play with people's eyes, changing colors. Like shape-shifters, they change the way they look, too. They let the devoted climb up along their spines and crown them with white crosses and flowers and mementos. They give themselves that way, those guardians between the two countries."

Regina is looking towards the hills, waiting for her brother Rafael, who splits his time between working in the U.S. and living in Mexico. Gabriel, Rafa's 15-year-old son, has been staying with his aunt so he can finish high school in America. Her brother was due back days ago, but he has not returned. He was supposed to cross over with a coyote, a guide to lead him through the desert across the border, but something has gone wrong, and the only evidence Regina has is a phone number taken from her caller ID after she receives a threatening phone call from a woman claiming to know where Rafa is.

Regina needs to know what happened to her brother and begins her own detective work. Gabriel's mother was murdered in a similar crossing years ago — her mutilated body was later found in the desert. Vital organs were missing, harvested for the black market. Regina cannot rest until she knows her brother's fate.

She is an aide at a school in Cabuche, New Mexico, where she meets Miguel Betancourt, a handsome, divorced history teacher with two kids, an ex-wife and lots of ideas about what wrong with U.S.-Mexico relations. Miguel is captivated by the headstrong Regina and agrees to help her search for her brother.

Gabo, as Gabriel is called, also searches for his father in his own way, befriending some gangbangers at his school who may or may not be connected to those responsible for his father's disappearance. He is no street tough in the making, however. Gabo is a deeply spiritual young man whose increasing devotions and religious eccentricities begin to alarm those around him.

The story is told from multiple points of view. Regina is tough, a survivor, used to living on her own on the edge of the desert, but she has a wry sense of humor. She is also an entrepreneur, inventing endless ways to earn a little extra money to make ends meet. Miguel, when he isn't mentally planning his book about the troubled history between the U.S. and Latin America, is torn between his responsibilities to his family and his involvement with Regina. Miguel's ornery, blind and hard-of-hearing grandfather, Milton, also joins the investigation into Rafa's disappearance, and injects some welcome humor and charm into the story. And, finally, Gabo's narrative is written in the form of letters to Padre Pío, his favorite saint.

Their stories intertwine to tell of the search for Regina's brother, but also to reveal a grim portrait of life near the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a life where everyone seems to have lost someone, where people routinely disappear — or are murdered outright, and the illegal drug trade spreads through the border communities like a malignant cancer. As the mystery of Rafa's disappearance unravels, Castillo effectively conveys the harsh, unforgiving environment of the New Mexico desert, and the all-too-real struggles of the American border communities. The Guardians is both funny and heartbreaking, poignant and horrifying, wrapped in a story of a woman and her nephew searching for a man who is both brother and father.

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