Jose Manuel Venegas is a rapscallion, a gun-toting, horse-breaking man raised on a hardscrabble ranch in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. He's also the father and unshakeable nemesis of Maria Venegas, whose memoir not only follows the many paths of her father's serendipitous life but also traces her own bootstrap upbringing, from her arrival in Chicago as a four-year-old Mexican immigrant to her professional New York City career in theater and literature.
Bulletproof Vest is a story of contrasts. The rural Mexico of feral dogs, beat-up trucks and ramshackle houses without plumbing or electricity is held up beside the fast food and pop music of suburban Chicago where Venegas grows up as the only Mexican in her grade at school--criticized for her accent ("It's Shicago, not Che-cago") and stereotyped ("'You're too tall to be a Mexican'... [as if] there was a height limit for Mexicans. A line drawn on a wall, which we best not surpass"). Her father is a vindictive man, quick to use a gun when wronged, while she longs to be a cheerleader and finds solace in reading and acting. He drunkenly kills a man in Chicago and jumps bail to hide at his family's mountain ranchero, La Peña, while she studies her way into the University of Illinois and ultimately earns an MFA in writing from Hunter College.
Venegas can't escape the ghosts of a father she hardly knew, a father who abandoned his two-year-old in Zacatecas to find work in the U.S. and then abandoned her again in Chicago at age seven as he "slips one of his guns into the back of his Wranglers, grabs his black cowboy hat and goes out the door: metal, leather, bulletproof--indestructible." She comes to realize that she also ostracized him from her life "assembling a shield, something that would protect me from ever being hurt again--my own bulletproof vest."
With the pace, character and plot of good fiction, her memoir is the pulsing saga of how she returns to Mexico to try to connect with him. Meandering like one of his favorite corridos, Bulletproof Vest is Venegas's ballad to her father as she comes to appreciate the struggles he faced amid the violence, superstition and poverty of his own upbringing. He teaches her to ride horses and recognize the stars. She nurses him through reckless truck crashes. In sharing his life, Venegas discovers her family roots and reconciles the contrasts in her own life.
When her father dies in yet another fiery accident, she accepts that he was trapped in the violence of his life, and no amount of armor could fend off eventual disaster. She takes comfort in an eyewitness account that "music was still blaring from the tangled mess after it stopped, the drums and horns of some corrido from long ago sounding out as if serenading him--bidding farewell."
Bruce's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for June 2, 2014