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Book Review: Ana Castillo's The Guardians

By Sergio Troncoso

The Guardians (New York: Random House), by Ana Castillo, is a timely and highly readable novel about the El Paso/Juárez area, and how the border has become an eerie 'Paradise Lost,' where family members routinely disappear and women are murdered for their organs or raped by narcos.  In this pitiless desert, which undocumented workers see as a stepping stone to ‘America,’ hearty, yet damaged souls attempt to find love, or at least a realistic, gritty redemption, amid this weird wonderland.

The story is told from four perspectives: Regina, the 50-year-old widowed virgin who lives in Cabuche, New Mexico, and searches for her brother Rafa as he attempts to cross the border and join her in the United States; Miguel, Regina’s love interest, and a leftist high school teacher in search of his manly confidence, and who is clearly mesmerized by the red-headed Regina; Gabriel, or Gabo, Rafa’s 16-year-old son, a young man simultaneously obsessed with monkhood and gang members who promise him a sense of family; and Abuelito Milton, a cantankerous viejito from El Segundo Barrio, who pushes his grandson Miguel into action, rescues young Gabriel from jail one night, and even flirts with la Regina.

Regina is clearly at the heart of this story, her moniker perhaps an allusion to another Virgen-Reyna.  Yet Regina is a modern heroine, a woman deeply skeptical of the church, yet able to find a gritty compassion for those who have caused her the most hurt, a tough defender of her property who knows how to use a rifle to keep miscreants and dangerous animals from her rancho.  Regina is also, in essence, Gabriel’s mother, in the absence of Rafa, and her struggle to understand her Christ-like ‘son’ will resonate with any parent attempting to make sense of teenagers, and what makes up a ‘family’ in these most tumultuous, painful times.  Regina’s search for news about her brother Rafa, with the help of Miguel and Gabriel, to a coyote’s house in El Paso, to the nether world of the disappeared women of Juárez, drives the novel forward to its surprising climax.

Castillo’s most important accomplishment in The Guardians is to give a unique literary voice to questions about what makes up a ‘family,’ Mexican-American or otherwise, where an independent soul can find redemption, particularly in a hostile world, and how we can realistically find ‘faith,’ if we can find it at all, after we have suffered through our personal and political histories, and are still standing on this earth.  This is a wonderful novel that does justice to life on the Mexican-American border.

This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on July 22, 2007.