Jose Venegas might have been a hero of a corrido, the tragic Mexican ballad form that he loved above all other music. From Mexico to Chicago and back again, he lived and died in regular bursts of violence, lurching from shootings to stabbings to "trading heads" (trying to have someone killed in exchange for performing a similar favor down the road) to being ambushed by men with machine guns. Kidnapped by an even more violent gang, he ended up helping the kidnappers. If you offended him, the insult would be flung back in your face twice as hard. If you killed someone in his family, your days were numbered.
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His daughter, Maria Venegas, tells his story in her gripping and sometimes unexpectedly funny new memoir, "Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter." After her family immigrated from Mexico when she was 4, Venegas grew up in Chicago's western suburbs and later lived in Wicker Park before moving to Brooklyn in 2001. In "Bulletproof Vest," she recounts how a chain of violence — beginning with her brother's murder in Mexico, after which her father began planning his vengeance — led to an attempt on his life in Chicago that caused him to return to Mexico for good in the 1980s.
Estranged for many years, father and daughter later reconnected, after which he began telling her the stories of his life as an outlaw. Printers Row Journal recently caught up with Maria Venegas during a visit to Chicago, where she gave a reading from "Bulletproof Vest" and visited family. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: For readers who may be unfamiliar with the tradition of the corrido, maybe you could explain what that is.
A: A corrido is a type of poetic Mexican ballad that often has a violent undertone. When I was a kid, that was my father's music. For years, it made me cringe. In the years after my father left, if I walked past a Mexican restaurant and heard those songs coming out, it always reminded me of my father.
Later, when I reconnected with him in Mexico, I developed an appreciation for the music, although after he died, I went through a spell where I couldn't listen to it because it was too emotional for me. But now I've gotten to a point where I can listen to it and appreciate it. When I was kid, listening to the stories that these corridos told, I think I knew even then that my father lived and died by the code in those stories.
Q: Do you think he thought of himself as living out, or living in, a corrido?
A: I'm not sure. I never asked him that, but it's possible.
Q: The corridos were part of his DNA, though.
A: Absolutely. The music we listen to influences us in one way or another, I think. But did he think of himself as one of those desperadoes in the songs? I'm not sure.
Q: Although he was a desperado, to some significant extent.
A: Very much so.
Q: In fact, he grew up in a culture of violence — where to be violent was just understood to be part of life. If someone offended you or harmed you or, certainly, killed somebody in your family, there was no question as to how you were supposed to respond.
A: Right. It's also true that in Mexico, the government has been so corrupt for so many years, there's no faith in the justice system. The man that killed my brother, I think he was in prison and/or in a mental institution for a total of nine months before his family bailed him out for maybe $3,000. It's always been part of the system that if you killed somebody, you could get let out of prison if your family had a certain amount of money. And because of that, people do take the law into their own hands. They go and mete out whatever justice they feel is right.
Q: The man who killed your brother was later found in the desert, stabbed more than 50 times. You ask your mother, "Do you think my father did this?" And your mother says, "Probably. Your father is capable of anything." Did he, do you think, kill that man?
A: I don't know. In my gut, I think he did not do it himself. I think he had somebody do it for him.
Q: "Trading heads," you call it in the book.
A: Well, that's what he called it. (Laughs.) After my brother was killed, my father started making phone calls to men that he knew, about "trading heads." Meaning, "You do this one for me, later I do one for you." And you know, he went to the prison where the man had been, he went to the mental institution, looking for him. I think that if the man had been either at the prison or the mental institution, and they had let my father see him, he would have shot him dead right then and there. He wouldn't have been able to hold back.
But you know, I asked him several times what happened to that guy, and the story he told me was that he'd put the word out on the street and the word came back that the man was in Mexicali. He recruited two others, and they drove up and found him at the tavern, and that's where he met his end. But there was something about the way he told that story that seemed a bit polished. Of all the stories he told me, that was the one I was not certain if I believed him. But I don't know if he would have been able to kill the guy that way.
Q: But it's possible.
A: It's possible, yes. You know, I had a list of questions I was to ask him after I sold the book, things I wanted to clarify, and then he died in an unexpected, awful way. And this was on that list of questions: Did you or did you not kill this person? It would have been hard for me to ask him that point-blank, though.
Q: By that time, you had rebuilt your relationship with your father after years of estrangement. And that's really one of the main themes of the book: your reconnection with him after he fled Chicago all those years ago. Although maybe the main reason he left was to go find the man who killed your brother.
A: I think there were several reasons he left. One was to find that man. Another was to get away from the brothers of the neighbor who had attacked him.
That's why he bought a bulletproof vest. There were these men asking questions around town, about where he was, how many children he had, and so on. There was a time when I was shocked to hear myself talking about all that, you know — "My father shot and killed a neighbor and then we moved." It was only when I got to a point where I could talk about it and not feel like it was a negative reflection on myself that I could write about it.
Q: There's also unexpected comedy here and there. Your father buys the bulletproof vest, and asks you guys, Does it look like I'm wearing a vest? And you say, Maybe you should tuck your shirt in a little looser.
A: Right. (Laughs.)
Q: You were children, and there you were, giving your dad tips on how to disguise the fact that he was wearing a bulletproof vest. That's black comedy, I think you would call it.
A: It's true that most of the material in the book is very heavy and emotionally complex, but I remember that while I was writing it, there were certain moments where I thought, "That's funny." It was surprising, but I had a lot of fun writing the book.
Q: There's also a political dimension to all this, having to do with representations of stereotyped communities.
A: Yes, and for a while when I was writing the book, there was a voice that kept coming into my head. "What are you doing? Why are you writing this?"
Q: A fear of airing dirty laundry, maybe.
A: You know, there is a lot of animosity out there toward my tribe, and this was like throwing gasoline onto that fire. But I really wanted to write about my father, to really understand him and how he was wired. And finally one day I just turned around and looked at the voice and just said, "I heard you, but I'm going to write this book whether you like it or not. So just shut up."
Q: It is what it is.
A: It is what it is, yes. And you know, my father and I represent two very different extremes. Yes, he absolutely was a very violent and volatile man. He did awful things, and yes, people might refer to him as a criminal or what have you — the worst of the worst, if you will.
But on the other end of that, I came to this country when I was 4 years old and actually just became a U.S. citizen in March. When it came time to go and get my MFA, I applied to several different schools, including one of the Ivy Leagues. I got in there, but I didn't end up going there, because it was too expensive, and Hunter College offered me a great fellowship. And I thought, "Most Mexican immigrants don't have the luxury of turning down an Ivy League school." And so from my father to me ...
Q: You're both a continuum and an evolution.
A: And my brothers and sisters, none of them have criminal records, as far as I'm aware.
Q: By the way, when your family moved after your father left for Mexico, where did you move from and to?
A: I could tell you, but I'd rather not.
Q: That might be a little dangerous, even today?
A: Slightly, and I would hate to put any of my family in harm's way. I don't know whatever became of those brothers or their offspring, or the children of the man my father killed. Maybe they grew up and might be living in Chicago or even possibly New York.
Q: Has your mother read the book?
A: No, because she doesn't read in English. But the book was excerpted in Granta — they published the prologue and the first chapter, about my father leaving for Mexico — and then translated it into Spanish and reprinted it in one of their Spanish issues about two or three years later. I received a copy of that Spanish issue, and my mother happened to be visiting me in New York, so I gave it to her to read.
She was reading it one morning and she starts giggling, then laughing, and then just cracking up. I said, "What are you laughing at?" She said, "You wrote that I came out of the bedroom with my bra strap hanging halfway down my arm?" (Laughs.) And she said, "You think the kids aren't paying attention, and all the time they're there like little tape recorders, picking up all those details." And she thought it was hilarious.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
By Maria Venegas, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 307 pages, $26