If you don’t believe in magic or fate, Maria Venegas’ debut memoir, Bulletproof Vest, might change your mind. The narrative reads like a novel and is written in a similar fashion to the corrido, a traditional farewell ballad for peasants and infamous outlaws. And an outlaw her father was, with enough shootouts, run-ins with the drug cartel, and lay of the land knowledge to fill countless storybooks. Venegas’ precise creative license seamlessly weaves the different threads of her life: an emigration from Mexico to the Chicago suburbs where she was raised with her mother and six siblings, ultimately making a home in Brooklyn, to her father’s epic life story emanating from the inherited property where they were both born: “La Peña” (the rock) in Zacatecas, Mexico.
Her father, Jose Manuel Venegas, often sports his bulletproof vest should one of his enemies come for him, though it doesn’t seem he needs it as he walks away from a horrific ambush, a chase with the Feds, a kidnapping by the cartel, two life-threatening accidents with his horse, and countless alcoholic binges during which he unloads his gun into the sky. Locals fear him—nicknamed El Cien Vacas after bragging about his multiple cows as a boy—for the very fact that he seems to cheat death time and time again. Though he’s murdered multiple people, on both sides of the Mexican American border, evades prison time and finagles his way around the corrupt legal system with a bribe. And once you’ve crossed his path, you better be on high alert that now he’s coming for you. Rumor has it that Jose’s made a pact with the devil himself; however, he believes it’s the ghost of a soldier from the Mexican Revolution that’s protected him all those years.
At the start of the book, our narrator seems indifferent if her father lives or dies. “Oh… So, is he dead?” she asks her sister without hesitation while thumbing through a lunch menu. No one blames her, since he abandoned the family when she was a young girl and takes little to no role in his children’s upbringing. Once, while drunk, he pointed his loaded gun at her to test her nerve (She didn’t flinch). But even when Jose himself has come to terms with the end of his life, we meet the same daughter who, now in adulthood, begs for his survival so that she has more time with him. “Please don’t die, please don’t die, not yet…” Venegas even saves his life once by contacting a doctor in the States with her father’s symptoms as he lies near death in a Mexican hospital. When he survives yet again because of this doctor, she reasons with why her father appears so invincible: “Maybe this is why he’s still alive: not because he keeps cheating death but rather because life refuses to let him go—he’s not finished paying his debt here yet. Perhaps only in death will he be released from his suffering.”
At its core, Bulletproof Vest is about the shields we wear to protect ourselves both physically and emotionally from harm. Some of the most poignant moments in the narrative are when we’re allowed to see these hardened characters’ vulnerabilities. While Venegas is passed out drunk as a teenager, a young man at the party rapes her, leaving her pregnant at the same time she was accepted to her top college. She’s faced with aborting a child in her second trimester. Her father, the same man who fires a bullet square in her uncle’s forehead, later shows deep compassion for his livestock. “…Cows are very peaceful animals. You shouldn’t throw rocks at them. It’s important to treat animals with love.” The reader’s capacity to continuously adore, fear, and hate this man is a unique skill of the writer’s control in her storytelling.
The social landscape of Mexico changes during Venegas’ many trips to visit her father as an adult. The father’s hometown of Zacatecas is overrun by the drug cartels that drive through town in black SUVs, often kidnapping people—him included—for ransom. A diver hired to fish a woman’s son out of the lake, finds “so many bodies down there.” It would have been interesting to see even more of this history enter the narrative and resonate against the family story, especially since a witness claims Jose ultimately met his end at the hand of the cartel.
The memoir is as much about cultural obstacles and the struggle of assimilation as it is a complex, heart wrenching father daughter relationship. It’s not a surprise when we learn Jose Manuel Venegas had already been at work on his own corrido, before his death and before his daughter even had a chance to set his story to paper. A ballad, after all, is a love story, and Bulletproof Vest never disappoints. Our narrator expresses great depth over the many pieces of her family history traversing borders, cultural boundaries, and country lines, making this book read like great cowboy legend.