ADIÓS TO MY PARENTS
by Héctor Aguilar Camín
translated by Chandler Thompson
Schaffner Press, 304 pages
reviewed by Kim Livingston
Adiós To My Parents is a universal family story. Although the setting (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala) is unfamiliar to me—I’ve lived in the Chicago suburbs all of my fifty-one years and, regrettably, have taken only one Spanish class—the people in this book are so richly drawn that I know them instantly. For example, I recognize the author’s maternal grandmother, a cranky old woman who’s come for a rare visit: “When she’s upset with [my younger brother], she says: ‘I’m going to crack you one.’ By which she means she’ll slap him, but to Luis Miguel this sounds like sugar cracker, and he replies: ‘So let me have it.’” Every family has these stories, the ones we bring out when we’re all together again, so we can laugh at the old days and remember those who are gone.
But Aguilar goes deeper than most do at the kitchen table. As readers we learn about his grandmother’s childhood in Spain, her move to Cuba, and her life-long expectation that she’ll end up back in Spain. We know that for decades she sends her valuable linens to her family back home in preparation for her return. Eventually, we learn about her migraines and her husband’s unwillingness to pay for the healthcare that could save her decades of pain. We know that her husband is a serial cheater with dozens of children by other women. And we learn that she never gets back to her beloved Spain.
Each character has a compelling narrative arc, often focusing on the ways that youthful aspirations clash with adulthood. Youth, Aguilar writes, may be “nothing more” than “a delirium of believing, a future agreed upon before the world molds it into reality.”
As the title suggests, the book centers on Aguilar’s parents. He opens by describing a photo of them standing on a beach in 1944 at the beginning of their life together. He shows us their promise, their love for each other, and then tells us right off that after they married and had five children, the father abandoned the family and disappeared for thirty-six years. When both parents are in their eighties, the father reappears, contacting Aguilar to ask for money. In the first chapter Aguilar writes, “I have no idea who this hunchbacked little man is when he greets me in the shadows of the entrance hall.”
Soon after, his parents both wind up in the same hospital at the same time, one floor apart. On a plot level, we’re in suspense, reading to discover how the family will respond to the father’s reappearance after all these years. The central question of this memoir, though, asks, What happened to the father’s youthful promise and charisma? Why did he leave his family? And how does a son whose father left him make peace with that?
To explore these questions, the author invites us in to the Aguilar Camín clan by recounting his grandparents’ journeys from Spain and Cuba, then to Chetumal, Mexico, just north of Belize in the state of Quintana Roo, where the family settles. Aguilar, a novelist, journalist, and historian, creates here something like a mash-up of Studs Terkel and Willa Cather, assembling his chronicle from collected stories and artifacts. Admitting the limitations of his own memory (“less an archive than a series of insights, a migration of butterflies”), he relies on outside sources such as legal documents, letters, newspaper archives, personal interviews, even his brother’s autobiographical poetry.
He comes at each event from multiple, often opposing, angles. The main conflict is between Aguilar’s father and grandfather. Everybody has a different opinion on what happened. His mother “sees betrayal on a biblical scale in the tale of a son ruined by a father’s greed.” His dad “paints a more prosaic picture of a father berating his sons for their shortcomings.” The truth, the author says, “is derived from the sum of the contradictions.” So he lets his characters speak, sometimes quoting them for pages at a time. He doesn’t take a side, even calls out his own prejudices (“I must […] admit to my heretofore negative and twisted opinion of Trini”). Because of this objective tone, we trust him as a narrator, and we see people in their full complexities, with action weighed against intent.
Throughout the memoir, Aguilar shows a thorough effort to understand his family’s geopolitical landscape, which is admirable. At times, though, the layered details were a bit much for me. In one case he takes three pages to explain how Othón P. Blanco—“A few words must be said about the man who gives the street its name”—founded the town of Payo Obispo, later renamed Chetumal; Aguilar begins with Blanco’s birth in 1868, takes us through his army career then provides detail on the Mayan uprising of 1895 and the resulting boundary treaty of Mexico and Belize, which leads us to Blanco’s use of a pontoon boat to protect the Mexican border, and on to his mild scandal with his wife before he marries her, and we end up a century later at the statue commemorating the city’s founding. Although he makes clear connections between the history lesson and his family, the first third of the book was difficult to read. Honestly, if I weren’t writing this review, I might have put it down.
But I am so glad I didn’t.
Once the foundation is built, the story takes off. Aguilar proves to be a competent guide, reminding us along the way of significant details we’d learned earlier, like previous-episode scenes before a TV show, allowing the reader to relax and enjoy the ride.
And, yes, the details of place are important. Landscape builds character. We see this clearly when Aguilar describes his mother and her family coming to Mexico for the first time:
They walk through Chetumal with visions of Cuba still fresh in their memories. […]The sky may be the same diaphanous blue, and the trees may be similar, but other things are not: the deadly monotony of the coastline; this down-at-the-heels town whose one saving grace is the wide, ramrod straight streets butting up against the jungle.
Only a few of Chetumal’s 7,900 residents were born here. The rest, like the Cuban girls and their parents, came from somewhere else. The town has no drinking water or electricity. Nor does the unpainted wooden house with a tin roof where the girls and their mother are obliged to settle in the day they arrive. […] In time the women will fill the place with flowers to delight the eye and stories to brighten their lives, but for the time being there are only cots, rooms without doors, boxes with crumbs of cement in them where the men keep their clothes and their tools.
Chetumal is where Aguilar’s parents meet and build a life together, where their future is bright. When Hurricane Janet forces 10-year-old Aguilar to leave the family home in Chetumal and move to Mexico City with just his aunt and siblings, Aguilar, who uses present tense for each stage of his life, making each one effectively part of the present, says, “I now think of our family as a kind of non-family without grandparents or a father, without the cousins, aunts, uncles and all the relatives whose longstanding friendships sink a family’s roots in a particular place. Being so far from Chetumal casts a shadow over our household.”
Over the years, Mexico City, too, becomes home. It is there that his mother, Emma, and her sister, Luisa, take center stage as matriarchs. The two of them are delightful to read. Aguilar strikes the perfect tone of gracious admiration with the occasional poke at their old-fashioned ways. In July 1969, Aunt Luisa approaches a large gathering in front of the TV in the sister-owned boardinghouse:
“Can’t anyone tell me what you’re all looking at?” she demands. Her voice crashes over the rapt audience like a wave on the shore, and the voice of an announcer trembling with feigned emotion fills the room. “We’re watching a man land on the moon,” someone says.
“Someone’s landing on the moon?” Luisa snickers. “Who says? You people will believe anything!”
“It’s the moon landing, Doña Luisa. The astronauts have landed on the moon.”
“The moon? The moon? For God’s sake!” Luisa exclaims. “The Gringos are filming it in the desert of Sonora.”
“On the moon, Doña Luisa.”
“The moon the Gringos built to cast their spell over the rest of humanity,” Doña Luisa asserts with an epic sneer. “The moon they stuck in your mouth with their fingers and you swallowed whole. Get out! You’re as gullible as a bunch of old women.”
Emma and Aunt Luisa love to tell stories about their lives, creating and maintaining the family mythos. Aguilar interviewed them, at their kitchen table, in 1991: “They hesitate at first, but soon they’re off on a freeform reminiscence. They butt in on each other constantly, adding details, insisting on corrections, or debating conflicting versions of the same or similar events. Some two hours later, they’ve laid the groundwork for the family history which takes up half this book.”
Throughout his life, Aguilar’s mother and aunt are a source of joy, reason, and pragmatism. They also, though, believe that Aguilar’s father has been cursed by a witch. They come to believe he was born to fail. Like many of their peers, they trust the fortunes told by clairvoyants or “spiritual advisors.” Aguilar, a modern and educated man, is respectful of the women’s beliefs and searches for cultural significance in the phenomenon: “Necromancers and palmists soothe the city’s troubled souls. They satisfy the yearnings of thousands to feel less alone, to be consoled, to be protected against the whims of fate.”
It’s toward the end of the book, when he reflects on the long lives of his mother and aunt that Aguilar, the objective historian, shifts from artifact to emotion: “Here I reach a point of narrative breakdown. My memory is becalmed in a narrow space where the sisters are neither old nor young, and that’s how I picture them for a very long time. […] All of a sudden the fortyish sisters who endure my teenage years are the seventy-year-olds who spoil my children.”
On their own, the women had raised Aguilar and his four siblings. They’d built a dressmaking business and run a boardinghouse, hunched over sewing machines late into the night. In the scene that Aguliar says typifies the fortitude of Emma, his mother, “hurricane-force winds batter the planks that comprise the front wall of our house in Chetumal. Emma rushes at the endangered wall and holds the boards in place with her bare hands […] keeping the catastrophe that threatens her house at bay despite the mindless fury of the storm.”
While the women are steady and strong, the men in this memoir are materialistic and self-absorbed. Aguilar’s description of his paternal grandfather is profound. Don Lupe, after the costly hurricane, sits cross-legged on the floor counting his money, “like a Buddha before an open safe”:
He’s flattening and stacking bills wrinkled and dirtied by the flood. […] He’s in his shirtsleeves, unkempt with his hair uncombed. Without his gold-rimmed glasses, his linen suits and the inevitable necktie, bereft of his alligator shoes and Panama hat, he has the unwashed look of a true peasant. There are corns on his feet, and his thick fingers hover over the bills with a sadness that exposes the roots of avarice in its most primitive form: want.
Acting out macho plays for power and pride, the men fritter away the family’s money, their loyalties to each other waxing and waning through the years. The one constant allegiance is of Aguilar’s father, Hector, whose deep-rooted ambition is to make his own father, Don Lupe, proud. But Don Lupe cheats Hector, stealing his lumber company out from under him, and giving the company to his other son, who runs it into the ground. Hector is crushed, not from the betrayal but from his own failure to gain Don Lupe’s respect. Hector doesn’t want his wife and children to see his shame, his weakness, so he abandons them.
In a kind of poetic symmetry, Aguilar’s own identity is, of course, bound up in the shadow of his father, “whose absence,” he admits, “has been my lifelong torment.” In the memoir’s final chapters, Aguilar struggles to reconcile his bitterness with the pity he feels for the shriveled, senile old man who has returned to his life. Ultimately this story is about compassion and forgiveness, about cherishing the stories, and the story-tellers, themselves. A model for all of us, in all of our wonderful, exasperating, conflicted families.
Since 1993 Kim R. Livingston has taught English at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, Illinois. Recently she began working on her own writing again, inching toward an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bay Path University. Now that her kids are mostly grown, she and her husband, after being cat people their whole lives, are helicopter parents to a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.