Jillian in the Borderlands
- By Beth Alvarado
- Black Lawrence Press
- 200 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- December 10, 2020
An omniscient, mute girl grows up along the haunted fringes of the American Southwest.
Jillian Guzmán is born mute and omniscient along the desolate, haunted border between the U.S. and Mexico, the daughter of an Anglo mother and a Mexican American father. They live on the U.S. side, “a thorny landscape of hallucinatory heat where the prickly pear drill their spines into the caliche and hope for rain, where immigrants from regions south seek refuge and snowbirds sunshine, where bureaucrats ban books and brown skin and birth control, where companies design sleek missiles and pour solvents into the soil, where on streets lined with small stucco houses cowboys shoot their guns in noisy celebration on the Fourth of July, and where the bodies of dead girls are sometimes abandoned in alleys.”
The borderland that the eponymous protagonist of Beth Alvarado’s Jillian in the Borderlands inhabits is not only geographical, it’s also metaphysical: While in her mother’s womb, “the universe had downloaded into her brain all sorts of random data.” She can see what has been and what is yet to come. She has the ability to read people’s thoughts and commune with the dead. Since she cannot speak, she communicates with drawings that have their own special power.
Alvarado isn’t entirely successful at incorporating Jillian’s childhood innocence with her all-knowingness. Her superpowers are inelegantly disclosed, as when Jillian is watching a man shoot up her schoolyard, “and then, for some reason, she has no clue why because this has never happened before, she sees inside his head.”
Her early cosmic revelations are frequently introduced with some variation of “she does not know how she knows this.” Her knowledge of “Gunsmoke” and other TV shows of yore, of Chinese and Chinese American history, and her “Buddhist detachment she has tried to practice from birth,” come off as artificial and precious.
But Jillian grows into her otherworldly wisdom and brings the reader with her. When Jillian is a teenager, her mother decides to visit a faith healer, Juana of God, in the Mexican town of Magdalena for a cure for her sister, who has been paralyzed in a car accident. There, Jillian discovers that her drawings can influence reality.
Later, after her father has died of cancer from the solvent TCE that had poisoned his hometown’s drinking water, and Jillian has somehow become pregnant with twins (how and by whom is never addressed), she gets lost in the U.S. desert while on a Good Samaritan mission to offer succor to illegal border crossers. Just as it seems she will perish, she is spotted from the Mexican side by Juana’s husband and rescued in time for Juana to help deliver her twins, Primero and Segundo, who share Jillian’s gift for omniscience.
Jillian and the infants stay with Juana in Magdalena, which has become inundated with people fleeing repression, violence, and poverty for El Norte. This is the time of the “morally bereft” El Chillón (the crybaby) and his ICE minions, when children are ripped from their parents’ arms and refugees are summarily denied asylum.
Jillian, who had been drawing maps to show migrants the way to safety, realizes that the future is in the south, not the north, and draws a safe haven for the senile, damaged, and abandoned. Instead of a faith healer, Juana becomes a real-world healer by making Jillian’s vision into reality. She pawns her jewelry and turns her home into la Casa de los Olvidados, caring for Disorientados (elders with dementia), Soldados Heridos (wounded soldiers), and other forgotten ones.
One of her wards is Charlie-Carlos, a damaged veteran who becomes Jillian’s lover and is arrested by ICE for offering migrants humanitarian assistance. The final chapter tells his story while summarizing this precarious moment of our national history. Statements of political outrage are made by many of the characters, culminating in a courthouse speech by Charlie-Carlos’ mother that indicts the United States’ Latin American and immigration policies:
“Tell them, Charlie, remind them. Our fingerprints are all over the Northern Triangle. Remind them of our complicity in the overthrow of democratic governments, in the coups, in the massacres, in the disappearances, in the death squads, in the torture…”
By mixing the profane with the allegorical, the author occasionally breaks the spell she casts with her resonant prose, richly drawn characters, and vividly imagined, fabulist plot. The realism of the characters’ heartfelt political judgments is unfortunately at the expense of the fantastical elements of the story.
Jillian in the Borderlands is an ambitious work that straddles geographical, metaphysical, and literary borders, marrying the social-justice novel with magical realism to render a disquieting portrait of the humanitarian toll of our immigration policies. In this era when the southern border is such a focal point of American politics, Alvarado focuses our attention on the liminal, warning us before we cross a boundary from which there is no return.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, a book reviewer, and a columnist for the Independent. An immigrant of Korean and Mexican heritage, she gave birth to her first son in the Southwest borderlands.