Michelle Otero’s “Vessels: A Memoir of Borders” captures the author’s life growing up in Deming, and opens a bay window to her adult life in places near and far from southern New Mexico.
It is a warmly revealing, intimate self-portrait and a portrait of members of her extended family. To Otero the most beloved relatives have been her maternal grandparents – larger-than-life China, living with one smoke-filled lung and dying in a hospital; and Tino, long-suffering from grief and PTSD over his killing of a German soldier during World War II.
The book is an emotional journey. Otero wants to find a place, a town to call home. Not in Belize, not in a guest room in her brother’s house in El Paso, not in her maternal grandparents’ spare room in Deming.
Nor in Oaxaca, Mexico, in San Antonio, Texas, in a friend’s empty room in Manhattan, in another friend’s Old Town casita in Albuquerque.
She eventually marries and now lives in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
Oaxaca was special cultural experience for Otero. “It was such a powerful thing for me to be able to go to Mexico and live there and finally learn Spanish and reclaim that part of myself that I’ve lost – that we’ve lost, speaking for myself and other Chicanos in the United States,” she said in a phone interview.
During Otero’s year in Oaxaca she completed a project on female survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence under a Fulbright fellowship. And while there she wrote a chapbook, “Malinche’s Daughter,” much of which is contained in the memoir.
The memoir’s author’s note introduces La Malinche, the legendary aide to conquistador Hernán Cortes, and two of Otero’s great-grandparents “because I had a deep need to know them, and the threads connecting me to them were faint as daddy long leg webs. … From these threads I’ve tried to weave a story that connects to my own life. Writing this story has helped me know them, helped me to take my place in their lineage.”
These threads are part of the author’s journey in search of herself, which is a deeply felt element of the memoir.
Otero sees her writing of the book as a path, as she put it, to heal what she perceives as a broken self, a brokenness she believes she has in common with other Chicana artists.
That search, in turn, leads her to explore Aztec mythology in the prologue.
One mythological figure she feels an affinity for is Huitzilopochtli, god of sun and war, who wanted to leave home.
Another mythological character is Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess to whom Otero connects as a central metaphor for healing.
Starting the memoir with that mythology, Otero said, helps readers understand when she writes about La Malinche. Was La Malinche a traitor to her people or a survivor?
“I am not blood-related to her. I have an ancestral tie to her. She’s prominent in my healing work,” Otero said.
The “borders” in the book’s subtitle, she explained, include the United States-Mexico border, the border between sanity and madness, between men and women, between generations, and even the gauzy borderland Otero’s grandma China crossed over when she died.
Otero said the spirit of her grandma still visits her. “She is every bit as strong in death. She would send me a dream or send me a clue as to how the book should be structured,” she said.
They were among the many reminders from her grandma and others that she should keep the flow of writing the memoir going.
The memoir has a lyrical tone, however, reading is slowed by sudden shifts in topics.
Otero is a former Albuquerque poet laureate and is co-editor with Levi Romero of the forthcoming “New Mexico Poetry 2023” anthology.
She received a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard University and a master’s from Vermont College’s low-residency creative writing program.
BOOK OF THE WEEK