Manual Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter

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He shoots another man in the face — his own brother-in-law — and shoots his neighbor three times after the neighbor stabs him in the neck.

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He is thrown from a horse, more than once, and manages to crawl to safety with broken ribs. As a boy, he shoots himself in the leg just to see what it feels like. As an older man, he is kidnapped by members of a brutal cartel, whom he ends up forming an alliance with and saving from a police chase by navigating them across the desert. Jose is fundamentally a rancher, an old-style vaquero, and his skills in this realm are impressive.

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One of his calves, Chupitos, is orphaned when her mother dies, and the calf faces starvation — none of the other cows will offer her their milk. One of eight children who were abandoned in Chicago by their father when he fled to Mexico, Venegas spends years feeling anger and disdain for him. There is much pathos here, and Venegas is a clearsighted and trustworthy guide, though I began to wish she would look for deeper connections — interpret rather than just present.

But the other problem is that this memoir, like many, assumes that family is of central importance — that broader currents of politics and history are less formative than the relationship between parents and children. Why, for example, did the family hacienda fall into such decay?


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While spending the following summers and holidays together, herding cattle and fixing barbed-wire fences, he begins sharing stories with her, tales of a dramatic life filled with both intense love and brutal violence-from the final conversations he had with his own father, to his extradition from the United States for murder, to his mother's pride after he shot a man for the first time at the age of twelve.

Written in spare, gripping prose, Bulletproof Vest is Venegas's reckoning with her father's difficult legacy. Moving between Mexico and New York, between past and present, Venegas traces her own life and her father's as, over time, a new closeness and understanding develops between them. Bulletproof Vest opens with a harrowing ambush on Venegas's father while he's driving near his home in Mexico.

He survives the assault-but years later the federales will find him dead near the very same curve, and his daughter will be left with not only the stories she inherited from him but also a better understanding of the violent undercurrent that shaped her father's life as well as her own. She's currently a mentor at Still Waters in a Storm, a reading and writing sanctuary for children in Bushwick. She lives in New York City.

I lie in bed and stare at the two blinking red dots of my alarm clock: a. I can almost see the eye of the gun following its target, and then the second and third shots ring out. Something is different. Whenever he drinks and fires his. My sister Sonia is the first out of bed. She hears someone coughing, as if choking, outside her bedroom window. She goes outside and walks around the side of the house, follows the red streak along the white aluminum siding. My father is leaning into the wall, just below her bedroom window. The gun is still hot to the touch.

She takes it and helps him inside. My mother is next to him, in her white slip, pressing a towel under his chin. She pulls the towel away and readjusts it. Thick blood flows from it and runs down his neck. His white undershirt is already soaked. On the hardwood floor beneath him, there is a dark pool forming and inching closer to my bare feet. But with him, all those culeros go in circles, like dogs chasing their tails. He disappears into his bedroom, shouting orders for Salvador to pull his car around the back.

Salvador is waiting on the next street over, sitting in the car, engine running, lights off. My father climbs into the backseat, lies down, and Salvador drives off.

There is a flurry of screeching car tires and police sirens all around our house. Soon, the sirens are fading in the distance, while out there on Route 45, Salvador is flooring the car, speeding through red lights, and swerving around traffic as a swarm of flashing lights and sirens is closing in on him. My father yelling the whole way for him to step on it, telling him not to stop, no matter what.

But up ahead, a row of police cars is blocking the road, and officers stand behind open doors with their guns drawn. Salvador hits the brakes, throws the car into reverse, but before he hits the gas, a police car skids to a halt behind him. He lifts his hands from the steering wheel and raises them slowly, watching as four officers with guns pointing at him move in, shouting for him to step out of the car. A police escort takes them to the nearest hospital, fifteen minutes away. Police cars with flashing lights sprawl from our driveway, lighting up the entire block, and all the neighbors are out.

The five little blonde girls who live next door are on the other side of the chain-link fence, still in their pajamas, lined up beside their mother, their fingers gripping the fence, and staring wide-eyed at us. A few officers scan our front yard with their flashlights, searching under the picnic table and around the mulberry tree near the driveway.

Mateo and Julio, who live up the street and are in my class at school, stand on the other side of the yellow tape. Mateo waves at me, I wave back. Salvador ducks under the yellow tape and is stopped in our driveway by a man who has a camera strapped around his neck. My father pulled out his gun and shot him once. He was shot two more times. Rocky starts growling. He looks at us, presses his lips tight, and draws a deep breath. His nostrils flare.

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The officer glances at him, at Yesenia, then back at me. She falls silent. He follows us into the house, where other officers are in the living room, looking under couch cushions, behind the television, inside the china cabinet, and under the dining room table. He pulls out his walkie-talkie. Soon there are more officers in the room.


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One of them is wearing white latex gloves. She picks up the gun and drops it into a clear plastic bag. We follow them back into the living room, where other officers are standing around. We tell him no, though inside the closet, behind the dining room table, there is a steel trunk filled with rifles, handguns, and machine guns.

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Bulletproof Vest : The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter

The following day, Salvador is quoted in one newspaper and described as a neighbor, not related to Jose Venegas. According to the papers, the whole thing had started over an argument about who would drink the last beer. I never trust anything I read in the papers after that. We knew it had nothing to do with beer. Hard to know who or why as my father had left a handful of enemies back in Mexico. For all we knew, it may even have been the three brothers who had killed Chemel, my eldest brother, six months before. They must have known it was only a matter of time before my father went back down to Mexico looking to avenge his son, and so perhaps they thought they should strike first.

My father spends two weeks in the hospital in intensive care, and we go visit him after school. I sit next to his bed watching dark fluids drain through the blue plastic tube that is attached to the gash under his chin, and I think that maybe he will die, that maybe he deserves to die. If I could trade heads, I would give his up to have my brother back. By then, there were rumors that my brother being killed had something to do with my father, an old vendetta or something. We heard that someone had paid to have Jose Manuel Venegas killed, and they had killed the wrong one. My mother had already surrendered, had given up Catholicism and become a born-again Christian a few years back.

Not long after my father is released from the hospital, we start hearing new rumors. How many kids does he have? How many sons? My father buys himself a bulletproof vest, and before leaving the house in the evening, he slips the heavy black vest over his undershirt and snaps the Velcro side straps in place. Then he throws on his cowboy shirt, and tucks it into his jeans.


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