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Issue 59, July-September 2014
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Juan Ochoa's Mariguano, reviewed by Liana Vrajitoru

Juan Ochoa
Huntsville: Texas Review Press, 2014
216 Pages
Paperback: $22.95

Is it possible that a revolution has started? One way to look at it is to share in the enthusiasm of Juan Ochoa, author of Mariguano, through which he believes that he is helping take a major step in the right direction: Ending the war on drugs. If we look at it from this perspective, then, maybe yes, one way to end the war on drugs, or rather, one way to decrease the current violence is to have an honest look at the pre-cartel era and see what exactly led to the proliferation of the drugs-and-violence world that we see surrounding the border today, mostly on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, or the Rio Bravo when looking north.

Mariguano is a family novel and a bildungsroman, inspired in part by the reality in which Juan Ochoa grew up. It is a harsh world he portrays, where the larger-than-life, looming presence of the narrator’s father dominates the story and sometimes terrifies and appalls, sometimes imparts wisdom, sometimes even evokes some long lost values of family loyalty, and most of the time sheds light on the intricate workings of the drug trade and its ability to infiltrate and corrupt. 

Being the son of the feared Julio Cortina—the one who was this close to buying the Mexican President before being betrayed by his most trusted man—makes for an interesting childhood and adolescence for Johnny, the narrator. It is great to have a lot of cash on hand, a gorgeous girlfriend, and several cars to impress one’s classmates, but it all comes at a price. Johnny is constantly awaiting his father’s orders, sometimes trapped for days in hotel rooms, and he also has to watch his back more often than not. Strange cars following him, he can’t really trust anyone, and sometimes he is the only cool head around when others are succumbing to cocaine binges. 

It is no wonder, then, that the book is fast-paced and dominated by dread, yet not lacking a sense of humor and even a sense of nostalgia. There are pistoleros, prostitutes, sheep and lions; there is loyalty, there is corruption, and there is betrayal. Initially, the witness to the madness is a child, forced to grow up fast as he himself becomes part of the engine to the world of drugs, because there is no other reality for him as a teen and as he enters his twenties.  

Events that are more and more dramatic lead to his departure from the world where he grew up, even as he is able to achieve some distance from this world. The shadow of the father’s memory clearly haunts the older Johnny. Even as an adult narrating about his past, he alone knows—and this is the biggest lesson he imparts in this book—that the big picture, the one we read about in newspapers or watch on TV, is always incomplete and such attempts to stop the drug violence tend to fail. The key is in the details: only understanding the day-to-day struggles of those who, like Johnny, knew nothing else for a long time other than their “family business” can one begin to think of how change can happen and where it could begin. 

Juan Ochoa is licensed to practice law in his beloved Mexico. Ochoa has been everything from pistolero to professor and is currently teaching English at South Texas College. He lives happily with his wife and daughter in Mission, Texas, on Inspiration Road. Ochoa is an avid boxing fan. His work has been published in Boulevard; New Border: An Anthology; and Texas ReviewMariguano is Ochoa’s first novel.

Liana Vrajitoru holds an MA from Salisbury University and a PhD from Binghamton University. She has published academic work in Alecart, Texas Review, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Southwestern American Literature, The CEA Critic. She has published stories in Fiction International, The Raven Chronicles, The Horror Zine, The Willow Review, Mobius, a Journal of Social Change, Interstice, The Cloud Anthology, and upcoming in Scintilla, Weave Magazine, and Calliope. She received two Pushcart nominations (for fiction and for translation work).