River Teeth Revisted

A Migrant Haunting: Tracing Spectral Memory in “Los Perdidos”

March 5, 2024

by Isabel Vazquez-Rowe

My father-in-law was orphaned when he was child. He came to this country from Mexico, looking for his family and, although he didn’t find them, he created his own.

~“Los Perdidos” by Beth Alvarado (River Teeth 20.1, Fall 2018)

Beth Alvarado’s “Los Perdidos” is a fascinating dive into the complexity of migrant, generational haunting and trauma. Throughout the essay, Alvarado masterfully introduces us to her story, which begins with a focus on her migrant father-in-law: 

He worked on the roofs to support them. Hot-tar roofing, in Arizona, in the summer, is one of the hardest jobs; the temperatures on the roofs can get to 135 degrees. Although he never had even a basic education, he was fluent in two languages and could do complicated geometric equations in his mind. He was curious about everything, and would go to the University of Arizona Medical Center to listen to the public lectures or to Armory Park for the Mariachi Festival. He watched the news programs from Mexico almost obsessively, but he never went back, not even for a visit.

From the very beginning of the essay, we are introduced to the reality of familial loss: “He came to this country from Mexico, looking for his family and, although he didn’t find them, he created his own.” The beginning immediately sets up this theme of absence, of the untold and that which is lost: in other words, it is a setting ripe for a haunting. But what exactly does it mean to haunt? There are several definitions that immediately come to mind: the manifestation of a ghostly entity or to persistently frequent a place. But for the purpose of this analysis, let’s focus on the subsidiary definition, which is to be persistently and disturbingly present on the mind.

Sometimes, as writers, we are haunted by the stories that we don’t tell. In this, Alvarez understands the complexity of what it truly means to be haunted. Throughout “Los Perdidos,” we can trace threads of these hauntings, these “spectral memories” whose sole function is to reiterate the haunting itself, which can take on multiple forms, such as by its absence or by its presence in the mind; an example of the latter being in the section: “He watched the news programs from Mexico almost obsessively, but he never went back, not even for a visit.”

In this vein, we can ask: what function does the act of haunting have in this essay? Alvarado uses this technique to refocus the migrant narrative inward, filtering the experience back through the migrant themselves. And in doing so, readers and writers alike can truly feel the intricacies of what it means to live through the migrant experience. The current state of migrant theory and experiences often lacks this three-dimensional depth and understanding of what it truly means to leave a homeland. It is not a simple black-and-white issue: a migrant does not simply move to a new place and then live happily ever after. There exists a complexity and a plethora of different experiences, but they all have the same core, the same longing, nostalgia; whatever the name, they are all hauntings. Whether the migrant loves or detests their country of origin, one thing is true: they can never forget it, and in turn, they are eternally haunted by it. 

This haunting is exactly what we see throughout Alvarado’s essay, albeit through a secondhand perspective. The mere fact that Alvarado penned and published this essay is an extension of the original haunting itself. In retelling the stories of her deceased husband and migrant father-in-law, Alvarado keeps the spectral memories alive through her use of storytelling and historical facts. In doing so, the essay also attempts to make sense of what once existed, of what was lost: it fills in the gaps and furthers the hauntings within all migrant stories. 

Writing Exercise

Think about the hauntings in your life. Spend a few minutes reflecting on what occupies the complexities of your mind; is it a specific person, an obsession, an object, or a powerful emotion? Time yourself for five minutes and make a list of all the things that haunt you, whether they be mentally, physical, spiritually, emotionally. Then, choose one thing off your list—and write. 

Isabel Vazquez-Rowe is a graduate assistant and MA student at Ball State University. Her work has appeared in The Digital Literature Review, The Mochila Review, and Mê Tis. As a Xicana writer, she seeks to foreground her cultural heritage and lived experiences through her creative writing.

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

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All River Teeth subscriptions and back issues are available for purchase or renewal through Submittable! River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative (ISSN 1544-1849) is published semiannually. Issues are distributed in the fall and spring.


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