National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
Into the Beautiful North

Into the Beautiful North

by Luis Alberto Urrea

…I always hopelessly, passionately, root for the underdog.


Luis Alberto Urrea. Photo by Nicole Waite Photography.

Cristina Arsuaga reads from Into the Beautiful North

The bandidos came to the village at the worst possible time. Of course, anyone in Mexico would agree that there is no particularly good time for bad men to come to town. But Tres Camarones was unguarded on that late summer’s day when so many things had already changed. And everything that remained was about to change forever.

Josephine Reed: That’s actress Cristina Arsuaga reading Into the Beautiful Northby Luis Alberto Urrea. Welcome to the Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to unite communities through literature. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.

Luis Alberto Urrea: Into the Beautiful North is a kind of adult fairy tale, I’d say, about the modern face of immigration and the experience of people who are coming to a new world and being astounded by it.

Ilan Stavans: It is the story of a group of people from the state of Sinaloa in the town of Tres Camarones.

Melinda Palacio: And the town is economically devastated.

Jeff Biggers: Besieged by narcos and regional thugs.

Helen Thorpe: All of the men who live in the village have gone to the United States to look for jobs, to work, to support their families back home.

Biggers: And after seeing this screening of the classic “Magnificent Seven …”

Palacio: A young woman, Nayeli, gets the idea of going north and bringing back seven men.

Biggers: …to defend their own village.

Thorpe: So she sets off for the United States with her close friends, Yoloxochitl, Veronica, and Tacho comes with them as well.

Biggers: Into the Beautiful North is just a classic road trip, a classic Inter-American road trip. And of course, it crosses several borders, both cultural borders from the village to the urban sprawl. Almost like a “Wizard of Oz” in modern times across the borderlands of U.S. and Mexico in search of these men who have left.

Thorpe: But then at the same time, it’s operating on a really timeless level where borders don’t matter at all, because it’s the story of a young woman who’s going in search of her father who’s been missing for years. And it’s the story of that young woman’s coming of age.

Reed: Luis Alberto Urrea was born in Tijuana, Mexico in 1955 to a Mexican father, and an American mother. The family moved to San Diego when he was four and a half. Little wonder that the people living on either side of the U.S.–Mexico line inflamed his curiosity and compassion. Into the Beautiful North, is Urrea's 14th book, and third novel. Although a work of fiction, the story is anchored in reality. Luis has always moved easily between the United States and Mexico—seeing the differences between the two countries, certainly, but also recognizing their commonalities. Few topics interested him more than the impact of immigration on Mexico, which led directly to his writing Into the Beautiful North. Author, Luis Alberto Urrea.

Urrea: It’s based on a reporting that I started reading a few years ago about places in Mexico that didn’t have men. And that women in these towns were starting to fill a kind of a leadership vacuum because the patriarchy was gone. They’d all come here. And so these towns are having their first female mayors and so forth. And I started imagining what would happen to the town my family was originally from, in Sinaloa, if there were not men of a certain age left, who would be mayor? Then it suddenly seemed to me, “Wow. What would happen if narcos came to this town?” since it’s the narco center of Mexico, “And there are no men to fight them or protect the town? What would happen?”

Reed: Writer and activist, Jeff Biggers.

Biggers: And Tres Camarones, of course, is a great village. It’s this village where even the shrimp is exported there’s this kind of vacuum. This vacuum of both a sustainable economy, which suddenly gives way to these outsiders, these narcos, these drug traffickers and thugs who, for the most part, laid siege to the town. It’s a town that’s sort of caught up in the modern economy.

Reed: Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: That has had all sorts of side effects, that is the insidious and dangerous presence of threatening male figures that arrive to town to take advantage of the women, the young women in particular, and that is one of the scenes that takes place at the beginning of the novel. Some banditos, some drug traffickers, some threatening males that come from the outside and want to take advantage of Nayeli and her friends.

Reed: Journalist Helen Thorpe is the author of Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America.

Thorpe: Nayeli is this slim, athletic, beautiful young woman who is about 19 years old. She’s been taking marTíal arts. She’s been studying Judo for a long time, and she has this incandescent smile, and there’s a moment in the book where another character is looking at her and he says, “She’s the kind of girl who smiles even when she’s frowning.”

Reed: Poet and writer, Melinda Palacio.

Palacio: She’s a very strong young woman, both inner strength from having marTíal arts training, and inner strength of being raised by women. She’s raised by her Aunt Irma and her mother.

Reed: Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: This is a book about women. This is a book where a male author places two women of two generations, that is Tía Irma, an older women who is now the political leader of Tres Camarones, and a younger, her niece, Nayeli, who will be the one who takes the torch from Tía Irma and becomes a representative of the new generation. They are feminists and feminine in their unique, different ways.

Reed: If Tía Irma is fierce, Nayeli demonstrates a quiet, determined strength. She rarely speaks of her father who years earlier had left to find work in the “beautiful north”. But she always carries the postcard he sent her from Kankakee, Illinois with the message, “Everything passes.” Jeff Biggers.

Biggers: She grasps at this postcard. This postcard is really the last remnant she has of her father, her father who’s crossed the border many years before and left the family behind.

Reed: Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: Ultimately at the heart of the novel is the search by Nayeli to reconnect with her father, who now lives in Illinois in a small town.

Cristina Arsuaga reads from Into the Beautiful North

Nayeli was dreaming of leaving town again. She wanted to see anything, everything.… Sometimes she dreamed of going to the United States—“Los Yunaites,” as people of the town call them—to find her father… He traded his family for a job, and then he stopped writing or sending money… People kidded her that she never stopped smiling and it made her look flirty, but thinking about him made the smile fade. She walked faster.

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: Many people have left but the few that remain have become very close to each other. And Nayeli is part of this very, very tight threesome, Yoloxochitl, who’s also called Yolo, and Veronica. And Veronica is also called La Vampira, because she’s a Goth.

Reed: Although Nayeli is tight with the girls, her closest friend is her young boss at the taco shop, the flamboyantly gay Tacho.

Urrea: And I’ve got to tell you, of all the characters, the one character who is actually in every way based on a real person is Tacho.

Reed: Luis Urrea.

Urrea: If you go to Rosario Sinaloa, which my family’s from, I changed it into Tres Camarones for the book to make it a little more fanciful; Rosario Sinaloa, I was raised going down there as a kid and there was one gay man in the town named Tacho. So I would watch him from a distance, and he had survived in this town by making himself completely out. He put himself in front of everybody and said, “Yeah, I’m gay. Yeah. I’m gay. Yeah. What are you going to do about it?”

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: He runs a taco shop, and the name of it is The Fallen Hand, which is slang for a limp wrist or it’s sort of slang for a gay person.

Reed: Melinda Palacio.

Palacio: Tacho embraces that slur, makes it his own, by naming his restaurant La Mano Caída.

Reed: Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: And he proves to be an extraordinary companion, the one that really sits next to Nayeli from beginning to end.

Reed: Tres Camerones may be a small town in the middle of nowhere—but it is still wired. Using The Fallen Hand’s computer and Wi-Fi, Nayeli and her friends spend hours online surfing the internet. Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: These young women and Tacho, they’re constantly watching on YouTube videos of their favorite bands.

Reed: Luis Urrea.

Urrea: And they’re dancing to Goth music from Norway, and you realize that even in this little village that can’t even be found on a map, they’re watching YouTube. They’re hooked into the internet.

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: They’re watching American movies. So American culture is all around them all the time, and yet looking over their shoulders you also see how far away they are from the United States.

Reed: Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: At the very heart of Tres Comarones is a movie theater.

Reed: Luis Urrea.

Urrea: And this is based on my uncle’s movie theater, Tropical Theater, where I would see these insane old films.

Reed: Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: And the movie theater represents the heart of the attention, the soul, the emotional life of the characters in general, but particularly the younger characters in the book. Nayeli and Tacho and Vampi and others constantly go to this movie theater.

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: And then you’re watching them watch the movie, The Magnificent Seven.

Cristina Arsuaga reads from Into the Beautiful North

In spite of herself, Nayeli felt tingles.
“Chido,” she said.…
The insanely picturesque color, the gigantic landscapes, even the pathetic Mexican village and the chubby gringo bad guy making believe he was a Mexican bandido, she loved it all.…
Didn’t anybody else feel the electric charge she felt?
She watched the rest of the movie in a daze.…
Nayeli pulled her father’s postcard from her sock and studied it. A cornfield with an impossibly blue sky. An American sky. She had seen it over and over again in the movie. Only American skies, apparently, were so stunningly blue.

Reed: Ilan Stavans, Jeff Biggers, and Luis Urrea:

Stavans: The Magnificent Seven is the story of a mission of trying to find seven men in order to replenish a town. 

Biggers: And after seeing this screening of the classic Magnificent Seven

Urrea: Nayeli suddenly realizes, “Wait a minute, you know. We could do that. We could go get seven magnificent fighters and bring them back.” And she sort of innocently thinks, “Well, the Americans won’t mind if we go undocumented, because we’re taking people out. We’re not bringing people. We’re going to actually take people home.”

Biggers: I think first and foremost what’s most important to Nayeli is to get to Kankakee.

Urrea: And secretly she wants to find her father who’s left. So off they go.

Reed: Welcome back to The Big Read. Today we’re discussing the novel Into the Beautiful North—Luis Alberto Urrea’s exploration of immigration in the electronic age, with its porous cultural borders—which in turn has an ever-widening impact on language. Ilan Stavans wrote the book: Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language.

Stavans: The real protagonist of the book, if I were to become a new reviewer of it, is language. I think language is what drives the book forward.

Reed: Melina Palacio.

Palacio: Luis Urrea is showing how fluid the border culture is by using language. And this becomes a theme with borders stories, is that you have English, you have Spanish and you have Spanglish.

Reed: Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: For me, it is a book that shows the presence, the impact, the lasting influence, of Spanglish in the border, in Latino culture in general, and not only as a way of expression but as a way of thinking.

Reed: Luis Urrea.

Urrea: It was a, kind of a, musical composition for me the combination of Spanish and English and how they interact with each other and play off each other.

Reed: While Urrea’s deft use of Spanglish illustrates the interconnectedness of the U.S. and Mexico, he also quite purposely uses humor to explode stereotypes on both sides of the border. Jeff Biggers.

Biggers: Luis realizes that humor is quite possibly the most powerful weapon we have in telling our stories. When we’re dealing with such stories of misery and hardship and family breakup, a lot of heartbreak goes along with these stories. And I think the only way we’re going to begin to understand it and to regenerate is through a sense of humor. And I think he does that so well with his characters.

Thorpe: And immigration is a subject where for so long we’ve been stuck in a conversation that is entirely lacking in humor.

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: Humor employs surprise and with surprise comes learning or knowledge, so we’re constantly learning new things in this book, I think through the author’s use of humor.

Reed: Jeff Biggers.

Biggers: We call it Urrealismo, you know, his own sense. He’s almost like the Federico Fellini of American prose. And I think if you put Fellini on the borderland you would come up with Luis Urrea.

Cristina Arsuaga reads from Into the Beautiful North

They plunged into the maw of the city—shantytowns surrounded the dusty center. Cars everywhere.…
The USA didn’t look as nice over there as it did on the television.
They lurched and turned a hundred corners and pulled into the battered new bus station on the far side of Tijuana.
They fell off the bus, dizzy and exhausted and thirsty.…The first leg of the journey was over!

Thorpe: The three young women and Tacho set off on this epic journey.

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: And the closer they get to the border, the more ominous things become. Finally they find themselves in the Tijuana dump.

Reed: Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: But this is where the story takes place. And this is what brings together these two cultures, these two nations, these two civilizations, the United States and Mexico. A dump.

Reed: Luis Urrea.

Urrea: So if you can imagine this place to the west is the ocean, to the east is a crematorium. Pretty apocalyptic. In between there’s a long cemetery, and then to the south of that is the mountain of garbage.

Thorpe: The language in the book here is extraordinary.

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: They’re suddenly in this territory where things are almost hellish. You feel like they’re in Hades. It’s the darkest part of the book.

Cristina Arsuaga reads from Into the Beautiful North

Nayeli smelled smoke and a tart, ugly stink. Tacho looked at her and for once she thought she saw real awe in his face. Before them, a malodorous volcano of garbage rose 200 feet or more. It was dark gray, ashen, black. And it was covered in flecks of white paper, as if small snow drifts were on its slopes. Gulls swirled and shrieked, and packs of feral dogs trotted downslope. The black mountain was stark. Occasionally smoke broke from the slope and curled away, blue and thin in the wind. It made Nayeli feel cold.

Reed: Luis Urrea knows the Tijuana garbage dumps and its inhabitants like he knows the back of his own hand. He spent years there working among them and then writing about it.

Urrea: And I suddenly saw this world that’s in the book. And it’s a mind boggling place. You know, when you stop to think that this is a place that’s perhaps 10 miles away from downtown San Diego, as Joseph Wambaugh says, you know, “The richest city in the richest half of the richest state in the richest country in the world” at the time. It’s had financial troubles, but still, San Diego is the Emerald City. And the people who pick trash can stand on a hill and look all the way up to Coronado where the millionaires live. They can see it all.

Reed: Luis Urrea has examined the particular culture of the border in his non-fiction, managing to find moments of grace in the midst of unsettling horror. Jeff Biggers.

Biggers: Like in a lot of his other work, Luis tries very hard to transcend the sheer misery, the sheer devastation. He never spares any details. He never pulls any punches about the realities, of the incredible suffering that goes on, the incredible hardship of people who are living in quite possibly one of the most toxic regions in the world. But at the same time he constantly is searching for some sense of resiliency, some sense of humanity that has to emerge, emerge almost like some amazing plant that refuses to die. And that’s this beautiful tree of life, this tree of people who live there, who have carved out their culture.

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: And up springs this amazing character who announces, “I am Atómiko.” And he’s this Aztec-like warrior of the dump who has this phenomenal staff. It’s as if he’s an angel, a guardian angel, who’s going to accompany them through this dark landscape.

Reed: Luis Urrea.

Urrea: He's an oddly moral character. And he's got his own nobility, it's just that he has had to find a way to express it in that milieu, that garbage dump milieu. And he's also blessedly eccentric. He's crazy as hell, you know? He really is.

Cristina Arsuaga reads from Into the Beautiful North

There he stood, surveying his realm. The warrior Atómiko, King of the Hill. Baddest of the trash pickers, the master of the dompe, known by all, feared by many. He wore baggy suit trousers cinched tight at his narrow waist, a sleeveless white undershirt. His tattoos were exposed: Zapata on his right biceps, the yin-yang symbol on his left shoulder. Ever since he’d seen the movie Yojimbo” on San Diego public television when he was stationed at the Mexican Army’s dismal Seventh Battalion down the periférico, he knew he was a warrior.

Reed: Melina Palacio.

Palacio: Atómiko and Nayeli have this bond in common. They’re both seen as warriors.

Reed: Atómiko takes to Nayeli immediately and becomes an outlier in her posse. As the master of the dompe, Atómiko has connections. Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: He helps arrange for them to cross the border. They hire a coyote who is going to take them across.

Reed: Jeff Biggers.

Biggers: The classic coyote, where you hire someone to lead you across at some sort of opening in the fabled fence.

Cristina Arsuaga reads from Into the Beautiful North

And the coyote spoke. “Orale. Gather around, gather around. You, what's your name? Nayeli? You're the leader? Good. Listen up. My socio Atómiko speaks highly of you, so I’m going to take you quick, right in… We’re going under the fence right there… I go first—if it’s clear, I’ll whistle. You haul ass… Run straight across the migra road. Straight! And fast, cabrones! Do you hear?… Nayeli, you’re the leader, be right behind me.

Thorpe: As they're making their way, they are strung out and so they can barely see each other. They can barely keep up with each other and you have this sense they might get lost.

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: Their coyote is like, nowhere to be seen for a few moments and they are hiding in this dry creek bed and a Border Patrol car pulls up and stops and an agent gets out and they are absolutely petrified. They think they've been caught, they’re sure they’re about to be arrested, and of course right then there’s lights, spotlights, a helicopter and they are arrested.

Reed: They return to Tijuana, dejected and exhausted. But Atómiko comes through again, arranging another border crossing—this time joining them through a well-constructed underground tunnel usually used to move drugs, not people. Luis Urrea.

Urrea: And then they get here. And they find this other world.

Cristina Arsuaga reads from Into the Beautiful North

Giddy with the Good Old USA, everybody laughed. The air smelled great, smelled of saltwater and jacaranda trees.…
Clean little sidewalks wandered among small green hills with strange little barbecue stands and even more playgrounds.

Reed: Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: When they cross the border and find themselves in San Diego, they discover that the North is very similar, and yet very different, from the image that they have seen in the movies.

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: It's very shocking after the squalor and difficulty and darkness of the Tijuana dump to suddenly find themselves in this very clean, very ultra-safe, ultra-secure environment.

Reed: Luis Urrea.

Urrea: And part of what I was trying to do, believe it or not, was right a love poem about America itself that it seems to me that physically at least, this nation is unbelievably blessed and gorgeous and magnificent and we forget. And when you have new eyes see it for the first time and they realize "My God, what—this place is incredible!" There’s a scene early on when they’ve crossed when they find themselves at Mission Bay Park in San Diego and they see giant lawns for the first time. They have never seen green grass as far as you can see before.

Reed: Jeff Biggers.

Biggers: I think that’s a beautiful part of this novel is that he’s showing almost this sense of discovery of these young people, that it’s not just a grueling trip of terror, but also just this incredible trip of discovery. That they’re really taking in every step and every detail and every aspect of this new world which they really didn’t anticipate to encounter.

Stavans: Once the characters enter the United States and they settle for a little while in San Diego, there is a new novel, so to speak, that takes place.

Reed: Ilan Stavans

Stavans: And that is a journey, by car, that will be done by Nayeli and Tacho from California to Kankakee in Illinois.

Cristina Arsuaga reads from Into the Beautiful North

They didn’t know the history of the plains and prairies, and they didn’t care. The world looked to them like a great roll of butcher paper unfurled on a table. The land here was so vast and so empty that a bomb could have exploded and there wouldn’t have been any echo. Gas stations had canopies two stories high. Trucks wobbled and grunted in the wind, their miniature puffs of diesel smoke rushing north. Nayeli felt as if they had stopped moving at all, that they were floating, and that the ground had started to roll, passing under them as they stood still.

Reed: While Nayeli and Tacho are on the road hoping to find Nayeli’s father in Kankakee, Tía Irma arrives in San Diego to take over the recruitment of men to bring back to Tres Camerones. Ilan Stavans.

Stavans: She flies to San Diego, and with the help of Atómiko, organizes, in a very professional way, in a conference room, a series of interviews for men that are interested in repatriation, so to speak.

Reed: Helen Thorpe.

Thorpe: And she rents a room in a hotel, and she advertises in the local media and she says she's looking for magnificent men to return to Mexico.

Stavans: I love the concept because we generally see Mexicans coming to the United States and staying here, but the novel is showing that Mexicans will entertain the idea of going back.

Thorpe: Not only do some men show up, but there's this vast line that forms. There's so many lonely, homesick men who long to return to Mexico. When Nayeli and Tacho return, this is the sight that beholds them, this, like, army of men that Aunt Irma has recruited.

Thorpe: The novel becomes really powerful because in that coming-of-age story, borders really are inconsequential. They're not the most significant thing. The most significant thing is how is this young woman going to figure out how to become an adult? Will she find her father? And it's a classic quest novel in that sense.

Biggers: I think it’s very much a reminder of the powerful impact migration has on families. You know, breaking families, the families who have seen their fathers and then their mothers leave for years, often for many, many, many years. And I think it’s that sense that a lot of readers can really understand and it makes us really root for Nayeli to try to find her father there in the cornfields and the small river town of Kankakee.

Urrea: You know, it’s important that it starts in a little typical Mexican town, and it ends in a typical American Midwestern town. Kankakee, Illinois.

Stavans: This is a book about borders, but this is also a book about the erasing of borders, about the overcoming of the international lines that we use to separate or to delineate where one country begins and the other ends.

Urrea: You know, I was born on the border, raised on the border. My mother was American. My father was Mexican. Border is central to me. And I think border to me is simply—the Mexican border in particular—is simply a metaphor for what separates us from each other. Fences everywhere. And I’m trying to mend those fences or at least make a little hole in them. I like to say to people my job is to throw love notes over the fence. So I wrap a little love note over a rock and toss the rock over the fence and see who finds it.

Reed: Thanks for joining the Big Read. Today’s program was written and produced by Adam Kampe. Readings from Into the Beautiful North were by Cristina Arsuaga. Excerpts of guitar music composed and performed by Jorge F. Hernandez, used courtesy of Mr. Hernandez. Excerpts of "El Viento" and "Welcome to Tijuana" from the album Clandestino, written and performed by Manu Chao. Used courtesy of Because Music. Excerpt of "Chicano Park Samba" from the album Rolas de Aztlan, written by 2013 NEA Heritage Fellow, Ramon "Chunky" Sánchez, and performed by Los Alacranes Majados. Used courtesy of Chunky Sánchez. Excerpts of "Desolation", from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton. Used courtesy of Valley Productions. Special thanks to our contributors: Jeff Biggers, Melinda Palacio, Helen Thorpe, Ilan Stavans, and, of course, Luis Alberto Urrea.

To find out more about The Big Read, go to neabigread.org. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm your host and executive producer, Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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