Growing up in Tijuana and San Diego with an American mother and Mexican father, Luis Alberto Urrea was familiar with the complex realities of the U.S.-Mexico border from an early age.
The dualism in his personal history is reflected in a prolific and celebrated literary career. Urrea writes stories that portray reality on both sides of the border, creating humanizing portraits of immigrants as well as their adversaries. As the author of many books, including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and memoir, Urrea is a major figure in Latino literature and a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame. His work transcends media stereotypes and contemporary immigration disputes, revealing the border as a place of connection as well as divide. "The Mexican border is a metaphor," he noted in a 2011 interview with Coloradan magazine. "Borders everywhere are a symbol of what divides us. That’s what interests me."
Urrea was born in a poor neighborhood in Tijuana. He inherited a rich legacy of family and cultural lore and a love of storytelling from his extended family, explored extensively in his literary work.
When Urrea was five, his parents moved across the border to San Diego. From an early age, he moved easily between the two cultures. In a 2011 interview with the San Diego Reader Urrea said, "To me, Tijuana and San Diego were just inseparable; they were two sides of the same thing."
Urrea attended high school in San Diego, where he and a cohort of artistic friends pursued burgeoning interests in poetry, drama, and rock music.
In the late 1970s, shortly after graduating from the University of California, San Diego, Urrea rediscovered Tijuana. A friend introduced him to “Pastor von” of Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Diego, a dynamic individual known for leading relief work projects in Tijuana’s massive garbage dump. One of Urrea’s first jobs as a relief worker was to wash the feet of the garbage pickers.
Although he grew up a few miles from the site, Urrea was astonished to discover the dump, a literal mountain of garbage, that provides a meager source of income to a large community of garbage pickers and orphaned children. The experience was profound for Urrea, who continued to volunteer at the site for years, and has since become a voice for the inhabitants of the dump.
In the early 1980s, Urrea set off in a new direction. With the help of a former professor, he secured a position at Harvard where he taught expository writing from 1982 to 1990. He also held teaching positions at Massachusetts Bay Community College and the University of Colorado.
In 1997, Urrea received an MFA from University of Colorado in Boulder, and today he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He lives with his family in Naperville, Illinois.
Josephine Reed of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Luis Alberto Urrea on January 11, 2011, and January 12, 2013. Excerpts from those conversations follow.
Josephine Reed: Where did you get the idea for Into the Beautiful North?
Luis Alberto Urrea: I have family in Sinaloa where my uncle had a tropical movie theater. It had a corrugated tin roof. It had bats. When things would get really loud in the movie, the bats would dive-bomb the watchers. I started imagining what would happen to Sinaloa if there were no men of a certain age left. I realized that probably my aunt, who was Mexico’s female bowling champion and a terrifying character, would have taken over the town. Then what would happen if narcos came to this town?
Part of what I was trying to do, believe it or not, was write a love poem about America. This nation is unbelievably blessed and gorgeous and magnificent—and we forget. There’s a scene early on [in the book] when, in San Diego, they see giant lawns for the first time. They have never seen green grass as far as you can see, and it’s beautiful, lush, watered, and they think, "Wow, this is Valhalla." That happened to me in my fifth-grade transition from the border to a working-class suburb. What a shock. I never forgot it.
JR: Can you tell us about some of the characters in the novel and the mission they are on?
LU: Atómico is Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai: this unwanted, uncouth, unwashed warrior who’s wandering around looking for a mission. Yet on a deeper level, he’s an oddly moral character, and blessedly eccentric. Nayeli was inspired by a young woman at the Tijuana dump whom I’ve known since [her] birth. She touches me so much because she can’t help but smile. People ascribe all kinds of motives to her because of her smile...I wrote the book as a little homage to her.
[I wanted to write a story in which] every person is on a journey, even the settled people, even the people in the U.S. Everybody is in transition, which is how I feel the world is right now. So the border patrol agent is about to retire, and he can’t find his place. The young missionary boy has lost his faith, and his mom is gone, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. It’s not just immigrants who are moving around. We’re moving around, too.
JR: The tone and temperament of the book is quite unusual—you take a serious subject and often look at it with humor.
LU: At the time that I wrote Into the Beautiful North, I had done so much hard work on hard books. Honestly, my writing rule was, "I want to laugh every day." Laughter is a virus that infects everyone with humanity. I thought if I made the story really entertaining, if I made it an adventure, then it would make the general American reader not only want to read it, but make them maybe root for people they either don’t think about or actually look at with some disdain.
JR: Borders figure prominently in your work. In terms of culture, you realize that borders are more than porous.
LU: The border is, in a lot of ways, nonexistent. In these little villages, these girls are on the Internet all day long. They’re dancing to goth music from Norway on YouTube. They don’t have any way to get hold of the world, but they see it. In the Tijuana garbage dump…there’s a little shack with tortillas and tamales and stuff, and he’s got one or two laptops, and the kids who pick garbage can go on this guy’s Internet. On the other hand, there are borders everywhere. The border is a metaphor for what separates us from each other. Every audience I speak to is torn apart by fences. They just can’t see them. My job is to throw love notes over the fence and see who finds them.
"…I always hopelessly, passionately, root for the underdog."
—Luis Alberto Urrea from a One Book, One San Diego interview