It was February 1982 and Luis Alberto Urrea, 26-year-old University of California- San Diego graduate, was doing full-time relief work with shanty dwellers in Tijuana’s wretched city dump.
Surrounded by surreal squalor during the day, Urrea slept on relatives’ couches in Southern California at night, broke and depressed and worried about his future. Desperate to start over, Urrea wrote Lowry Pei, his college writing instructor who was now at Harvard, and asked for help.
“I told him I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked him, ‘Could I get a gig out there, just as a janitor, for six months or so?’ He wrote back and offered me a job – as a writing instructor. “I was totally shocked.”
As it turned out, the Harvard job helped launch Urrea on a remarkable career as an acclaimed writer and teacher – he is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) – a path that has given his readers and students unusual insight into the tortured relationship between the U.S. and Mexico and the border that runs like a scar between the two countries. “Growing up divided in half by a barbed wire fence has made me see a border everywhere I turn,” he said.
Today Urrea is the best-selling author of 13 books, and his award-winning fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays and short stories come from both sides of the border. His first book, Across the Wire, was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the Christopher Award. He won a 1999 American Book Award for his memoir, Nobody’s Son, and in 2000 he was voted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame following the publication of Vatos. The Devil’s Highway, his 2004 nonfiction account of a group of American immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, won the Lannan Literary Award and was named a best of the year by the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. “Luis Urrea writes about U.S.-Mexican border culture with a tragic and beautiful intimacy that has no equal,” the Boston Globe said.
In 2005, Urrea published The Hummingbird’s Daughter, a sweeping historical based on the true story of his great-aunt Teresa, a Yaqui Indian woman believed to be a saint. “Urrea has created a classic, a tribute and love song to the colorful and vibrant heart of all things Mexican,” said the San Francisco Chronicle.
Urrea also has flourished as a teacher. After Harvard, he taught at Massachusetts Bay Community College and was a writer in residence at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette before accepting a tenured position at UIC.
During his long journey from a Tijuana dump to Harvard and international success, one fact remains unchanged: borders are an ugly reality for Urrea – as well as a powerful metaphor for his work.
Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and a Bohemian society girl from New York, Urrea straddled cultural and psychological borders from an early age. Over time, his mother rejected her son’s Mexican origins, declaring: “You’re not a Mexican! Why can’t you be called Louis instead of Luis?’” The family lived in extreme poverty until Luis was 4, when he contracted tuberculosis and they moved to a San Diego barrio. In fourth grade, a man with a switchblade chased Luis, convincing the family to move again, this time to a suburb where Luis – a blond, blue-eyed Mexican- American – waded into another clash of cultures.
But at Clairemont High School, where filmmaker Cameron Crowe researched Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Urrea discovered literature, the balm that would insulate him from misery. “I spent my allowance on books or records,” he said. “I loved the arts.”
At the University of California-San Diego, Urrea started out as a theater major and ended with a degree in writing. But when his father was murdered in Tijuana – after withdrawing his savings to pay for graduate school for his son – Luis slipped into a major nosedive. He worked on night crews doing janitorial work. He lived in abject poverty. He bounced from apartment to apartment.
Concerned friends set him up with a well-known youth minister, Pastor Von, who did charity work in Tijuana. Slogging through mountains made of trash, Urrea took food, water and medicine to the stooped figures that picked through tons of garbage, befriending many of them.
One day, the pastor said to me: ‘Nobody who lives among these people writes books, and you have an inside view of something no one ever sees in America. You should write about it.’” With a writing career in mind, Urrea set off for Harvard in 1982, a disorienting journey for a man who had never been east of Yellowstone National Park.
“It was so far beyond my comprehension. I was so astonished to be there,” he said. “It was so alien. My first day, my host took me to Memorial Hall and said: ‘this is your classroom.’ It was like being taken to Notre Dame. It had gargoyles on it. I’d never seen anything like that.
“The first class was wild. I was 26, very boyish, had long hair. I remember standing in the hallways where all the students were asking, ‘What’s the dude like?’ I realized they didn’t realize I was the teacher. I said, ‘I’m the dude.’
“We didn’t have a rulebook. We did crazy things like designating ‘Show and Tell’ day. People would bring some insane thing to show and tell. Or we would requisition cars, and we’d head off to Walden Pond to discuss Thoreau. It was really wonderful stuff.
“I was astounded to find out I was getting incredible evaluations. Being Harvard, my high evaluations made me suspect to my boss. He’d say: ‘Your evaluations are way too high for you to be teaching the course properly. They are having too much fun; you’re not teaching anything.’”
In a used bookstore on Beacon Street, Urrea discovered a book about Teresita Urrea, the half- Indian child of a wealthy Mexican landowner. Teresita was both a leader of the silent poor and an accused witch whose followers were massacred.
After five years at Harvard, Urrea took on a full-time teaching load at Massachusetts Bay
College. When his mother died in 1990, he returned to San Diego to take care of family business. “I came out knowing that I could teach, that when I had everything together – my wits and energy – I was unbeatable.”
After writing for an alternative weekly in San Diego for a while, Urrea headed off for graduate school at the University of Colorado, where he discovered a passion for hiking.
“I’d always been fascinated by the Rockies. For physical beauty, it was the best. It changed me forever,” he said. “But also there were writers there I wanted to be closer to. Linda Hogan, Lorna de Cervantes ... I was very lucky because I think it was kind of a golden age that I stumbled into.” Urrea’s career took off in the 1990s with the publication of his nonfiction border trilogy: Across the Wire, By the Lake of Sleeping Children and Nobody’s Son. The books stemmed from his relief work in Tijuana.
Urrea moved to Arizona in 1995 to do field work on Hummingbird’s Daughter. Discovering an Indian branch of his family he hadn’t known about, he immersed himself in Yaqui history, herbalism and other eclectic subjects, yet couldn’t freely write about “the medicine magic stuff” until Linda Hogan, a Native American writer, helped him.
In his early 40s, Urrea made another move, taking a teaching job at the University of Southwest Louisiana in Lafayette, where he lived next door to author Earnest Gaines. After Nobody’s Son claimed the 1999 American Book Award, job offers poured in, including a tenured position at University of Illinois-Chicago. During his teaching career, Urrea has rarely seen Hispanic faces in his classroom.
“There just aren’t a lot of Latino students who get in writing programs,” he said. “I’ve had a couple here who were extremely talented, but it’s a tough row to hoe. We have a very working-class population, and they have much more practical matters in mind. It’s much more difficult to make that leap to creative writing programs.
“But everywhere I go, I’m talking to lots of Latino students. We’re getting into the next wave of education; they’re starting to expand out into literature and the arts and into writing.” Many of those students no doubt look at Urrea as a role model.
“I think I have a long history of escape,” he said. “I tell people I spent most of my early life feeling like a skunk trapped in someone’s kitchen looking for a window to jump out of. When you’re trapped in a place with hopelessness and with huge dreams until you’re 26 – once they spring the door, you don’t want to stop. I had a lot of energy to keep running for a long while.”