Published: Sept. 28, 2018 By

CU Boulder helped launch Luis Alberto Urrea’s award-winning writing career

Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest novel, The House of Broken Angels, has a political edge that was honed on the current American political landscape. 

The University of Colorado Boulder alumnus’ novel tells the story of Big Angel de la Cruz, who hopes to bring his family together for a final fiesta as he faces death from cancer. Some family members are legal immigrants, while others are undocumented, including children born in the United States to undocumented parents, aka dreamers.


Luis Alberto Urrea. Photo by Joe Mazza, Brave-Lux.

The de la Cruz family, says Urrea (MFA Engl’97), author of award-winning fiction, poetry and nonfiction, “is an American family that just happens to speak Spanish and worship the Virgin of Guadalupe.” The novel, he says, is his way of protesting the immigration policies of the Trump administration. 

Having grown up with a Mexican father and Irish-American mother in Tijuana, Mexico, Urrea, 63, has long been drawn to “border” issues. But he says he is shocked by what he sees as the rise of “thuggish white power” of contemporary politics. 

“I know people on the right get angry at me for complaining, but this isn’t conservatism,” he says, referring in part to the Trump administration’s “assaults on families and ethnicities.” “My parents were both fierce conservatives. I’m not, but I can understand their kind of conservatism. But not this. This is a perversion.”

Urrea was inspired to write the novel by the 2016 cancer death of his half-brother Juan. In the novel, Little Angel, Big Angel’s half-brother, is a university professor and author, and he made a point of making Big Angel a Republican, he says.

“This is what it feels like to be a family trying to bury their grandmother while people are holding up ‘Build the Wall’ signs,” he says. The de la Cruz family “are Americans who have been here 70 years, but when they buy a birthday cake at Target someone comes up to tell them that the president is going to throw them out of the country.”

Urrea notes that with a name like his, he can’t avoid being seen as a political writer, despite looking more stereotypically “Irish” than “Mexican.” His blue eyes and light hair, he says, are also a product of his father’s Basque ancestors, who came to North America during the Spanish conquest. 

He was born in Tijuana but is officially designated by the U.S. government as an “American born abroad.” The family moved to San Diego seeking better treatment for Urrea’s childhood tuberculosis and he grew up in Barrio Logan, long known as a hub for the city’s Mexican art and culture.

“I’m constantly meeting folks who come up to me and say, ‘Hey, my family are immigrants too, but they came here legally,’” Urrea says. “I always say, ‘Really? Who checked their papers? Crazy Horse or Geronimo?’”

His father was killed in a car accident in Mexico in 1977 while Urrea was studying English at the University of California, San Diego. He wrote an essay about having to pay $750 to corrupt Mexican police to bring his father’s body home for burial, which his professor showed to the late National Book Award-winning writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who was at UCSD teaching a workshop. Le Guin invited Urrea to join the workshop and ended up publishing the essay in an anthology she was editing.

“Ursula discovered me. She started my writing career. She published that essay, then flogged me savagely for years trying to get me in writing shape. She was a great mentor for me,” he says.

I had three of my heroes in one place—and in Boulder, Colorado. Come on! I applied, and they were kind enough to take me.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Urrea continued to write, take coursework and teach all over the country. After enduring 10 years of publishers’ rejections for his nonfiction book about Tijuana, “Under the Wire,” he ruefully concluded that his dream might not come to pass.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m never going to be a writer. That’s folly,’” he says. “I thought I’d better get a terminal degree so I could start teaching for real.” 

In 1991, he applied to CU Boulder’s MFA writing program, drawn by such big-name faculty as Vine Deloria, Jr., Linda Hogan and Lorna DeCervantes. 

“I had three of my heroes in one place—and in Boulder, Colorado. Come on!” he says. “I applied, and they were kind enough to take me.”

While Urrea was at CU Boulder, Deloria mentored him on a “lifelong project” that would later become The Hummingbird’s Daughter, a novel based on the life of a medicine woman ancestor of Urrea’s, introducing him to “holy people from all traditions all over the world.” He lived next door to poet Marilyn Krysl and hobnobbed with fellow students, including such now-respected writers as David Gessner, Karen Auvinen, Mark Spitzer and May Lee Chai. Hogan and DeCervantes arranged for him to pick up a young Sherman Alexie at Stapleton International Airport, and the two have been friends ever since.

“A lot of us in that golden age have gone on to be very successful writers,” he says. “I loved everything about Boulder, living in that environment. Hiking every day completely changed my relationship to the earth.”

Anchor Books bought Under the Wirewhile he was in Boulder. Between the twin pressures of promoting the book and a pending divorce, Urrea decided to leave school in 1992 without finishing his degree. 

His best-selling writing career took off following his first stint in Boulder. He won the Colorado Book Award and Western States Book Award for poetry for The Fever of Beingin 1994 and the American Book Award for his 1998 memoir, Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life. He also has won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his short story “Amapola” and in 2000 was voted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame. The House of Broken Angelsis his 18thbook.

Despite all his success, Urrea did eventually return to Boulder to finish his master’s degree, in 1997; he is now professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Despite his “outrage” at the Trump administration, and his fear that the United States may be teetering on the brink of “fascism,” he says it’s a time for “action, not hopelessness.”

“People need to vote their consciences, but they need to vote,” he says. “It’s scary, having vitriol coming at you for saying things that I think are common-sense, patriotic things to say, but it’s time for people of good conscience to step up and be brave.”

David Gessner, his old CU compatriot, thinks Urrea is being plenty brave himself.

“While (Luis’) books are of the highest literary quality, they also speak pressingly to the time we live in—to issues of race, nationalism, and intolerance among others,” says Gessner, chair of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and author of 10 books. “They are big-hearted, open, and magnanimous in a time that is so often ingrown, petty, and bitter. In this small age, Luis Urrea has consistently been big. In this shallow age he goes deep.”