Published: June 1, 2011 By

abandoned house on highway

Photo courtesy David Maisel

Writer Luis Urrea (MFA’97) uses faith healers, fatal border crossings and his family to explore the bounds of human nature.

It was a routine afternoon in Tijuana during the winter of 1982, and Luis Urrea (MFA’97) was deep into another day of relief work at the city dump. In a mountain of rotting garbage, orphaned children and wild dogs were fighting for turf. Nearby a colony of scavengers was digging for treasure, hoping to uncover its next meal.

Urrea’s old neighborhood was only minutes away, the place where he first heard the surreal tales about his great aunt Teresita Urrea, a faith healer and shaman sometimes known as the Mexican Joan of Arc. The rural road where his father was murdered unfolded in the distance.

“It was all too much,’’ says Urrea, a San Diego resident who had only returned home for a stint of volunteer work. “I was surrounded by so much sorrow. I needed to get away. I needed a transcendent spot to write.’’

Urrea eventually found that spot in Boulder more than a decade later as a CU creative writing graduate student. Using Tijuana and the borderland as his themes, his elegant, evocative work at the university was a prelude to the international recognition and critical praise that soon followed.

In 1993 Urrea’s nonfiction debut, Across the Wire (Anchor), was a New York Times notable book of the year. His autobiographical Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life (University of Arizona Press) won an American Book Award in 1999, and his chronicle of an illegal border crossing turned deadly, The Devil’s Highway (Back Bay Books), was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005. Urrea also received rave reviews for The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Back Bay Books), a novel about the life of his charismatic great aunt.

Today Urrea is a creative writing professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, travels widely for speaking engagements, recently finished his 14th book and can’t quite believe how his life turned out.

“Luis Urrea writes about U.S.-Mexican border culture with a tragic and beautiful intimacy that has no equal,’’ Tom Montgomery-Fate of the Boston Globe wrote.

With light-colored hair, blue eyes and a pronounced surfer-dude drawl, Urrea hardly resembles a typical Mexican-born writer. But as the son of a Mexican father and American mother, he is the embodiment of the complex world he explores.

“My parents fought in their own ‘border’ way, and I internalized it,’’ he says. “The Mexican border is a metaphor. Borders everywhere are a symbol of what divides us. That’s what interests me.”

A member of the Mexican presidential staff, Urrea’s father met his wife-to-be — a wayward New York society girl — during a state trip to San Francisco. The couple lived in Mexico City before moving to Tijuana to be near his family and start a new life.

“He told me [the government] asked him to perform a task that he couldn’t perform,” Urrea says of his father leaving his work in the capital. “You can assume what it was. They must have wanted him to kill someone.”

Urrea was born in Tijuana, but when he developed a severe case of tuberculosis four years later, the Urreas moved to a San Diego barrio, a mixed-race neighborhood that Urrea calls “spooky.’’

“My parents fought in their own ‘border’ way, and I internalized it.’’
—Luis Urrea (MFA’97)

“The black kids would beat me up for being white,” he says. “The Mexican kids would beat me up for being white. The white kids knew I was Mexican and wanted to beat me up.”

To escape the violence, the Urreas moved to the San Diego suburb of Clairemont. At Clairemont High School, where filmmaker Cameron Crowe did undercover research for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Urrea says he was a dreamy kid, adrift but more comfortable than before.

But an ongoing battle was escalating in the Urrea home where his father hounded him to speak Spanish and his mother insisted he wasn’t Mexican. In an atmosphere of permanent unease, Urrea found a way to cope.

“I spent my allowance on books or records,’’ he says. “I loved the arts.’’

After Urrea graduated from University of California, San Diego, his father withdrew his savings from a Tijuana bank so his son could attend graduate school. On his return trip his father “ran afoul of the Mexican police,’’ was pulled off the road and beaten to death, Urrea says.

“It sent me into a tailspin,” he says. “The tide of despair was overwhelming . . . for me and my mother.’’

luis headshot

Luis Urrea (MFA’97)

For months Urrea slept on friends’ couches and ran through jobs, scrubbing toilets, baking doughnuts and manning the graveyard shift at a convenience store. At 23 he volunteered to work as a translator for a group of Baptist missionaries who served the poorest of the poor, the squatters who lived in Tijuana’s squalid city dump. Urrea left nothing to the imagination in Across the Wire, a nonfiction account of the wretchedness.

“On one storm-ravaged day, the dump floods and the washing walls of water erode the surrounding banks,’’ he writes. “Improvised children’s coffins, made of cardboard boxes, slide loose and break apart, and hungry seagulls pick away at the remains.’’

During the 1990s Urrea completed his nonfiction border trilogy: Across the WireBy the Lake of Sleeping Children (Anchor) and Nobody’s Son. Although he said he had no intention of doing another border book, Urrea found himself drawn back in the wake of one of the deadliest border crossings in memory.

On a spring day in 2001, 26 Mexican men entered a no-man’s land known as the Devil’s Highway, a loose network of old cattle and wagon trails in southwestern Arizona located between Yuma and Tucson. The region is so deadly that even the U.S. Border Patrol is afraid to travel through it.

Only 12 of the men came back out. The rest suffered horrific deaths, baked alive in one of the most brutal and barren deserts on the continent. Published in 2005 during a time of heated national debate about illegal immigration, the book, The Devil’s Highway, brought Urrea unprecedented attention.

In his riveting account, Urrea wrote, “The dead . . . are stretched in angular poses, caught in last gasps or shouts, their eyes burned an eerie red by the sun . . . like wax-and-paper torsos in a gas station Dungeon of Terror.’’

A year later he published The Hummingbird’s Daughter, a novel 20 years in the making. Urrea first immersed himself during graduate school in the story of Teresita Urrea, an uneducated, impoverished Indian girl born in 1873 to a 14-year-old Yaqui mother. When it became clear years later that the girl was gifted with the power to heal, thousands of pilgrims descended on her home, each drawn by their own political, cultural and social motives.

Denounced by the Catholic Church, Teresita, the “People’s Saint,’’ became a catalyst in the Mexican Revolution, used by the revolutionaries for their own political agenda. Mexican dictator General Porifirio Diaz called her the “most dangerous girl in Mexico.”

When he finally sat down to write the book, however, Urrea couldn’t put himself inside the indigenous imagination. Only after conferring with Linda Hogan (MEngl’78), a former CU-Boulder faculty member and Native American author, could he really begin his story.

“I have always been amazed at the meaningful depth of Luis’ work and I think he is a writer whose time is here,’’ Hogan says.  “His work has integrity, honesty. I remember him as a student being one of the most mature and wise of all, with a quick response to every wrong thing, righting it. He is a significant human being and writer.”

Urrea owes his success, in part, to the community of writers he worked with on campus.

“I was very lucky because I think it was kind of a golden age in Boulder,’’ says Urrea, who met Hogan at CU. “A lot of great people came out of there when I was there. I think it changed me forever.”