San Francisco: Two nights, two readings, one radio interview, one newspaper interview, seven bookstore signings in a row. We get back to the hotel late and fortunately this place is famous for its tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich on the late night menu.
The room service guy brings the food and he has an accent like my relatives in Colonia Independencia had. I ask him, "Are you Mexican?" As always, there's a slight pause and he looks at me out of the corner of his eye. "I am," he says.
Then I drop the bomb he didn't expect to hear: "I'm from Tijuana."
He cries, "I am from Tijuana!"
Suddenly, there is a two-man street party in my room. It only takes us 30 seconds to find our way through that remembered city to our favorite sidewalk taco stand. How did I know he loved Tacos El Paisano, too? How did I know he was from Tijuana, too? There is no way of explaining it, I just did.
I come to these places where I wouldn't have dared enter for much of my life. In fact, I would have been scared of a hotel like this because it only meant I was never going to climb out of the trench. At the beginning of this tour we were invited to do a luncheon reading at a country club where I would have been lucky to be a gardener.
Family members told me never to admit I was from Tijuana because they were ashamed of it. But now I start every reading announcing it and almost every night someone comes to me in the signing line and whispers the secret place from which they have come. Sometimes they're undocumented; sometimes they're Border Patrol; sometimes they're in the same line. That person and I are the same. The women we don't see stripping the sheets from our hotel beds. The man from the kitchen bringing our soup. We are the same. Tonight he asked, "Is it hard to publish books? I don't know anything about reading. But I do know about food, and I made this for you."
And I sit in this fancy bed and I eat this song he has composed.
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Luis Alberto Urrea is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award, an American Book Award, a Western States Book Award, and a Colorado Book Award, and has been inducted into the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. He lives in Chicago.
Books mentioned in this post
Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of Queen of America