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Powells.com Interview: Luis Alberto Urrea

Luis Alberto UrreaLuis Alberto Urrea is a poet, novelist, journalist, and essayist who has been writing about the relationship between the United States and Mexico, amongst other things, for 30 years. His 2004 nonfiction work, The Devil's Highway, is a searing chronicle of the fate of the Yuma 14, 14 men who died in the desert after crossing the border illegally. The Los Angeles Times described it as "superb....Nothing less than a saga on the scale of the Exodus and an ordeal as heartbreaking as the Passion," and it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

His next work, The Hummingbird's Daughter, is an epic novel which took him twenty years to write. In shimmering prose, Urrea imagines the life of Teresita, the real-life "Saint of Cabora," who was in fact a relative of his. The Oregonian raved, "The Hummingbird's Daughter is nothing short of miraculous....The story of the saint is told with such love and care that it will make a believer out of anyone."

His latest novel, Into the Beautiful North, is a funny, moving, and gorgeously written tale of a young woman's journey to America, which Booklist calls "an outstanding reading treat." Bookpage claims "It only takes a few pages of Luis Alberto Urrea's thoroughly enjoyable Into the Beautiful North to start you wondering whether this book will break or warm your heart....So which is it?...A little of both, of course." If you haven't yet read this lyrical, generous, and important American writer, his new work is a great place to start. We loved the novel so much that we chose it for Volume 12 of our Indiespensable program.

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Jill Owens: How did Into the Beautiful North begin?

Luis Alberto Urrea: It bubbled up out of misery and exhaustion. The Devil's Highway was so dark and disturbing. And though The Hummingbird's Daughter was a transcendent book, it took 20 years to write it, and a lot of things during the 10 years or so of shamanic explorations I undertook to write it were really
hair-raising and freaky.

I came off all that, and I had written another book for Little, Brown, hoping to break open some of the taboos about barrio macho hetero male life. They felt that it was a little too disturbing. They didn't want to release it at this point in my career, which I thought was funny after doing Devil's Highway, which is nothing but disturbing. But in another way, I thought, "Wow! My childhood was so rough and tough that it's too disturbing to release." I felt like Joe Bad. [Laughter] I'm a real survivor!

After all of that, I realized that I just wanted to have joy. I wanted to have a good time writing. I was hoping that I could address the issues that I usually address, but make myself laugh. I wanted relief. I had a sense that my readers might want to laugh, too.

It also came out of reading tons and tons of immigration-related stuff, which, believe me, is not by choice. It's not something that I want to read about all the time, but people send me a lot of information. I was taken by a story about the towns without men, which is something that's happening all over Mexico.

Or was happening. I'm always fascinated by the disjunct between what's really happening on the ground and the propaganda machine that feeds America alarmist news about immigration. For example, since I finished Devil's Highway, the immigration numbers have been dropping and dropping and dropping. But the fever pitch of racially motivated rage has gotten hotter and hotter, it seems to me. I thought that was strange.

For example, at the time that I wrote Devil's Highway, the border patrol station that I wrote about had 32 or 35 agents. Since the book came out, they now have 350 agents. Homeland Security had to tear down Wellton Station and rebuild it into a big complex — not to hold Mexicans, but to hold new agents! But the actual numbers of immigrants are down in double digits in that sector, and they're down across the board.

All that was fascinating to me, and I thought, "In some sense, I so want to put that issue to rest in my own work, but I probably never will." As a writer, it's like a cat playing with a catnip mouse. You kick around these ideas, and they start to seem amusing and interesting to you, and you start to think, "What would happen if this were to happen in my father's hometown?"
I fictionalized his hometown to get more of the realm of the imagination. I started speculating, "What would happen if the men were gone, and you needed someone to run the town?"

What's going on in Mexico right now is that women are stepping up, sometimes for the first time, and assuming power — political power, educational power, all these roles that were denied them before the men were gone. I like to call it a kind of a groundswell of folk feminism, where women are stepping into this vacuum and actually changing the face of Mexico.

As I was pondering that, I thought, "Who would be a great mayor for that town?" And I thought of my own Aunt Irma, who's the template for crazy Aunt Irma in the book. She really was Mexico's bowling champion.

Jill: I read about her in your memoir, after I'd read the novel, and I thought,
"I recognize this woman..."

Urrea: [Laughter] That's right! A lot of times in my books, I put in — not jokes necessarily, but little grace notes for family or friends. In Hummingbird's Daughter, a whole lot of people caught me out sneaking Rudolfo Anaya into the novel. Rudolfo Anaya has been a godfather to me for so long that it was a nice little tip of the hat to have Rudy Anaya there, or his great-grandfather, saying something sweet to the Hummingbird's daughter, trying to get a date, basically. He got the joke.

Several times in my books there will be characters that sometimes only someone in my family or someone from the villages will recognize and laugh about. It gives the story real life, to me. Of course, it's scandalous in my family that I based a character on Aunt Irma, as mean as she is. [Laughter]

Jill: But she's such a great character, and she's such a strong older female
character, to counterbalance the younger female characters, who are strong in a different way.

Urrea: It's funny. I had an interviewer ask me, "Are you writing chick books?" I said, "Chick books? What's a chick book?" "You keep writing about women," he said. I said, "What's wrong with writing about women?" I don't know. I guess it's because of Hummingbird, in part. But part of the process of Hummingbird was being accepted by the women's healing community in the indigenous world. I didn't really understand the world of medicine, or curanderas. I had some access to that through men, because I have all these brothers who are Oglalas (adoptive brothers, in the loose term of brother), and I have relatives who are Apache, and so forth.

When I was accepted by a couple of communities of women, I was taken in to learn the women's stuff. One of those women said this very simple thing. It was so simple it was brilliant. She said, "You goddamned men. When you want to know something about women, why don't you just ask?" I had this idiotic Western writer's response; I was writing down notes: "Hmm, ask women!" [Laughter] Her follow-up was, "And when we tell you, why don't you listen?" It became really important to me if I was going to write Hummingbird's Daughter to try to do honor to women.

When this story came up, it just so happened that it was about a place abandoned by men. I've said a lot on tour that Americans seem to think that Mexicans have an illegal immigration organ in their body, and at about 13 it starts pumping illegal immigration hormones, so that we know like geese when to take off. We don't! It's not that way. A lot of the people back home are not pleased about what's happened. They're ashamed of it; they're abandoned by it. They're not benefitting the way some people seem to think they are. Certainly Sean Hannity would say they are, but they aren't. I wanted it again to be troubling and sad on many levels, because it's a troubling and sad story, but also funny, because people are funny. We're all funny. Humor unites us. More than any kind of lectures, or preaching on my part, I think humor unites the readers with the characters, and makes you invest in what happens to them.

Jill: I think that comes across in both this book and in Hummingbird's Daughter in a different way. That's something I love about your fiction: the balance between this lovely light-heartedness, this sense of play and joyfulness, that you manage to include even when writing about very serious and dark subject matter.

Urrea: Deadly serious stuff, yes. Somebody said to me about a week ago, "You've invented a genre which I call slapstick immigration." I thought that was hilarious, because I hadn't thought of it that way. But I like it.

Cindy, my wife, can tell you, we are still involved with people of the Tijuana garbage dump, and they're funny! People don't sit around all day bemoaning their fate. Not really. They're doing what they have to do to live, and they see the humor in things. They cry, as well, but crying isn't the only response. When I was doing missionary work when I was younger, which started this obsession of mine with the literature of witness, I was a translator for a missionary group, and I spent years in a Tijuana dump. People were really thrown by the fact that the Mexican poor, many of them pureblood indigenous people, seemed happy. They were like, "These guys aren't suffering; look at them!" I kept saying, "What contract did they sign for you that they would look miserable?"

First of all, receiving charity embarrasses them, so they act a little uproarious, to put on a brave face. But they also love each other, and have relationships, and we forget that, I think. It's a very slight accident of cosmic humor, perhaps, that put us here and them there. It's amazing to me. We have a friend who lives at the dump that I asked once, "Were you going to ever cross, illegally?" She said, "Cross illegally? That's not my country. I don't go where I'm not wanted." Then she said, "Besides, America's not free." I said, "What do you mean by that?" She said, "Here in the dump, when we have a party, we set a bonfire in the middle of the street. You can't set bonfires in the United States." I thought, She has some cultural things that she holds dear — getting drunk and setting fires. [Laughter] And you can't do it over here.

Jill: She sounds a bit like Atomiko, from the new book.

Urrea: Atomiko's my boy!

Jill: I can completely visualize him with his staff, and hear his distinctive voice. Was he based on anyone you've known, from Tijuana or elsewhere?

Urrea: If you read it looking for the various clues, the Seven Samurai clues, he's totally Toshiro Mifune. Even physically, he scratches his whiskers like Toshiro Mifune. He's an interesting guy. The original inspiration for him is actually a rapper named Drastiko. I loved Drastiko so much that I wrote Atomiko for him. In fact, somebody brought me a book that they had bought for Drastiko and I told him, "Check out Atomiko; wonder where he came from?"

Drastiko's story fits so well into the spirit of this novel. He was a rapper in Mexico City. He wanted to become a famous rapper, and he decided that the only way to do that was to go to the United States. He came here illegally, and he got to Los Angeles and realized that he'd have to know English to rap here and make it. So he went to ESL school, and there he met an undocumented Salvadoran rapper, who went by the name of the Third Disciple (el tercer discípulo). They formed this group; they rap, they tour, and they recorded a CD. But they're still both undocumented, and Drastiko realized a couple of years ago that if they got famous enough, he'd be found out and deported. So he's in this weird conundrum: do I make it or do I stay underground?

Jill: Quite a catch-22.

Urrea: Yes, and it was hilarious. He was completely aware of how funny it was, as well as being tragic. I think as a writer, when you bring that tragedy and humor together, you find a whole really interesting region to travel in. Also, on a strictly manipulative front, the humor softens you up for the horror to snap you later.

Jill: I happened to be watching Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth series while I was rereading Into the Beautiful North, and I thought, "This is it; this is the hero's journey."

Urrea: Yes! Yes, totally. Sometimes jokingly, I tell people, Nayeli is Mad Max.

Jill: Absolutely! I just watched those movies for the first time this week,
too, which is kind of crazy.

Urrea: That's a total mythic template. Mad Max, he is the hero on that journey, and Nayeli, she has a quest, too. She could be Gallahad, or Beowulf. She's trying to save her homeland and her people. She goes into alien territory, on a night journey... It's all Joseph Campbell, really. In fact, my agent, when she first read it, said, "It reads like a fairy tale." I said, "Yeah, no kidding!"

Jill: An archetype.

Urrea: It is. I was trying to tap something ancient, but again, turn it on
its head a little bit. I have a great book called The Heroine's Journey, which analyzes the female version of this journey, because we are always so obsessed with he-men. It's a very cool book.

Jill: I'll look it up.

Urrea: I'm sure it's got to be somewhere at Powell's. [Laughter] You've got it somewhere, no question. [Editor's note: Yes, we do.]

Jill: The book does have those elements of ancient and modern at the same time. You have the contrast of these young people growing up in such a remote and rural area, which only recently got electricity, yet now they have access to the Internet and YouTube and are watching goth videos at the Internet cafe.

Urrea: I am so fascinated by this interpenetration of culture. Again, Americans often are worried by a sort of mongrelization of American culture. That's true, too. We go to fish trap every other year up in the Wallowas. I teach up there every other summer. We were driving out there last summer, and we're up at the Columbia Gorge, and we're going off on side trips to little towns, and here comes a little Mexican ice cream man pushing a cart with a bell, and he's got a straw Mexican cowboy hat with the little tail that scares off flies hanging down the back. I thought, "What the hell are you doing here?" In the middle of cherry orchards, here comes the paletero — "Paletas! Paletas!" It was so startling to me. But then of course I realized how Cindy's old neighborhood in Seattle is now Barrio Burien. That's something people worry about, but the other side of that coin is the immense influence of this country, how we penetrate all cultures. You go to London and there's McDonald's, there's Burger King.

At the Tijuana garbage dump, the people who work the garbage of course are illiterate and the most destitute people, but they do that work and get their kids into school. A lot of what they do for work is to have enough to keep the family alive, and then to get uniforms and shoes for the kids. Those kids then go to school, and then the hope is that somebody will succeed.

There's a little village that is an arc around part of the Tijuana garbage dump. There are little stores, and a tacos and tortas shop, and they opened an Internet cafe. Somehow they got hold of a computer and they had a phone line. So there's an Internet cafe at the Tijuana garbage dump, and the garbage pickers can actually go and look at my website to see where I'm at, or what I'm doing. As soon as I realized that, I thought, "The world's going to change forever. There's no way to stop this."

It happened that shortly after finding that out, I was at a dinner in San Francisco, and I was sitting with the guy that was designing the 100 dollar laptop, to make it as widely available as possible. I realized that everything is going to change, when this information is available to people.

I thought, "Isn't it funny to think of these 19-year-old women in this forgotten town, and they didn't have enough money or power to get out and go to school. They got out of high school and that's it. They're doomed to be in this little town that doesn't have anything. They've never been in an elevator. But they've got the Internet, and they're seeing all this stuff, and it's really sowing wild visions in their heads."

Jill: I love when Nayeli and Tacho see the lights of Las Vegas for the first
time, and they can't stop laughing, because it doesn't seem real to them.

Urrea: And when they see Bonnie and Clyde's death car, they're like, "We
saw that movie!"

Jill: The movie theme is wonderful, and that's part of it too, sowing the wild visions.

Urrea: My family's hometown has 10,000 people, and my uncle Carlos published the only newspaper, owned the radio station, and had the movie theater. I got a real insider's view of how the information matrix happened in these little towns. This was a really long time ago, but he hated rock and roll music, which was heaven to me, because he'd get all these 45s and then he'd get a box and give it to me as garbage. It would have Led Zeppelin, and Simon and Garfunkel, and the Sons of Champlain, all these obscure bands. I'd spent the whole day rocking out, and they couldn't stand it. I still remember when they got "Born on the Bayou" by Credence, and they'd never heard screaming like that before. Because Mexican music just doesn't do that. And they called him El Enojado — the angry guy. "Oh, no, not the angry guy!"

I would go to the movie theaters and the movie changed about every two days. We'd get these wasted prints that had been all over the world and they were translated into weird languages, and had different rows of words across the bottom, and it was just amazing. If I get to go on with this idea... One of the reviewers of Into the Beautiful North has just sent me outlines for two more books in the series that he wants to read, and I thought, "Wow, I didn't know it was a series, but that sounds cool, actually." I would like to pursue that Cinema Paradiso element, because it's an amazing thing to watch.

That was an early version, too, of what's happening now with the Internet. I saw 2001 in that theater, a theater with bats flying around. Here I was with my Mexican cousins, and they were just transfixed, which led to these insane drunken Mexican reveries on the roof later, drinking beer and tequila, about how this planet is simply a molecule in an atom in God's toenail. This little tropical village is being exposed to those things, and being pushed into new ways to think, and new ways to feel about the world.

My other cousin was the head of traffic cops down there. He saw Mad Max, and it changed his life. He went around announcing that he was Mad Max. He didn't have a car, or anything, but he was Mad Max! [Laughter] If anybody ever did what the bad guys in Mad Max did, he would seek revenge, because it was such a Mexican film. Pure revenge. The only thing that would have made it better probably is Mexican wrestling masks. If Mad Max had had a mask, that would have been it.

Jill: You mentioned Sean Hannity and the very loud conservative American anti-immigration voices. It was interesting to learn in your novel that there are parallel voices in Mexico that are against immigrants coming up from south of their border. That's not something Americans think much about, I think.

Urrea: Oh, yes. For one, they're extremely brutal to the undocumented immigrants who come into Mexico. The predation levels are insane, and the sexual violence is incredibly ugly. It's rather amusing on the one hand, if you have a dark sense of humor, to hear Mexicans on talk radio saying, "We need to put up a fence to stop the Guatemalans." You think, "What?" They say the same stuff you hear up here: "They're taking our education; they're getting our jobs; they're messing up our culture; they're criminals."

There's such a ferment and tumult in the south of Mexico, and we would do well to attend to it, because there are madrassas there for indigenous kids who don't speak Spanish but are learning Arabic and reading the Koran. I have nothing against Islam. However, the people who are in a panic should look to things like that. Why are the indigenous kids going to conservative Islam? They're in a hopeless grind of poverty and oppression and racial pressure, and it would be nice if we found some way to help ease that, because we're joined at the hip.

Jill: Your descriptions of Mexico are beautiful. They show a place that's incredibly varied, that's as much if not more a melting pot than America. That's not how we typically think of Mexico.

Urrea: Yes. I always tell people, "Look at me, man!" I look Irish, but I was born in Mexico and Spanish was my first language. If you could line my family all up, you'd be amazed, because there's my end of it, with the blonde types. There's a middle kind of passage; I have brothers and a sister who have blue eyes but black hair. Then my brother Juan is dark and looks very traditionally Mexican. When he grows a moustache, he's almost Zapata-like in his intensity. Then it keeps going. We have Yaqui people, Apache people, Mayo people married amongst the Yaqui people. We have African-Americans in our family — through marriage, but of course people are having babies. And then there's a branch of the Urreas in Mexico City who are Chinese. The Wong Urrea; they speak Chinese. So I like to say, "What is a Mexican?" We assume something, but it ain't always what we assume.

It's been my strange blessing to speak to every imaginable kind of group now, for the last few years, including a lot of conservatives. I'm always scared because I think they're going to yell at me, but they're quite nice. They're very concerned, and they listen. I think what they're listening for is a different story than what they hear. When I go and I tell them my stories, I think they're receptive.

I did a town hall meeting in Denver, with about 350 retired Republicans. It was in a church. The hostess picked me up at the airport, and she said her constituents had been calling wanting to know if I was legal or not, did I have papers. I said, "Really? Are you serious?" They also wanted to know if they'd understand my Mexican accent. I went in the church early and I sat in one of the pews, and they pulled in, and I had my jacket and tie on —

I won't be wearing that tonight, by the way. [Laughter]

Jill: I think you'll get a bit of a different crowd here.

Urrea: I'm in Portland! Sigh of relief. —But they came into the church, and the place filled up. The woman announced me and I got up and went to the mike, and there was this stunned silence. The first thing I said was, "I bet you didn't expect to see an Irishman, did you?" And they all burst out laughing.

Part of that serves me really well, because if we have to begin the conversation at the most uncomfortable position on identity and race and color, which nobody wants to talk about, from there you can go anywhere. If you can get through that initial moment, and turn it in your favor, then the world is yours. And we had a lovely time. It was really fantastic, and I have found that over and over. I get jumped sometimes by lone angry people. But I can't think of one time that a group was negative, ever. From an audience of all border patrol agents to an audience of good old open-minded Oregonians.

Jill: That's incredibly encouraging to hear.

Urrea: It's amazing. I could fill the interview with just stories of that, because it's been stunning to me. I went to Missouri, to Truman State University, and Rush Limbaugh's family was there. Everybody was like, "Uh-oh, the Limbaughs." The faculty gave me a barbecue, and Colonel Limbaugh showed up. He's a colonel in the Army, and he and his wife were there. He came up to me, and I thought, "This is going to be one of the coolest moments in my life, or a horrible bloodbath." My dad was a military guy, and my mom was in the Red Cross, so I know how to talk to military people. I said, "Colonel Limbaugh, sir, it's an honor to meet you," and I put my hand out. He looked at me, and said, "Really? You can call me John." And I said, "No sir, you're a colonel." He lit up a little bit, and introduced me to his wife.

Then this really amazing thing happened. I always think of Neal Cassady, who had a line that he wrote to Jack Kerouac: "Grace beats karma." I live in grace, apparently, because he looked at me and he said, "You know, I've been reading your book, and I'm looking for the agenda, and I can't find it." I said, "Sir, as best as I can do this, my agenda is trying to find the truth. Whether I like the truth or not, that's what I'm after." And he just lit up. We had the weekend to talk, and they came to my reading, and they bought a stack of books...

Jill: This was for Devil's Highway?

Urrea: Yes. Talk about a book that could have gotten me in trouble with the Limbaugh family! So I of course urged him, "Do take one to Rush, now!"
[Laughter]

Jill: Do you think he did?

Urrea: I doubt it. [Laughter] I think he was thinking, "I don't think he'll like this." But who knows? You never know.

Jill: You're a non-fiction writer, a poet, a journalist, and a novelist. Very few people manage to work successfully in all of those genres. How do you think about the varying forms in which you work? How do you choose which is the best vehicle?

Urrea: The story tells me what it wants, usually. The Devil's Highway was a particular situation, because Little, Brown contacted me and asked me if I would do it, and frankly, I had done three border books already, and I didn't want to do another one. But I thought, "Here's an invitation to the big leagues."

Jill: They contacted you specifically about the Yuma 14?

Urrea: Yes. My previous nonfiction books were really more collections of essays than reporting. I don't know how to report. The earlier books were participatory; they were first-person narration. I knew immediately that this book would be a sin if I wrote about my adventures. I had some wild adventures writing it, but it wasn't about me. That was one thing immediately I knew.

The second thing is that being married to an investigative reporter helped me a whole lot because I did not know how to do it. I didn't know how to do end runs around people who didn't want to talk to me. I did not know that journalists understand that "no" means "later." [Laughter] They keep pushing until they get their information. When people say no to me, I feel like, "You don't love me any more; I'm going to go home and sulk." I have a poet's response. So those things all helped with that project. Especially in Devil's Highway, you know you're driven by the spirits of those people. You've held their effects in your hands and you've smelled their body rot and studied their autopsy photographs and their death scene films. Even though they're gone, I had their smell on my hands. In some ways, they dictated to me what they wanted. That sounds a little too mystical, but I think that's true.

Poetry is really special, and probably my first love. We often say that if something happened and I became a rich guy, I'd probably disappear and write poetry — maybe in this neighborhood here!

Jill: You could disappear into Forest Park.

Urrea: Exactly. I could go up to the Rose Garden and write haiku.

I think I will always write poetry. It's a little shocking to me when I realize it's been 10 years since I published a book of poetry, because I thought it was all going to be poetry. I'm working on some poetry now. Poetry fuels almost everything. I always stoke up the furnace with poetry. When there are three poetry books in each bathroom and a stack beside the bed, everybody knows Dad's about to flow. [Laughter]

Jill: Your love of language comes through in everything you write. In the first part of your memoir, including the etymologies of the "English" words was a nice device.

Urrea: I was so fascinated with that. It touched me. There's that one line where I write, essentially, "Even a racist has the enemy's words on his tongue, but he doesn't know it." He's using the words to attack his enemies, and they're not even his words, they're someone else's words.

When I started researching my family, working on Hummingbird's Daughter so long ago, I found this old edition of Don Quixote. Cervantes mentions our family, and I started going through the footnotes. There's a whole genealogical bit of research about my family. "Urrea" may have been a deviation of a Middle Eastern pronunciation of "gold"; they might have been gold-traders. That was interesting. My Jewish friends all started calling me Luis Goldberg. They said, "You're Jewish!" My Arab friends said, "No, you're an Arab!" But in those studies, it was pointed out that this family's always had this blonde coloration, this errant blonde gene. They believed it was due to the Visigoths, the Visigothic invaders.

I started researching the region that we're from, and there's a village called Urrea. "Urrea" actually turns out to be a Basque word, which means "man of gold." But the Visigoths did land right there, and the leader of the Visigoths was Urias. So who really knows what's in our blood? When I started claiming Visigoth lineage, that really juiced up the racial conversation. Now, when the Aryans go after me, I'm like, "Dude, I am an Aryan! Man, I'm a Visigoth! Now what? What are you going to do now?"

Jill: Most of your work, but particularly the new book, has a lot of Spanish
in it, which is sometimes translated and sometimes not. Why did you decide to include Spanish in that way?

Urrea: I wanted the text to explain what the language is, so I tried to be pretty careful to keep it closely in context or explained in the prose, barring a couple of sections. For example, there's a scene in Tijuana where Tacho has simply had it, and he goes off. There's a paragraph of just eruption. I understood that my readers wouldn't get it, but I thought of films where someone finally freaks out and goes off in Chinese, or Greek, or French, and it's funny because you know he's chewing somebody out. I was hoping people would see the block of text and realize that Tacho has simply had it, and the young women do make some sly "What's his problem?" comments.

Another thing, however, is that at the time I was editing it, my editor said, "Why don't we do a website with Missionary Matt's handwritten cards, and people can find the translations there, instead of a glossary?" I naively went off thinking we were going to do that, and we didn't do that. It didn't happen. Maybe I should do it now, but I think it's too late.

Most people are cool. I got an anguished and hilarious email from a woman, complaining about the Spanish, and she, at the end of it, said, "Mr. Urrea, what do you expect of your readers?" I wrote back and I said, "What do you expect of your writer? Spanish is not an assault on you or an insult to you." She wrote back and said, "The Hummingbird's Daughter was wise, but tedious," because of the Spanish.

I thought that was weird. I tried to explain my technique, especially in Hummingbird's Daughter, and how part of that book was secretly a kind of shamanic ritual, if you wanted to follow it that way, and it was much more deeply composed than anything I'd written — but what are you going to do? [Laughter] People either like it or they don't. I am going to make it a point to put glossaries in books from now on. I think that's fair.

You never know. In my first book, Across the Wire, I took great pains to translate every bit of Spanish, and the only bad reviews I got said I sounded like an idiot explaining words that every American already knew. I'm still trying to find my way, because I'm a representative of both cultures.

What didn't occur to me was that I am now representing the United States to Mexican readers. Now the book is coming out not only in Mexico, but around the world, which is really freaky. In Mexico, the problem is exactly the reverse. For example, in Into the Beautiful North, the stuff that I explain about Mexico is crushingly obvious to Mexicans. The things that I talk about in the United States that you and I recognize as part of our inbred mythology are totally alien to them.

My cousin Enrique translated the book for me, and we had this same conversation as we did it, because he's had to turn that effect around. Isn't that weird? It tips over. Because the Beautiful North to them is what? A 6,000-pound prairie dog? They don't get what's up with that.

Jill: A concrete 6,000-pound prairie dog.

Urrea: Yes, a wonder of concrete and latex paint!

Jill: I have to ask — in what way was The Hummingbird's Daughter secretly a shamanistic ritual?

Urrea: If you look at it carefully, the first section is called "The Initiation of the Dreamers." That is your initiation as a reader, if you want to take it. Everything in there is a progressive journey deeper into the world of the healers and the medicine people. For example, the dreams that punctuate the whole novel — those are in series. Those were shamanic dreams given to me by medicine people. They will tell you, "I'm going to give you a dream in three days." You think, "You're out of your fricking mind," and then, in three days, some insanity happens. I realized that those dreams narrated my journey through Teresa's life, up to that point. The dream of the silver globes at the end of the book was the last of those dreams, and I woke up weeping. I woke Cindy up and told her, "It's over. They've left. I've got to write the book."

A lot of the visions were things that happened to me. A lot of the teachings were the same things that those people were teaching me. There were certain things that they wanted hidden and certain things that they wanted told straight. For example, the scenes where Teresita learns to feel the life force in plants is exactly as it was taught, as it happened. As I say in the text, they told me, "You can teach the white people this. They should know this. Everybody should know this." They were very clear about things they wanted told and not told.

In some sense I meant it as a literary magical text. But also there's a real thread of this soul journey in there, and you can take it that way too. It goes to the far extreme, of course. The very New Age-y people can freak out. I was telling somebody that I've met about 15 reincarnated Teresitas now. I think, "How is that possible?"

Jill: All at the same time.

Urrea: Oh yes! [Laughter] Maybe in the afterlife, you go condo. You're like a warehouse, and they divide you up and make lofts out of your soul. There are people who believe they are her, and they dress like her, and it's really weird. Or people who see ghosts around me sometimes when I'm doing readings. What are you supposed to think about that? Either they are seeing ghosts or they aren't, and neither one of those makes me very comfortable. Either they're tripping out and seeing spirits, or I really do have ghosts. But I have to say, several times people have told me about this one particular woman they see around me, which is very interesting to me.

A lot of people come to me and tell me strange stories about hummingbirds. I've heard a hundred stories about hummingbirds, at least. They'll walk up and say, "I've got to talk to you. You're going to think I'm crazy, but listen to me." They tell me their story, and ask, "What does it mean?" I always tell them, "Trust the hummingbird. If there's a message there, it's up to you to read the message."

In the last two weeks, I had at least three, maybe four, people tell me that someone they loved just died, and while they were mourning, they looked up and there was a hummingbird hovering near them, watching. It gave them — not the creeps, but as my Cajun friends would say, the frisson.

There's a lot of that stuff. The Hummingbird's Daughter is about the sacredness of the day, every day of your life, not necessarily religion, but sacredness, and about the moments that are so holy in our lives. That's what I mean about shamanistic ritual. It reflects my own journey, and it wasn't fun. A lot of what happened to me to write that book was catastrophic and frightening. But I was really grateful at the end when I had done it.

Now I have to write the sequel, and I'm dragging my feet, because I don't want to go there again.

Jill: I don't have any mystical hummingbird stories, but I did see my first hummingbird of the season while I was reading The Hummingbird's Daughter in my backyard.

Urrea: If you were more cosmic, you'd be like "Whoa, there was a sign from God!" [Laughter]

Jill: It was unusually close to me, maybe only about a foot away. It was beautiful.

Urrea: To me, they're the best. To a lot of those northern tribes (they'd be southern, southwestern tribes on our side of the fence), the hummingbird is a very sacred little creature. If you think of sacredness markers, like the dove representing the Holy Spirit for us, you'll understand the hummingbird in more indigenous terms. I'm not speaking of all tribes, but of those tribes that I was close to, that my family takes part in, or that some of our teachers
belong to.

One of the characters in The Hummingbird's Daughter, Manuelito, the Chiricahua medicine man, is a real person. We went out and hung out with him in the desert, and he took on the role of our teacher. I didn't realize that he didn't read, and I got word from a friend that his wife read him the entire novel. He wanted me to know that I got the medicine right. That was great. He couldn't speak about whether it was a good novel or not, but I got the spirit right, and that was all that mattered to me.

I'm looking at Ursula Le Guin's signature there. [Editor's note: Her signature is on one of the canvases in our office that we have visiting authors sign.] She started my career. She was my great discoverer. My father was killed at the hands of the Mexican cops, while I was in my senior year of college, and I didn't know how to deal with that except through writing. I wrote a story about it, and she came to my college as a visiting professor in 1976 and '77, and she let me into her workshop. She accepted that story in mimeograph and put it in an anthology.

I did a recent writing conference in Bend, and she was there, and I was able to read it to her and then retire it. I said, "I'll never read it again, in honor of you." I had the mimeograph with me; I had found it in my old stuff. Le Guin said, "Let me see that mimeograph!" It had her old scrawls on it, her directives and comments. I handed it to her and she thumbed through it, and she handed it back and said, "Damn good story!" I said, "Thanks, Ursula." At a time when I was completely lost, she really stepped in for me.

She used to tell me, "The Northwest is for you. Portland is a city for you."

I spoke with Luis Alberto Urrea in our offices on June 3, 2009, before his reading at Powell's City of Books.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Devil's Highway: A True Story
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  2. The Hummingbird's Daughter
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  3. Into the Beautiful North
    Used Hardcover $11.50
  4. Nobody's Son: Notes from an American... New Trade Paper $15.95

  5. Heroine's Journey Used Trade Paper $4.95
  6. Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95



2 Responses to "Powells.com Interview: Luis Alberto Urrea"

  1.  
    John Saunders July 5th, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Thank you, Jill Owens, for taking the time to interview Luis Urrea. I have read your
    interview twice at my leisure and am pleased to have learned a few things about Luis and
    his work. The two of you must have hit it off. Luis is in a mood to be as sharing as
    I have ever imagined him to be. He is an extraordinary writer. The fact that Cindy
    encouraged him to develop his journalistic skills when he did research for "Devil's Highway"
    makes me grateful. The diversity of the Urrea work amazes me. The facts that you and Luis
    bring out in regard to Santa Teresa de Cabora fascinate. Shamans. Pain. Suffering. I know
    that Luis hesitates to return to the Teresita material. In some ways his suffering will
    be less on the sequel to "Hummingbird's Daughter". Kind of like when a mother goes
    into childbirth for the second time. In some ways Luis will have some idea of what to expect.
    Besides the sequel to "Hummingbird's Daughter" I am most curious about the book that Luis has
    written (and not yet published). I gather it's somehow or other about the Macho life of
    some people in San Diego. Possibly people that Luis knew during his high school days.
    And then the poetry. Luis the poet. In your interview you and Luis present an outstanding
    picture of Luis as a poet, writer *and* most of all as a loving human being. His comments
    on "Into The Beautiful North" are so helpful. The intermingling of all cultures. His idea of
    a love song to his two countries "Los Unaites" and la Republica Mexicana. And of course
    the idea of writing a series of books with each of the novel's characters as protagonist.
    I vote for Tia Irma, Atomiko, Tacho and all the others.
    I am touched by the story of Manuelito who had his wife read "Hummingbird's Daughter"
    to him to make sure that Luis got the spirit right. The best part is that Luis has learned
    to ask and listen. Women are moving forward. That is part of the magic of our century.

    Luis is such a generous and loving spirit. I feel that I know him better now that I have
    twice read your interview. You and Luis (and Cindy, of course) are the best!
    Thank you all for sharing. Sincerely, John Saunders

  2.  
    Jill Owens (Post Author) July 6th, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Thanks very much for the kind words, John. Meeting Luis and Cindy was a great pleasure; they are both absolutely lovely people. I had a wonderful time during the interview, and I feel lucky to have gotten to talk to Luis about his work.

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