Luis Alberto Urrea — What Borders Are Really About, and What We Do With Them

Krista Tippett, host: The fantastic author Luis Alberto Urrea says that a deep fact of our time is that “we miss each other.” We have this drive to erect obstacles between ourselves, and but this makes us slightly loopy. He’s the warmest and wisest — probably the most useful individual with whom I’ve contemplated the deep which means and the issue of borders — what they’re actually about, what we do with them. The Mexican-American border, as he likes to say, ran straight via his mother and father’ Mexican-American marriage and divorce. He was Luis to his Tijuanan-born father and Louis to his Philadelphian mom. His works of fiction and non-fiction confuse each dehumanizing caricature of Mexicans — and of U.S. border guards. The potential of our time, as he lives and witnesses together with his writing, is to evolve the previous melting pot to the 21st century richness of “us” — with all of the mess and mandatory humor required.

Luis Alberto Urrea: It’s ridiculous and, in some methods, a folly to say, “Can’t we all just get along?” However it’s the truest factor that I don’t perceive why we will’t.

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and that is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zöe Keating]

Ms. Tippett: I interviewed Luis Alberto Urrea within the St. Croix Valley on the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, on the invitation of ArtReach St. Croix. That group was studying his novel, Into the Lovely North, as a part of the NEA Huge Learn program.

Ms. Tippett: I’m delighted to be right here tonight with Luis Alberto Urrea. He has revealed in almost each style. He’s written nonfiction, memoir, brief tales, and poetry. He’s written historic novels; his historic novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is predicated on the story of his father’s Aunt Teresa — is that right? That’s that guide?

Mr. Urrea: My great-great-aunt.

Ms. Tippett: Nice-aunt, often known as the “Mexican Joan of Arc,” [laughs] a Mexican mystic people healer and revolutionary rebel. And I’ve to say, you’ve an inordinate variety of characters like that in your loved ones.

Mr. Urrea: I do.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] So, we might go on. He’s even written an award-winning thriller story, and so, not surprisingly, has been referred to as a “literary badass,” [laughter] which we in all probability can’t say on public radio. I see, in your individual, one other high quality that isn’t fairly so attractive, however in our international second is so pressing and, I feel, so vividly desired and wanted, and that’s that you’re a bridge individual. Right here’s one thing Luis Alberto Urrea likes to say: “There is no them. There is only us.”


So how would you begin to consider what’s the religious imprint on you, or maybe the religious work that that left in you for the remainder of your life, straddling a border like that in your individual, from the very starting of your life?

Mr. Urrea: A few issues: I used to be — I don’t know why, however I’ve all the time been God-crazy.

I’ve been drawn towards regardless of the cosmic mysteries are, from boyhood on, to my father’s chagrin. Despite the fact that he was Mexican, he was not pro-clerical in any method, [laughs] and he didn’t like church, and he didn’t like faith. I don’t know why I beloved the idea of God a lot; maybe that I, even then, wanted some type of transcendence, some type of hope as a result of issues have been a bit tough. And truthfully, again in these days — I’ll reveal myself slightly bit right here, however again in these days, within the early ’60s once I was there, it was a special Catholic church than now. There was a number of grimness. There have been definitely no people plenty. It wasn’t even in English but, once I was a child.

And the nuns would terrorize us with these superb tales. They’d say, “Well, what are you going to do when the communists take over the country?” And we’d be like, “We’re gonna stand up for Jesus.”


She’d say, “Are you? Are you really? So when they come to torture you, what are you going to do?” “We’re going to not renounce Jesus!” And she or he’d say, “When they’re tearing flesh off your back with hooks, then? Then? Will you stand for Jesus?” And we’re like, “Uh…yeah.”


And within the midst of that, a Franciscan friar got here to my faculty, full robes, and he was laughing. And he was enjoying with the youngsters. And I feel that was the second once I thought, “Oh, that’s what Jesus is about. That guy.” And so it was an prompt and ultimately cutting-of-the-cord of all the normal stuff and leaping into some infantile mysticism. However I’ve all the time had that second in my coronary heart, of seeing that man and his laughter, and I assumed, “Oh, that’s what I want God to be.” And so, God has all the time felt like my companion in every part.

However critics typically determine me as this political author, and I say, no, I’m extra within the soul’s journey. First, you need to admit, sure, we’ve got a soul. Lots of people don’t need to go there. However I discover the sacred in virtually every thing.

Ms. Tippett: I feel that’s not unconnected to one thing Ursula Le Guin stated to you, who was a instructor to you and…

Mr. Urrea: She was my discoverer.

Ms. Tippett: …your discoverer.

Mr. Urrea: She began my profession.

Ms. Tippett: You report, this was one thing she stated, I consider, in a category: “We writers are the raw nerve of the universe. Our job is to go out and feel things for people, then to come back and tell them how it feels to be alive. Because they are numb. Because we have forgotten.” You exit to really feel issues concerning the boundaries between people and the borders we construct between ourselves; particularly, the U.S.-Mexican border. And the again and the forth of it, actually, has been there all through your life, in addition to your writing. So, as you stated, you have been born in Tijuana. You moved to the U.S. at a younger age. You have been ending school on this aspect of the border. After which, within the yr of your commencement, when your father was on a visit on the opposite aspect of the border, he was killed. And that’s clearly a horrible a part of your story.

Mr. Urrea: The journey was actually fascinating for me, as a result of I went to school. I used to be the primary to go to school in my household, as a result of my mother and father pushed me. And thank goodness for that. And in my senior yr, being my father’s first youngster — he had different — my dad was a standard Mexican man. He had households.


However I used to be the one one on this household. And since I used to be the primary, he needed to get me a commencement present. So, he drove into his hometown — 27 hours — and he retrieved cash for me as a commencement present. And he drove again 27 hours and was caught by dangerous Mexican cops, and he died. And it was not good. After which, they wouldn’t let me bury him. They made me purchase him. I used to be 20 years previous, not prepared, so I purchased my dad.

And that ended every little thing for us. We have been utterly destitute. My brothers and I took up a set to bury him. We buried him in an unmarked grave in Tijuana. However then, in steps Le Guin, who — I had written a narrative about that, and she took me in when she learn it, and she revealed it. It was my first sale. So, in some methods, that sacrifice launched every thing that’s significant.

Ms. Tippett: Nicely, it additionally appears to have led you — it might be shocking to somebody that what you probably did subsequent, at 20, after that had occurred to you, is that you simply truly went again to Mexico.

Mr. Urrea: I did.

Ms. Tippett: And typically it will get described as “relief work,” however I feel it was extra missionary work, proper?

Mr. Urrea: I used to be preachin’ the gospel!

Ms. Tippett: And Vaughn.

Mr. Urrea: Pastor Vaughn.

Ms. Tippett: Pastor Vaughn, who you additionally intriguingly describe as a “Zen Baptist.”

Mr. Urrea: Yeah, not a Zen Buddhist, a Zen Baptist: Pastor Vaughn. He was large. After the occasions with my dad, I used to be on the lookout for some which means on the earth. And pals of mine urged me to go meet Pastor Vaughn. He was fairly well-known in San Diego. He was a celebrity preacher and had a really deep voice, a resonant voice, and an enormous black mustache. They usually stated, “He goes to Tijuana to feed the poor.” And I used to be like, “Pssh. Some Baptist gringo is not gonna teach me about — I am Tijuana, man. I am the terror of Tijuana.”


And naturally, I went, and he instantly took me to issues I had by no means seen in my life.

However one of many issues, the primary night time we went — as a result of I turned his translator, so I translated each one among his bible research for a few years, all of his preaching. However I additionally needed to negotiate communication with everyone, and that meant seeing terrible issues. And it actually helped me as a author as a result of I understood that I had the present of chatting with individuals, however I needed to train the self-discipline of listening to individuals, as a result of if I wasn’t listening, I might inform somebody the incorrect factor. And I needed to do medical exams with American docs. I needed to see injured and wounded individuals. I needed to see individuals buried, and so forth. So these issues ignited in me the will to bear witness.

Ms. Tippett: Sure. And there’s a narrative that you simply inform a few specific man who stated he was born in a rubbish dump — “spent my entire life picking trash.”

Mr. Urrea: Why, Krista, you went in deep, didn’t you.

Ms. Tippett: Sure. [laughs]

Mr. Urrea: Yeah, I haven’t advised that in a very long time. We would rove throughout northern Baja, California, into the hills, and there have been lots of orphanages and all types of fascinating locations within the backcountry. And I used to be preserving my journal notes, and this gentleman was strolling by, and I used to be writing in my pocket book, and he was taking a look at me. He was utterly coated in adobe, and he was singed and black with cinders. He had a handkerchief tied on his head and a stick. And he came to visit, and he stated, “Oye, what are you doing?” I stated, “I’m writing in my journal.” He stated, “Huh, that’s good. What’s a journal?” I stated, “It’s like a diary.” “Oh, yeah? What’s a diary?”


I stated, “Look, it’s a blank book, and you write stuff.” And he stated, “Write what?” And I stated, “What I see, what I’m doing, keeping a record.” And he stated, “You writing about this place?” And I stated, yeah. And he stated, “You writing about these people?” I stated, yeah. And he stated, “You writing about me?” And I stated, “Probably will.” And he checked out me — I’ve described it elsewhere as that second if you’re round anyone, and you don’t know in the event that they’re gonna hug you or hit you.

Maybe in the event you’re out consuming or one thing, and that individual smiles just a little and leans again. And I assumed, “Uh-oh, what’s…” And he got here again, and he stated what you stated, “That’s good. That’s good. Write it down. Write about me,” he stated, “because I was born in the trash. I spent my life picking trash. When I die, they’re gonna bury me in the trash.” He stated, “You tell them, I was here.”

I used to be like, “wow, yes.” You understand callow youth; I didn’t fairly perceive, I don’t assume, the depth of what he had stated to me. Nevertheless it resonated eternally.

Ms. Tippett: And I feel it’s essential, additionally, proper right here, to level out that you simply write concerning the fullness of what it’s to be Mexican.

Mr. Urrea: Nicely, yeah. We rule.

Ms. Tippett: And it’s not all poverty, and it’s additionally, as you say, it’s not like everyone in Mexico is dying to get to the U.S., which is a story that’s very robust in the meanwhile. So that you draw out these layers of complexity, which additionally consists of magnificence and whimsy and all of the issues that occur in life. And one of many belongings you write about very convincingly — you don’t simply write about it, you reside it convincingly — you say, “Mexico is the true melting pot.” You’re the dwelling, respiration embodiment of that.

Mr. Urrea: Yeah, take a look at us. We have Apaches in our household, Yaqui indigenous individuals; in fact, the Murrays…


Ms. Tippett: My kin…

Mr. Urrea: We have Chinese language — huh?

Ms. Tippett: That’s the place our strains cross.

Mr. Urrea: Oh, actually?

Ms. Tippett: Properly, yeah.

Mr. Urrea: Oh, we’re cousins.

Ms. Tippett: We’re cousins, yeah.


Mr. Urrea: And Urrea just isn’t a Mexican identify, it’s Basque. My grandfather was Basque, and in Basque, it means “golden man; man of gold.” So in different phrases, bubba wanting, as soon as once more. After which we’ve Chinese language Urreas, the Wong household, Wong Urreas. And lately, I met a bunch of Samoans. So I assumed, ah, my Samoan cousins. How cool is that?

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] And it goes all the best way again to, what, the Visigoth invaders of Iberia?

Mr. Urrea: Properly, you realize. Once I was researching Hummingbird’s Daughter, I used to be — my household’s all the time been actually thrilled that in Don Quixote, Don Quixote mentions the Urrea household. And he says, “You know, I am not a powerful man like the Urreas of Galicia.” And so, we’ve been going out to lunch on that for about 500 years.


[music: “Cottontops” by Huma-Huma]

Ms. Tippett: I am Krista Tippett and that is On Being. Immediately, with grasp storyteller — author Luis Alberto Urrea.

Ms. Tippett: You level out some fascinating issues about language, and how our vocabulary is filled with borrowed phrases. I feel that’s necessary and fascinating, additionally, as a result of the insistence that Spanish-speaking People have on talking Spanish seems like one thing new, I feel, on this melting-pot tradition.

I’m unsure that’s proper; I’m wondering, if we might return 100 years, if we might discover that the Germans have been nonetheless talking German, and no matter.

Mr. Urrea: All you must do is go into the North Finish in Boston, and individuals are talking Italian. Amongst your people, you do.

Ms. Tippett: You additionally say, “English! It’s made up of all these untidy words, man, have you noticed? Native American (skunk), German (waltz), Danish (twerp), Latin (adolescent), Scottish (feckless)” on and on. “It’s a glorious wreck (a good old Viking word, that). Glorious, I say, in all its shambling, mutable beauty. People daily speak a quilt work of words, and continents and nations and tribes and even enemies dance all over your mouth when you speak.”


Mr. Urrea: Why, thanks. Nicely, it’s true. I don’t fairly comprehend the necessity for insult, the necessity for paranoia and aggression. I perceive; I’m listening to all this new scientific speak, explaining how, in fact, the thoughts is tribal, and we bond with our tribes, and we’re terrified of the stranger, and so forth. However there’s a specific tide of it in the USA, and it’s been right here for an awfully very long time. And I feel I obtained a bit politicized when individuals began — properly, I did once I was a child, once they began calling me “greaser,” “wetback,” “taco bender,” “beaner,” all these things, which was a shock to me, and began telling me that all the things dangerous was Mexican, all the things filthy — as a result of truthfully, till fifth grade, everybody I revered was Mexican, and abruptly, in fifth grade, you’re advised they’re all scum, invaders. I assumed, what? It’s no accident to me that in fifth grade I misplaced my Mexican accent and began talking like my mom. I didn’t imply to, however I wasn’t — I used to be in full-on survival mode, as a result of I didn’t perceive what had simply occurred. And I feel that bafflement sticks with me to this present day, and I don’t perceive.

As a instructor, I train in Chicago, and I watch college students worry one another. I come into a category, and African-American college students are on one aspect, and white college students are on the opposite aspect. Or I come into a category, and there’ll be two younger women with the hijab, and nobody will sit close to them. There’s an empty arc of seats round them. And so I’m all the time looking for methods to cease this stuff, as a result of it solely takes this a lot, I feel, for us to see one another, know one another, and then, love one another. And that’s what’s so harmful. That’s very harmful.

So one among my writing guidelines with my college students, which I exploit on a regular basis — and it’s why the books are so comedic in locations — is, I all the time inform the scholars that laughter is the virus that infects you with humanity. And in the event you sit with anyone and chuckle — not at them, however chuckle with them wholeheartedly, how on the planet are you able to rise up from that desk and say, “Pssh, those people.” You’ll be able to’t. And in the event you’ve laughed with them, you’re going to cry with them too. That laughter is a really harmful portal for humanity.

Ms. Tippett: And also you’ve written lately about going to go to the Otay Mesa border crossing to see the wall in progress. And I really like — one factor that you simply do is, you simply plant that place in its historical past of 12,000 years of being inhabited by…

Mr. Urrea: The Kumeyaay.

Ms. Tippett: …Kumeyaay Indians. That additionally softens one thing, seeing that sweep of time.

Mr. Urrea: Yeah, it’s been on my thoughts for a few years. When the immigration situation caught up with me after a few books, and I used to be speaking about it, individuals can be actually offended and upset with me. And I might all the time get the identical response: “My family, sure, they were immigrants. But we did it legally, unlike you guys. We had papers.” And so I began being a jerk and saying, “Who checked them, Geronimo?


“Crazy Horse stamped the papers?”