Luis Alberto Urrea, 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss, and triumph. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, he is the author of fourteen books and has won numerous awards for his fiction, poetry, and essays.
I had the pleasure of meeting Urrea at the Tin House Writers Workshop, where he was working as an instructor. When it came time for his faculty reading, he stood at the podium and told us about the storytellers in his family who had come before him, people like his Aunt Flaca, who used to sit around the campfire and scare the crap out of him before Christmas. Then he took a galley of his upcoming novel, Queen of America (Little, Brown), threw it on the ground, and proceeded to act out an entire chapter. The performance made me cry. It was a great gift. Through both his work and his words, Urrea encouraged me to put down the microscope of compare and despair and instead pick up the mirror.
Shortly after the publication of Queen of America, he agreed to be interviewed by me for The Nervous Breakdown.
Let’s talk about language. As a writer, I often get the note to ‘trust my reader.’ By this I mean: sometimes I’m redundant and give my reader too much information. When you write in Spanglish, for example, you’re really trusting your reader’s grasp of language. Or is it not a matter of trust, per sé, but simply a desire to keep certain words for their lyricism or lack of suitable English counterparts?
It’s a combination of both. In The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America, the trick was to write in English that felt like Spanish. And you want to save the music. And you want to trust your readers. That being said, I insert the definition in the surrounding prose so that full-contact readers get it. Still, in something like Into the Beautiful North, the language(s) work as part of the disorienting experiences. We are lost in levels of slang, culture, internet speak, Evangelical speak, U.S. slang, cholo slang, classical Spanish. It’s a Blade Runner world, and we are in it.
I’ve been craving this kind of working class narrative. It seems that the right has mastered its pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps narrative. I cringe at all the hubbub around The Tea Party’s love of Fountainhead and know that the people’s story is stronger, richer, more colorful, more loving. Do you intentionally incorporate class-consciousness into your work?
I love the Christian Right’s embrace of Ayn Rand, an atheist sexual adventurer whose Objectivism is the purest definition of classic (non-boogeyman) Satanism I have ever read. Oops—joke’s on them. Class…yes. I am from the crushed classes. Still, I’ve had it much easier than the garbage-dump workers I’ve known. Even the Border Patrol in Devil’s Highway knew which way my heart leaned. It’s not political. It’s about the human spirit.
There are some incredibly strong themes in The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America. One is fatherhood, the difficulty of being a father. The protagonist of both books, Teresita Urrea, is deemed the Saint of Caborra. Meanwhile her father, Don Tomas Urrea, is often confronted with the conflicting desires of wanting to protect his daughter as well as allow her to do her work and be of service.
I think it’s very hard for those not attuned to the indigenous medicine-world, or the Christian (or to be specific, the Jesuit-trained Catholicism of the Mexican desert lands) view, to deal with its irruption. Christ’s old words of coming to bring war are true in the sense that holiness—sacredness—blows things up. Man, it’s no fun to be a saint. It’s worse to be her dad!
I have a brother-in-law. He’s French-Israeli and served in the Israeli army. He has lots of ideas of how boys should be. His son is magical. He was born liking pretty. He likes dresses and to be called Alice and forces my brother-in-law to stare at his chief character defect of machismoism. It seems it is always this way, no? Children are magnifying glasses for our defects of character.
Children sometimes express what we hide in ourselves. My dad thought I wasn’t macho enough, either. When I was 14, he took me to deep Mexico, then left me there with my cousins. But here’s how you can’t win with parents’ expectations: he thought I wasn’t “manly” enough—a goody-goody type; but he also accused me of being a libertine. Me with my Led Zep and Beatles and hair and BEADS. No girl could be trusted! Dang it. I was both extremes of manhood at once. What do you think? I think he was trying to control each side of himself. Perhaps your brother-in-law should try pretty and see how it works out for him. He can keep his gun on.
I love this line from Queen of America: “He was struck mute with the silence of every father of every daughter, that moment when the words cannot come, and what wanted to be said would forever remain silent.”
Well, you’re a gal. You know how it is with dads. Last night, we took the new boyfriend out to dinner and watched romantic comedies with him and our blushing daughter. What can dad say? I bought the kid a jar of pickled pigs’ feet for Christmas. She was appalled, but he cracked up.
When reading both The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America, I thought of the loneliness of intelligence. Whether it be a spiritual intelligence, or an emotional intelligence, or academic intelligence, it seems to be something that can isolate people. And I think you exhibit this in Teresa, although at the same time you show that in nature she doesn’t feel lonely.
The sacredness that befell her was a visitation—it was an avalanche. And the followers who came were invaders. I honestly believed she would have loved to have spent her life in the woods somewhere, talking to ducks. Or maybe that’s what I want. She’s a cowgirl—on a steel horse she rides! I think she was a rock star, and that’s a lonely life. I can’t quite fathom the otherworldly aspects. Though I will say the shamans, medicine-people and healers I met, were all sociable and fun people.
I also feel like she has this overwhelming sense of responsibility. It reminds me of how a small child might think she is responsible for her parents’ divorce. Toward the end, Teresa feels like she ruined a lot of the things she got close to, which is ironic because she’s a healer.
The holiest man I know—the man who got me into the rescue and relief work in Tijuana—saved thousands of lives, affected hundreds of thousands of lives. And he cheerfully destroyed the lives of many of his followers and workers. When you have your eye on the BIG PICTURE, those holding up the frame get trampled. Look at what happened to Teresita with Lauro Aguirre.
The other conflict you deal with so beautifully is the one between politics and spirituality.
For me, politics and spirituality are intertwined. Notice I didn’t say “religion.”
Queen of America and The Hummingbird’s Daughter blend the two most important principles of my life: politics and faith. I’m thinking in particular of the character Huila, the old shaman, who says: “This is how Heaven works. They’re practical. We are always looking for rays of light. For lightning bolts or burning bushes. But God is a worker, like us. He made the world—He didn’t hire poor Indios to build it for him! God has workers’ hands. Just remember—angels carry no harps. Angels carry hammers.”
Haha. Yes. God has a worker’s hands. Um, a li’l political dig.
There was also this passage in Queen of America which reminded me of Steinbeck:
“He, of course, had revolution on his mind. The rail strike was looming. Mexican rail workers were trying to join the union, and the railroad had brought in union busters. Goons! To assault and beat these paisanos. He told these tales in hushed tones lest the railroad employees overheard him and threw him off the train.”
Aw, shucks. Steinbeck! I’ll take it, though I don’t deserve it. When you’re working on what is at least in part an historical novel, one inherits the history. So you have to make the weird turns of history make sense. They don’t, by the way. I think history makes less sense than myth or folklore—which is why legends and ghost stories outlast reports. These speak to the deep self. The soul. We don’t live in a place, we live in a story. Still, for that story to work, it has to make sense on a profound soul-level. So context, context, context. But don’t forget the talking hummingbirds.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the role of empathy in the creative arts, and how that empathy might translate into politics—and progressive politics in particular.
Empathy. Indeed. Ursula Le Guin once told me that we writers are the raw nerve of the universe—that we’re paid to go out and feel it all and bring back a report for the numb citizens in the hive. I’m just doing a honeybee-dance to tell the other worker-bees where the pollen’s at. Still, I think lots of fiction is actually fairly conservative. Stephen King has stated this before. The status quo is disrupted, sometimes horribly, and we struggle to maintain or reclaim order. Save what’s left of the family so we can live, love, eat, laugh again. I’ve never voted Republican, but I love my Republican readers. Why? We are all human.
I think it was you who said that poor people tell good stories because poor people have no shame. That shame is a rich person’s tool.
Oh, poor people have plenty of shame. They feel shame when they compare themselves to rich people.
You once had tuberculosis. I was infected with tuberculosis, too. It’s funny because I’m only reminded of it around the holidays, or whenever I try to do something charitable and work around the homeless. I’m forced to get tested because TB is ‘a homeless person’s disease.’
Yes. TB, poverty, Tijuana, gang-related death is in the family, ghetto horrors. You name it. I’m not supposed to talk about it. Why not? Look, if you’re lost in hopelessness like I was, up all night consumed by The Fear, those Charlie Mansons of the night creepy-crawling your spine and whispering that you will die of despair in your fetid little house, you hear how deeply screwed up my world was. And you think: hey, he’s all right [now]. I can survive this. And maybe you’ll write one more poem. And I had it easy. Go to any homeless shelter to meet someone who can show you more strength.
I especially appreciate that Teresita, this Saint of Cabora, has this completely fallible mortal experience of having bad taste in lovers. I often feel like I see this: an exceptional person coupled with a work-in-progress. In your research, did you find that this was consistent with the true-life tastes of your great aunt Teresa, on whom this saga was based?
All I can say is that she did what she did. She wouldn’t be the first person to love the wrong mate. A good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin’ man. Isn’t that the song? Hell—I was married before my ownself. BUZZER SOUNDS. RED LIGHT FLASHES FORFEIT. Besides, what saint wouldn’t fall for dangerous men who could be heavy metal singers or cowboys? When shame finally consumes her, the Beyond sends a bracing message to cut the crap.
I knew this Cuban woman, Maria, who lived in Venice Beach. She carried a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of peroxide around with her. She said she bathed in the peroxide (this was before Purell), and that was why she never got sick. Before she was homeless, she was a nurse. The people on the streets came to her whenever they needed doctoring. She wore pale pink lipstick and a tutu over tights, like Madonna (the singer, not the virgin). She didn’t identify as homeless. She said she was free. In a way she was a Teresita to me. She made me sad and she made me happy. You’ve mentioned in your afterward that you’ve met more than half a dozen reincarnated Teresitas. Could you describe one to me?
Alternative medicine people are suggesting hydrogen peroxide melts cancer tumors, by the way. Oh, yes—I have met people who dress up like her. I have met women who channel her and speak to me in “her” voice. When I kick the bucket, if I’m lucky, there’ll be some denizen of South Tucson cantinas who “is” me.