- Biographical and Critical Essay
- Across the Wire
- In Search of Snow
- The Fever of Being
- Writings by the Author
- Further Readings about the Author
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- Frozen Moments (La Jolla: University of California at San Diego Print Co-Op, 1977).
- Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (New York: Anchor, 1993).
- In Search of Snow: A Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).
- The Fever of Being: Poems (Albuquerque: West End Press, 1994).
- By the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the Mexican Border (New York: Anchor, 1996).
- Ghost Sickness (El Paso: Cinco Puntos, 1997).
- Nobody's Son: Notes from an American Life (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998).
- Wandering Time: Western Notebooks (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999).
- Un Puño de Tierra/A Handful of Dust, San Diego, Teatro Máscara Mágica, 22 February 1991.
- "canción al final de un día de sombras," "la primavera nunca llega," and "prima," in Literatura Fronteriza: Antología del Primer Festival San Diego-Tijuana, Mayo 1981, edited by Alurista (San Diego: Maize Books, 1982), pp. 57-61.
- Fragmentos de Barro: The First Seven Years, edited by Urrea and González-T. (San Diego: Tolteca Publications, Centro Cultura de la Raza, 1987).
- "Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush," in Mirrors Beneath the Earth: Short Fiction by Chicano Writers, edited by Ray González (Willimantic, Conn.: Curbstone, 1992), pp. 301-311.
- "Down the Highway With Edward Abbey," in Resist Much, Obey Little: Remembering Ed Abbey, edited by James R. Hepworth and Gregory McNamee (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996).
- "None of Them Talks About Their Dreams," in The Late Great Mexican Border, edited by Bobby Byrd and Susannah Mississippi Byrd (El Paso: Cinco Puntos, 1996), pp. 64-79.
- A World of Turtles: A Literary Celebration, edited by Urrea and McNamee (Boulder, Colo.: Johnson, 1997).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS-- UNCOLLECTED
- "Wet Streets Shining," Vision Magazine (November 1978): 53-54, 56-57, 68.
- "Volcano Nights: 1. Gunrunners, 2. Carmen, 3. Volcano Nights" and "Living in the USA," Maize, 3 (Fall-Winter 1979-1980): 80-84.
- "Evidence of Life on Earth: Introduction," Imagine: International Chicano Poetry Journal, 2 (Winter 1985): vii-xviii.
- "Ring of Fire," Cedar Rock, 10 (Spring 1985): 12.
- "First Light," Long Story, 4 (Spring 1986): 147-172.
- "Here's the Dream," The Mind's Eye, 1 (September 1986): 43.
- "The Sunday Drive," Agni Review, 33 (Spring 1991): 50-52.
- "Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses," Blue Mesa Review, 4 (Spring 1992): 61-70.
- "I Tried to Write a Poem about This Once a Year for Thirteen Years," Agni Review, 35 (Fall 1992): 63-65.
Luis Alberto Urrea made a strong debut in 1993-1994 with two books brought out by mainstream commercial publishers. His sustained naturalism, exciting imagery, and confessional tone appear in a variety of genres, including essays, long and short fiction, poetry, and journalism. The themes he treats in his writing are also reflected in his graphic art. "My art work," he said of his collage and pen-and-ink pieces that appeared in the special Summer/Winter 1986 art issue of Tino Villanueva's Imagine: International Chicano Poetry Journal, "is a chronicle of a longing--perhaps for God, perhaps for shelter, I cannot say. Everybody there is looking for home."
The response to his work was immediate, affirmative, and sustained. The comments of writer and critic Arthur Salm in The San Diego Union-Tribune (17 April 1994) are typical. After calling for some improvement in the structure of Urrea's first novel, In Search of Snow (1994), Salm conceded that in the end, the author successfully makes everything come together "with a fine cataclysmic/comedic ending, even suggesting the possibility of The Further Adventures of Mike and Bobo in the only possible place left for them--California. They'd be most welcome, as would, come to think of it, just about anything from Luis Alberto Urrea, One Terrific Writer."
The painful events of his life, Urrea claims, have deeply affected his writing. In an unpublished 1993 autobiographical sketch he says that "most everything I write ends up being tragicomic. Even when I don't mean to, I often write the saddest comedies in town." He was born in Tijuana, Mexico, on 20 August 1955 and registered with the United States government as an "American Citizen Born Abroad." His mother, Phyllis Dashiell, was originally from Staten Island, New York; his father, Alberto Urrea Murray, was from Rosario, Sinaloa, Mexico. Both were educated people and were frustrated with their economic lot. Urrea was a sickly child; as an infant he contracted scarlet fever, German measles, and tuberculosis.
Because his parents commuted daily to San Diego, where his father worked in a tuna cannery and his mother in a department store, Urrea spent his days in the care of Mexican women; hence, the first language he spoke was Spanish. His mother did not speak Spanish, and according to family history he told relatives, "Mami está loca" (Mommy's crazy), because she would come home and make strange sounds--English--that sounded like babbling to him.
In 1958 the Urreas moved to the black and Mexican barrio of Logan Heights in south San Diego. Life there was violent and frightening, both outside and within their apartment. In his autobiographical sketch Urrea remembers his parents' marriage as "dreadfully painful and vindictive. The general tone of resentment and hysteria spilled over onto me." He was sexually abused by members of his extended family. He writes:
Life in our home was an emotional minefield. These are ghosts that haunt me to this day. I mention this in passing because it affects my writing. You will find these matters discussed overtly in my two books of poetry, The Fever of Being  and Ghost Sickness . They are also hugely evident in the narrative drive of In Search of Snow and, finally, in nonfictional form in Nobody's Son: Notes from an American Life . I suppose that these childhood pains even affected my writing of Across the Wire [: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, 1993]. Certainly, I have an eye for the pain of others.
His writings are, he says, "in some ways the scars of those things, and in others, their blossoming."
What Urrea refers to as the most enduring blessing of his childhood were the days he spent in the home of his godparents, Abelino and Rosario García, who are fictionalized in the final third of In Search of Snow and also appear in The Fever of Being. He says they made it possible for him to believe in love. "They gave me," he says, "the hope to continue." Because the boy had tuberculosis, it was a struggle for his parents to find anybody to care for him during the day. Abelino García worked with Urrea's father at the cannery and offered to take the boy into his home. Every morning Alberto Urrea dropped his son off with the García family and returned in the evening to take the boy home. Urrea recalls life in the cannery in his poem "La Tere Smelled of Fish":
Abelino García was the head of a household of women. There were the twins Quela and Fina and "La Nina," the ninety-eight-year-old María Moreno. "But the most important person on earth," Urrea says in his autobiographical sketch, was "Mamá Chayo, Rosario García, Abelino's wife and my godmother."
Urrea attributes his keen sense of the numinous to his godmother:
All I know of God and angels I know because of her. Not from preaching. I'm not even sure she wasn't still a pagan, for she was an Indian woman, pouchy in the belly and small of stature, with slanted cat-eye glasses and big flat feet that slapped the floor in decrepit slippers. She wore her hair in a braided bun at the back of her head, and once, when I saw it loose, it formed a curtain all across her shoulders and over her back.
All around the house grew herbs--telimón (lemon grass), canela (cinnamon), and yerba buena (mint). The Garcías used their herbal knowledge to cure Urrea and they used their wizardry in the kitchen to bring him back from the brink of malnourishment. "In this house," Urrea says, "I was healed."
Until he entered the first grade, Urrea spent every day with the Garcías. Afterward, he spent most of his weekends there, from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. He was always sent home with a multicourse supper cooked by the women and wrapped in soft white cotton cloths for his mother: "una cena pa' doña Filis (a little dinner for Mrs. Phyllis)."
Urrea attended a Catholic elementary school, St. Jude's Academy. When he was in the second grade, he decided to become a priest. His father, believing that a man who did not desire women was a homosexual, began a campaign of "toughening" in an attempt to break Urrea of this ambitious obsession. This boot- camp situation added to the stress of his early years.
In 1965, the family left the barrio and moved to Clairemont, then a predominantly white suburb. English became for him "a tool, music, anchor, and thought." Reminiscent of a character in the Chicano writer Arturo Islas 's novels who evolves from "Ricardo" to "Richard" and, finally, to "Dick" as he is assimilated by corporate America, Urrea was transformed into "Louis" or "Lou" in junior high and high school. No Anglos called him "Luis" until he entered the University of California at San Diego in 1973. The pronunciation of his name, he emphasizes, had a great impact on his sense of his identity.
As a senior at UCSD, Urrea took part in a writing workshop led by the science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin . For his senior thesis he wrote and illustrated a book of short fiction and poetry. Titled Frozen Moments, it appeared in 1977 in an edition of 1,500 copies, its publication paid for by a special grant from the university.
Urrea graduated from UCSD in 1977. The following year he began to work in Tijuana with "Pastor Von" (E. G. Von Treutzchler III) and a missionary group, Spectrum Ministries, based at Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church. Across the Wire grew out of these experiences. In 1978 he became a teacher's aide and tutor in the Chicano Studies department at San Diego Mesa College. There he began editing Fragmentos de Barro, a literary journal, with César A. González-T.
What Urrea calls his first publications of merit began at this time. The Chicano poet Alurista presented some of Urrea's poetry and artwork in a new journal, Maize. Urrea sold the poem "Father Returns from the Mountain" to Le Guin for Edges, her 1980 Pocket Books anthology, and was also publishing in such magazines and journals as Burnt Sienna, Hollywood Drama-Logue, Roadwork, and Vision Magazine.
In June 1982, Urrea accepted an offer to teach expository writing at Harvard. He had come, he reflected in an unpublished interview, from a dirt street in Tijuana "to teach English to the most powerful gringitos (little Yankees) in the country." Soon he was teaching creative writing in the summer sessions, as well. At Harvard, Urrea became friends with Villanueva, and they made the initial plans for Imagine over beers at a pizza parlor. Urrea served as associate editor from 1984 until he left New England in 1990. From 1986 to 1990 he taught and served as special assistant to the president at Massachusetts Bay Community College. He was married in 1987.
Urrea's father had died in 1977; when his mother died in 1990 he returned to California to settle her affairs. He began publishing fragments of Across the Wire, which had been rejected by every major publisher (by some of them twice), in the San Diego Reader. "The need to clarify for readers alien to each story," he explains, "served to distill the essential stories."
Urrea and his wife moved to Colorado in June 1991, separated in 1992, and divorced in 1993, the year Across the Wire was finally published by Anchor Books. The work successfully responds to the challenge of dealing with shocking material with compassionate detachment. While championing the cause of the poor, Urrea attains a narrative tone free of judgmental editorializing. The structure of the book is simple. He circles from the Tijuana city dump as it existed in the 1980s through the region and back to the dump. Each chapter is a self-contained account of events or a portrait of a person. In 1991 Urrea joined with the Chicano theater scholar and director Jorge Huerta and his Teatro Máscara Mágica to write, rehearse, stage, produce, and tour a full stage play in six weeks. The play, Un Puño de Tierra/A Handful of Dust, was directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela and based on the opening chapter of Across the Wire, "Sifting Through the Trash."
Urrea knew that in dealing with such poverty, crime, and disease he ran the risk of reinforcing negative stereotypes of Mexicans. "Still," he says in his autobiographical sketch, "the writer at some point has to trust his materials and his readers. It was my job to tell the stories with respect, and those who had the eyes to see would accept these people, would learn to see them perhaps with a little compassion."
In Search of Snow , Urrea's first novel, endured an initial fate similar to that of Across the Wire: it was rejected by a series of publishers (eighteen in this case). Urrea cut the manuscript by half and gave the first part new shape and depth, and HarperCollins published the work in 1994. The "snow" that protagonist Mike McGurk seeks is love. After the death of his mother, seven-year-old Mike drifts with his redneck, small-time boxer father, Texaco Turk McGurk, across the Southwest until Turk buys a gas station miles off the main highway northwest of Tucson. Years later, returned from World War II, Mike continues to work for his father until Turk dies of a heart attack in the mid 1950s after a final demonstration boxing brawl. Taking to the road, Mike encounters love in its varied forms: erotic and romantic love, love of place, love of God, love of ethnicity and race, fraternal love, and finally, the complex and intricate loves of a healthy and happy family, a fictionalized portrait of the García family that took Urrea in as a boy. Mike's pain is laid bare when he goes home with his friend Bobo and Mr. García, Bobo's father, limps out to meet them:
"M'ijo [my son]," the old man said, and stepped forward. They shook hands. Then Bobo threw his arms around his father in a fierce abrazo [embrace] that knocked the old man's hat off. And the old man twisted his face around and kissed Bobo on the cheek.
It was the kiss that did Mike in.
Tears filled his eyes. He couldn't hold them back. His eyes burned as the heartbreak overcame him. He sobbed, and it boomed in the cab of the truck, and they all turned to stare at him. . . . He heard himself saying "Tu-hur-hurk!" and "Mo-ho-hom!"
"Rraccatta-rraccatta," they were saying to him. Soft women's hands were laid on him.
"Pobrecito [poor little thing]," Mamá said.
Mike, like Urrea in his childhood, is nourished by the Garcías. Pots bubble "around and behind the tortilla pan. The smell of coffee, beans, and sauces fill the house." Even the Garcías' canaries, "pondering the sight of Mike first thing in the morning," smell like bread. Mike would have enjoyed keeling over right there at the table and being buried out under Mr. García's membrillo [quince] tree." His announcement that he wants to be a Mexican is "greeted with several translations and an outburst of joy."
Ray González , reviewing In Search of Snow in The Nation (18 July 1994), compares it to Rudolfo A. Anaya 's Bless Me, Ultima (1972) as frames or "bookends in the historical and psychic shape of the Mexican-American experience." He explains that these two novels demonstrate that "this literature is succeeding in encompassing the choices we have as a culture, as writers, and as a people coming from the same landscape to redefine our spiritual and familial needs." If Anaya's novel "represents the rich, psychic garden of regeneration," Urrea's "echoes the realistic, brutal turn off-course many Mexican-Americans feel they have taken as we coast into the next century." González praises Urrea's "flair for creating strong characters and bringing them alive in a blend of drama, slapstick comedy and cinematic technique." While he criticizes Urrea's "almost too short chapters" as reflecting a trend in current fiction that results in "short books that potentially have greater and deeper stories to tell than their structure allows," he adds that "Urrea has written a story that captures the development of the male psyche in this fractured time, and also shows how far Chicano writers have come and how much they have learned from Rudolfo Anaya ."
Urrea is part of a second generation of Chicano writers who, early in their careers, are enjoying the attention of mainstream publishers. Chicano literature has historically moved from barrio newspapers to the university presses and small Chicano publishing houses. Now, in the era of multiculturalism, there is money to be made, and commercial publishers are interested. Urrea, however, refuses to limit himself to marketable ethnic themes. Urrea insists that writers and scholars must develop an alternative literature that challenges the traditional canon.
The Fever of Being , Urrea's 1994 book of poems, which won the prestigious Western States Book Award before it was published, cannot be classified as Chicano poetry, though there are some barrio vignettes, and a classic elegiac Chicano quality is strongly in evidence. Several poems seem Mexican in nature, such as "Prima," "Sombra," and "Abelino García"; the rest are firmly in the modern American voice. In the long poem "Horses," which takes up the middle of The Fever of Being, Urrea fashions a lament for the American West; readers face the deaths of rivers, of the gunfighter Tom Horn, and of the Apache chief Geronimo. Regarding the rest of the text, Urrea explains in the 1993 autobiographical sketch:
Elsewhere, I write of the gradual death of my own family, of my childhood, and of an innocence I mourn even today. The epigraph that begins that book laments the loss of life while we have slept, so afraid of waking up. I sense the time beginning to rush, and I have not lived enough. This book comes bursting out of my troubled history.
Across the Wire was joined by another volume of essays, By the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the Mexican Border, in 1996. Carolyn Alessio, reviewing the book in the 15 December 1996 Chicago Tribune, called Urrea "an immersion journalist in the most literal and convincing form." Ghost Sickness, another book of poems, was published in 1997 and has been excerpted in The Best American Poetry (1996), edited by Adrienne Rich . Nobody's Son, Urrea's autobiography, appeared in 1998. Wandering Time: Western Notebooks (1999), is a book of nature writing that is deeply influenced by the Zen outlook of the Haiku poets Issa, Buson, Onitsura, and Basho.
Urrea's great-aunt, Teresita Urrea, "La Santa de Cabora" (The Saint of Cabora) who died in 1906 at age thirty-three, was a near-mythical curandera (healer) and miracle worker in Sonora and the American Southwest and came to be known as the "Queen of the Yaquis." Undergoing a resurgence in popularity and devotion among Chicanos, Native peoples, and what Urrea calls "New Age wannabe Indians" in the 1990s, Teresita is the subject of several years of research that he hopes to turn into an historical novel. He and his second wife, Cindy, an investigative reporter, have two children, Eric and Megan.
As Tom Auer, publisher of The Bloomsbury Review, has said, "Regardless of the form he chooses, Urrea writes beautifully and sensitively about difficult political and sociological issues on both sides of the U.S. and Mexican border." It is Luis Alberto Urrea's plan to continue to explore forms and genres as he moves farther away from the expected parameters of Chicano literature. "All I want to accomplish," he finally says, "is to know at the end of the day that I told the truth."
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- Tom Auer, "Young Writers to Watch," Bloomsbury Review (January/February 1997): 17.