Story and Illustrations by Eric Nishimoto
The woman arrives carefully coifed and brightly pink-faced. Just another enthusiastic fan. But the blonde’s veneer soon cracks. “You’re wrong!” she starts yelling. “You don’t understand the damage you’re doing here. You’re causing divisiveness and damage and it’s not about banning books!”
Luis Alberto Urrea, bestselling author and Pulitzer finalist, stands stunned. Just a half-hour earlier, in this Tucson ballroom, hundreds of dinner guests had given him a standing ovation. Now the woman’s accusations echo in the nearly empty room. Luis’ signature humor and warmth start to slip; his initial surprise turns to anger. The few people milling about know this woman, a Tucson school district employee. They roll their eyes and shrug her off, trying to ignore her.
Luis blows up.
“Look,” he snarls, towering over her. “So you take a child’s books away, and put them in a box, and tape it up, and no one can touch them.” His usually smiling eyes are wide with anger now. “That’s not a banning, right? So what do you call that? Is that a soft banning?
“A soft banning ... is that what you call it?” Luis repeats for emphasis.
Whap! He is like the Zen monk smacking a student on the head with a stick to encourage insight.
“I’m here trying to make peace,” he fumes. “There are going to be people, I promise you, that are going to be angry at me for not throwing Molotov cocktails at you tonight. But you’re going to shit when the librotraficantes from Texas get here next week … because they’re not going to care how you feel.” Whap!
“I understand it’s not really about books. Those children have been caught between two ideologies and crushed,” he fumes. “But I hate it when bullies kick kids around because the kids have nobody to defend them ... so we’re defending them!” Whap!
The woman, taken aback, protests. “It’s not about the books, it’s about the Mexicans – Mexican studies!” she says, stumbling as she crawls out of the Freudian slip.
“You’re so right,” Luis scornfully responds. “It’s about the Mexicans. Yeah ... Shakespeare in brown hands is really dangerous, right?” Whap!
“But I’m such a fan of yours,” she mewls, fading away into the vastness of the vacant ballroom.
Luis is in Arizona for the annual Tucson Festival of Books, a two-day bibliofest of 400-plus authors drawing more than 100,000 readers. He is a fixture at the festival, a favorite son who used to live here and whose Mexican ancestors settled in the dusty expanses not far from town. A day after his standing ovation and his dressing down, he recounts the ballroom scene, still perturbed but forgiving about the woman. But the Tucson Unified School District will not get off so easy. The Arizona Legislature started the fight by cutting funding to minority studies throughout the state. Tucson compounded the insult by kneejerking Urrea and Shakespeare – among others – out of its classrooms. No books were really banned, the district protested, just boxed up and put away (with copies for school libraries). Except Luis’ books weren’t on the official banned list … er, boxed list … yet five of his books were also taken out of the children’s hands and, well, boxed. Now, sedition is in the air at the festival: There are rumblings about a caravan of taco trucks filled with banned books and protesters – librotraficantes, or book traffickers – driving in from Texas to “smuggle” the boxed-up books back into the hands of Tucson’s youth. All day long, even minutes before his keynote, fans and organizers alike plead with Luis to stand up and protest, or to beseech protesters to stand down and not disrupt the festival. You’ve got to do something! Do something tonight. Help us!
Born poor in Tijuana and raised poor in Southern California, a half-breed son of a Mexican father and American mother, Luis has always straddled two worlds. Now, at the height of his literary prowess, with 14 books behind him, hailed as a genre-bending author who mixes poetry, fiction and memoir with nonfiction, he finds himself typecast in a role he no longer wants. “They call me ‘the voice of the border,’” he says, sighing. “But do I want to be? No.” Luis wants to build bridges, not burn them down. He wants out of the divisive politics. He’s assimilated. He wants to move on, to explore the world’s magical mysteries and his “Japanese haiku/wabi-sabi proclivities” as he calls it in his blog. To be just a writer again, not a lightning rod. When he writes about alienation, he writes to heal, to break down boundaries.
Chicanos devour his prose, with its grim and humorous descriptions of cultural truth, but his audience is diverse. The Pulitzer Prize committee, not surprisingly, tapped The Devil’s Highway, a true story of immigrants abandoned in the Arizona desert to die, as a finalist. But then the U.S. Border Patrol, not considered border-crosser friendly, made it required reading in its training academy. Luis, like a literary migrant, writes across so many genres, it’s hard to keep track of his audiences: There’s an American Book Award for Nobody’s Son (a memoir of growing up as a half-breed border rat), the Christopher Award for Across the Wire (his first nonfiction book about border life), a Western States Book Award for The Fever of Being (a bilingual collection of poems about his life), the Small-Press Book of the Year for Six Kinds of Sky (a collection of genre-bending short stories) and an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the short story “Amapola.” For The Hummingbird’s Daughter, his breakout novel/memoir about his great aunt, a famous healer on both sides of the border, he won the Kiriyama Prize, awarded to one writer who fosters greater understanding of cultures. His sequel, Queen of America, is just out. There are no borders for him as a writer: nonfiction, fiction, memoir or poetry. To him, it’s all about story, not genre. So where does he belong?
A 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and critically acclaimed author of 14 books including The Devil's Highway, The Hummingbird's Daughter and Queen of America. Here he is interviewed following his keynote address at the 2012 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.
“First, to answer the burning question on everybody’s mind ...”
Luis is standing before a crowd at Southern Methodist University in Dallas earlier this year. The room hushes in anticipation of something on the Tucson book “banning,” which had just become news. “Which is, why do I look Irish?” he says, grinning. The crowd chuckles.
It is funny to hear perfect street Spanish pouring out of a redheaded, freckle-faced guy. (Vato – Mexican slang for dude – just doesn’t seem to fit him.) He speaks fondly and reverently about his mom and dad. Alberto and Phyllis Urrea were educated and worldly people. Phyllis, with her refined upbringing in Virginia, patriotically volunteered with the Red Cross in Europe to support the U.S. Army during World War II. She was one of the first Americans into the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Alberto was a Mexican Army officer attached to Mexico’s president until he was forced to leave his post and the military. To find work, he migrated with his young family up to the “Jewel of the Border,” as Luis calls it – Tijuana – where he was born in a clinic above a drugstore. Soon, they migrated again, across the border to Southern California. His proud father became a bowling alley janitor. As Luis tells it, “He came here, got a green card and became a beaner.”
His American mother always called him “Lewis.” His Mexican father insisted on “Luís.”
There has always been a border in his life, the one dividing his two countries, the one dividing his home. His American mother always called him “Lewis.” His Mexican father insisted on “Luís.” He was never American enough for his mother, nor Mexican enough for his father. He learned to live with shame – the shame of being poor, the shame of his Tijuana roots, the shame of being weak from the tuberculosis that almost killed him as a child, from the paratyphoid fever that nearly killed him later, even his nearsightedness. All were weaknesses that destroyed his machismo in his father’s eyes. School was no better. “The nuns beat my ass with yardsticks,” he says, “and the homies did it with fists.” By the time Luis was 12, his parents — beaten down by unexpected poverty and the banality of their lives, hating what the other represented — divorced.
What saved him, he says, were the stories, the ones his mother read to him, the ones his father told him or made up to explain life’s mysteries, the crazy ones he heard from family about their ancestors, stories told by his aunt La Flaca (The Skinny One) to scare the living crap out of him. In high school, he discovered writing. Storytelling helped him hurdle the fences in his life, in his identity. He was the first in his family to graduate from college at the University of California, San Diego, which prepared him for ... nothing. Despite his degree (in writing), he hung out and worked various jobs, from the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven to movie extra and cartoonist for a short-lived nudie magazine.
Then the cosmic tumblers started falling into place and his writing began to get noticed: In 1980, Ursula Le Guin chose one of Luis’ short stories to include in her Edges anthology. Cesar Gonzalez, a professor at San Diego Mesa College, took Luis off the streets and made him a teaching assistant in Chicano studies. At age 25, Luis finally began learning grammar, punctuation – and the rules of writing. Then he met Pastor Von, who would lure Luis back to Tijuana.
Von worked in the mission field, tending to Tijuana’s destitute, something he still does today in his late 80s. With Pastor Von, Luis saw another side of Tijuana, one he had never experienced before, even growing up there. Luis started working in the garbage dump, up to his knees in the filth and the stink of burning horse carcasses and the utter hopelessness of those who lived – and worked – there. He began to keep a journal.
One day, a man – black from oil and dirt and the trash he picked – found Luis writing.
“Are you writing about this place? Are you writing about me?” the trash picker asked.
“I suppose I will now,” answered Luis.
“Is anybody going to read this?” the man asked.
“I hope so.”
“That’s good,” the man told Luis. “You write about me. I was born in the garbage dump – I’ve spent my life picking garbage – and when I die, they’ll bury me in the garbage.
"So you tell them I was here.”
Luis calls it his Damascus Road, the moment when he realized he had a higher calling to tell the stories of the border and its people. “My whole life here is learning to listen,” says Luis. “And telling the story as deeply and honestly as possible.” He would stay in Tijuana, first washing the feet of the garbage pickers, then translating for Pastor Von.
After two years of watching the daily tragedies unfold, unable to cope anymore, Luis wrote to a former professor asking for a job, expecting nothing more than being a janitor. The professor had moved to Harvard University, and he managed to find something for Luis – just not a job behind a broom. In Boston, Luis would teach expository writing and fiction workshops – a reversal of fortune that caused one family member to quip: “He’s gone from frijoles to baked beans!”
But Luis discovered he couldn’t leave the border behind. After Harvard, he spent 10 years writing and trying to get publishers interested in Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, a nightmarish look at border life, from the trash pickers who live off the rejects of the well-to-do to the U.S. Border Patrol who go “people-hunting” at night in aircraft out of a sci-fi novel. “The border,” says Luis, “is a metaphor for what separates us as human beings.”
For the next decade, the border’s stories poured out of him like a healing balm. Along the way, he became intrigued by a story from his family across the border. The greatest story of his life – the story of his great aunt Teresita, the Saint of Cabora – would take him 26 years to research and write.
My Great Aunt Could Fly
He had heard the stories about the aunt who talked to spirits, healed people ... and could fly. With stories like Teresita’s in the family, how could he be anything but a writer? “I had to, right?” he laughs. “[My family] is so loquacious and hilarious and eccentric – I just got so soaked with story and it never stopped. Every time I see them there’s some other crazy-assed story.”
It’s late afternoon on the first day of the Tucson Book Festival and Luis is relaxing with wife Cindy in the festival’s authors’ lounge, protected from the crush of adoring crowds and media looking for him to stir up trouble. Getting Luis alone has proven almost impossible. Beyond the book-banning controversy, there are books to sign, students wanting advice, interviewers eager to ask him about his genre-bending writing in The Hummingbird’s Daughter. That book, though based on supernatural events, tells the true story of Teresita Urrea, who became famous on both sides of the border as a curandera or healer, as well as a heroine to Mexico’s poor and oppressed and a political liability for the Mexican government.
Teresita’s story was so crazy that Luis says he didn’t learn for years that she was a real person. He was working in the Chicano Studies Department at UC San Diego when he began the search for documentation about his legendary relative. His journey took him back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. border states. To verify the tales, he found unknown relatives, historians and librarians, indigenous mystics and healers on both sides of the border. But he knew he couldn’t tell the story as straight fact. A disciple of missionaries, he is also spiritual brother to the indigenous healer women and medicine men of the Southwest – the curanderas and shamans. Luis lives in a magical, mystical world where he’s learned to think and see beyond mere facts.
That’s a problem for a writer of nonfiction.
“First off,” he says, “if you want to write nonfiction, you have this responsibility, which everybody seems to have forgotten, to actually tell the truth. Actually talk about what really happened and don’t make crap up. People keep forgetting that. The creative part of creative nonfiction is the problem.”
When the editor of The Hummingbird’s Daughter told Luis that the miracles in the book, the “woo-woo stuff,” were being cut because it was a historical account, Luis had to laugh. “The ‘woo-woo’ stuff is the historical stuff. What they had for breakfast – that’s what was made up!” he says. His editor, in fact, had trouble with much of the research into the mystical side of Teresita’s story, even the historical documentation, such as a letter to Teresita from the Archangel Gabriel, which was purportedly archived in the New York Public Library.
The journey was “soul shaking” for Luis personally and for his method of writing. (“You can’t footnote dreams,” he points out.) His two books about Teresita, The Hummingbird’s Daughter and the sequel Queen of America, are not literary nonfiction, or even literary fiction. They are literary truth. They are novels and true stories. “You pull a thread, unraveling the story,” Luis says, ”then you re-knit it into your story.”
Queen of America tells the story of Teresita’s banishment to the United States where she goes from sainthood to stardom and yearns for New York society and pretty dresses. “How does one try to be the Madonna,” Luis says he wondered, “while being Madonna?” For the sequel, he says, he had to surrender to the story more than the history books or the shamans.
Luis moves effortlessly between fiction, nonfiction and poetry because to him, it’s all real. He doesn’t believe in rules about genre. “The biggest challenge in all three genres is to tell the absolute truth,” he once told an interviewer, “even when I’m lying.”
Over the years, he has learned not to take himself too seriously. He claims, maybe facetiously, that he never has writer’s block. “Imagine this cartoon,” he says. “I go up to my writing loft … turn on music … have a good cup of coffee … and I gaze up into space. And when someone comes in, catching me, I yell ‘What are you doing? I’m writing here!’” He lets out a hearty laugh.
He credits two editors – both old-school newspapermen – with beating his prose into shape. If he were running a writing program today, he’d do the same. “These creative writers, these very delicate creative minds,” he says, “would be forced to take a course with a hard-assed city desk editor from a real newspaper. Get kicked around a little bit. It’s not just all your feelings.” He knows. He got kicked around. At the time, Luis was writing his first book, Across the Wire. (The one that took him 10 years.) To pay the bills, he took a job with the San Diego Reader, an alternative weekly newspaper in Southern California. “I did not know these guys were sitting there with chainsaws and sledgehammers,” Luis explains, bemused but wincing at the memory of his former editors. “They ate the living crap out of me, but they totally made me understand. My problem was that I didn’t really know what my message really was. I thought my rage was important.”
They ripped his Wire manuscript apart, taking every vignette scattered throughout the book, consolidating the scenes that connected, then they made Luis refine those pieces. “I learned fast because I didn’t want to get beat up anymore. I changed my style to try to make those pieces more penetrating than sprawling. I thought my sprawl, my eccentricities as a grand author, will make this thing rule. “No,” he says. “It’s always the story.”
This is a man raised and immersed in Christianity, Mexican mysticism and Yaqui spiritualism. He finds sanctuary in the worlds of haiku and Asian philosophy. For Luis, writing is a devotional process flowing from God’s fingertip pointed right at him. And here is how He speaks so often to Luis: haiku.
They think it’s some kind of writer bullshit. I say look, Hummingbird’s Daughter is my bad attempt at writing 35,000 haiku.
“Every time people ask me about my writing secrets,” Luis says, “I always tell them that I’m trying to practice wabi-sabi like Issa, like Basho.” Issa and Basho are two of the four recognized great masters of haiku. “That’s what I’m interested in. They don’t believe me. They think it’s some kind of writer bullshit. I say look, Hummingbird’s Daughter is my bad attempt at writing 35,000 haiku.” Haiku is the language of emotion. Like the journalists’ mantra, it shows, not tells. What haiku describes is why you feel something, not what you feel.
Luis is relating all this in Tucson, sitting in a relatively quiet faculty lounge just yards away from a bookstore packed with hundreds of enthusiastic invited guests attending the pre-kickoff dinner cocktail reception for the Tucson Festival of Books. He has just finished a full day’s worth of frenzied interviews with media covering the book banning controversy. As he chats, organizers keep looking in the room, anxious for the author to make his first appearance.
Luis just wants to kick back and talk (for just once) about something he’s wanted to discuss for years: wabi-sabi.
Daisetz T. Suzuki, a noted scholar of Japanese philosophy, describes wabi-sabi as “an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty.” Poverty, as in free in spirit, not as in desperate and miserable. “Coming from Mexico,” Luis explains, “I have a real eye for the appalling and the awful. And I’m always wrestling with the beauty of Mexico and the mind-shredding awfulness. If you were looking for a [haiku] master in a lot of those books, [Issa] is it.”
Issa himself grew up in poverty, the subject of a cruel stepmother who banished him to the streets. Yet Issa also expressed undying friendliness towards the world and described its beauty, even though he suffered terribly in it.
“I’m from a debased world,” Luis says, watching bookstore employees running back and forth as the cocktail party’s noise level begins to intrude the quiet of the lounge. “But you know there’s still this magic in the world, perhaps in microcosm ... maybe that’s what made me love those [haiku] poems. You would find the magic in Tijuana in these small details. My grandmother had a pomegranate tree. And I cannot tell you how weirdly magical it is to be in this tumble-down dirty neighborhood of stray dogs and despair ... to go out and find a tree full of pomegranates. I remember thinking [the fruit’s flesh] was made out of stained glass from the church ... I didn’t know what it was.”
“And down the hill from my grandma’s house [described in Nobody’s Son] was a backyard with a black bear chained to a tree. It was a detail that was so freaky. There it was. We would go stand there and look at it. And you think, that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s there. Magic, man.”
Back to the fray
Luis is getting ready to meet the cocktail party guests and address the festival’s big kickoff dinner. But, perhaps thinking about the big fight brewing outside over the book banning, he remembers something William Stafford, the Northwest poet, once shared. Luis took it as a funny insight into writing: “The key to being a successful author is to lower your standards,” Stafford said. Luis laughs: “I’ve used it for years on my students: Just lower your standards, man, and then you’ve made it!”
Except Luis had it all wrong. Stafford’s son Kim finally straightened Luis out.
“Luis! Don’t you know that when you went into battle, you would hold up your standard to let the other side know that you were going to fight to the death?” Kim said. “The only way to avoid a slaughter was to have both sides lower their standards, symbolizing cooperation and non-violence. Lower your standards.”
For Luis, that tells you everything about him as a writer and bridge builder between cultures. “If you really want to know what the nuts and bolts of writing are,” he explains, “[and] have lowered your standard and are working with the spirit of writing, which I believe is God. ... Just submit to my madness for a minute, make believe I am Issa, and we’ve just had a nice bowl of sake and some rice. ... If you go out there and show respect to the world that you’re looking at, and you’re inviting it in, and you show the world that you are worthy of seeing, it will show you more.”
It’s not the Western mindset, Luis admits. “You don’t go out there and gain ground. You go out in partnership and it gives you ground.”
With that lesson in cooperation, Luis jumps back into the Tucson fray, his standard lowered, much to the protesters’ dismay. Yet by the end of his speech, protesters and non-protesters alike are giving him a standing ovation. “America is still a family,” Luis says to the misty-eyed dinner audience. “We just don’t know how to talk to each other. We want to love each other … We just don’t know how.”
The day after his anti-Zen moment, Luis is sitting at a book-signing table with Cindy, looking into his fans’ expectant faces. He knows what he means to the kids who’ve had their books taken away, their culture systematically erased. He understands both sides: He knows what the border means to those living there and to those sneaking over it. He knows those living on the U.S. side who don’t know what to do with “those little brown people.”
It’s why he still writes. “The essence of what I write about is alienation and reconciliation,” he says. “It’s the human condition.”
In a world filled with dogma and dogs of war fighting for ideological ground, Luis Alberto Urrea lowers his standard to take us to a higher place. He’s asking us to come along – not as a Latino solidarity thing, but as a human being solidarity thing.