Luis Alberto Urrea

NEA Big Read author
Luis Alberto Urrea

Photo by Nicole Waite

Luis Urrea: My movie agent called it The Magnificent Seven for girls. <laughter> So maybe that might be it.  It’s about a group of young women in a town in the south of Sinaloa who realize that all of the men in the town have gone north and have not returned.  At the same time, the group of narco-dealers discover the town and try to take it over.  And at a little cinema in the- in the tropics, they see a badly dubbed print of The Magnificent Seven and decide, “Well we can do that.  We can go to the United States and get seven guys and bring them back.”

Jo Reed: That was Luis Alberto Urrea talking about his recent novel, Into the Beautiful North.  Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.

Luis Alberto Urrea is an award-winning author. His books include, The Devil’s Highway, The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Across the Wire.  Among his awards are the Lannan Literary Award, an Edgar Award, an American Book Award, and the National Hispanic Cultural Center Award. He’s also a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame. The child of Mexican father and American Mother, Luis’s work tends to focus on the US-Mexican border, and the people who move from one side to the other.  That’s certainly the focus of his novel, Into the Beautiful North, although it takes the form of an adventure story. Nineteen-year- old Nayeli and her friends decide to go north to recruit men who will save her hometown from local thugs and we’re off on her quest.  It’s a quirky disarming book, dealing with serious through the interactions of very unlikely and very likeable characters. When I spoke with Luis, I began by asking him how he got the idea for the book

Luis Urrea: I don't know.  It just <laughs> suddenly appeared. I think part of the idea was from my own history.  You know, I have a family in Sinaloa in a small town and my uncle had a tropical movie theater.  And it’s as described in the novel.  You know, it had a corrugated tin roof.  It had bats. When things would get really loud in the movie, the bats would dive-bomb the <laughs> the watchers, and I saw a really badly dubbed John Wayne movie there, The War Wagon.  And John Wayne was dubbed into German and he kept coming on the screen, you know, and saying, you know, “Mach schwelle, you know, rouse]” and I couldn’t stop laughing.  And the Mexicans are like, “What’s your problem, man?”  Because I thought it was hilarious.  I have never forgotten that kind of eccentric scene.  And I think from that humorous little kind of culture clash, it just kept resonating forever until it turned into a novel.

Jo Reed: Pop culture runs throughout this book as well, and it would make sense that a movie would be the thing that would propel these, and they’re kids, they really are kids, up north.

Luis Urrea: Yeah, it’s something I didn’t think was being dealt with very much in this kind of writing about immigration or the border or so forth.  You know, people always worry about the globalist agenda on Fox News, you know, but we are in a globalist world in that these girls have access to the internet.  They watch YouTube.  They're watching, you know, they’re watching Goth bands from Helsinki <laughs> you know, in this little village in Mexico.  In other words, they see the world.  They don’t have any way to get hold of the world, but they see it.  And there’s a young, gay man in this town and he is even more cut off from his desires than they are.  And one of the little jokes in the book is both the- the sort of ring leader teenage woman and this young man, both are in love with Johnny Depp.  And they think, “If we can just get to the United States, perhaps we’ll meet Johnny Depp and one of us will marry him.”

Jo Reed: <laughs> Well, let’s talk about Nayeli who is our heroine, and what a heroine she is.

Luis Urrea: Yeah, I love Nayeli.  Someone stopped me yesterday and said, “I love that girl from your book,” and I heard myself saying, “So do I.”  And I thought, “Why, that sounds sort of egotistical,” but they become real people in your mind, I think, when you write them, but she’s, you know, she’s actually based on a young woman that I’ve known her whole life.  She lives at the Tijuana garbage dump and she’s indigenous.  Physically as is described, you know, in the novel, this young, muscular, strong soccer star girl who can’t stop smiling.  And people ascribe all kinds of motives to her because of her smile, but it’s just her natural setting.  She can’t stop smiling.  And in the book, she’s studied martial arts at the urging of her aunt, so she’s kind of a Mad Max figure. You know, she’s a lone knight.  I just thought it would be interesting to write the hero’s journey from a female perspective instead of male. And she’s I’d say she’s a really pure-hearted character.  I mean, she really wants to save her place and her people, and she wouldn’t come to the United States except that she has a mission to bring people back.  And in some ways she’s naive, you know, and she believes that the United States will embrace her if they find out that she’s taking people away instead of bringing them you know.  So, innocent.

Jo Reed: And you mentioned the garbage dump, and there’s a portion of the book that takes place at the garbage dumps at Tijuana where there’s an entire culture.  It the sub city in Tijuana. Can you talk about that and then we can lead into one of my favorite characters who they found at the garbage dump?

Luis Urrea: Yeah, I have a really intimate relationship with the Tijuana garbage dump in that, you know, I began all of this working with a missionary group that works in the dumps.  And, you know, my first job there was to wash the feet of the garbage pickers.  And you wash the feet of 300 garbage pickers in a row, it transforms you on a really profound level.  And you know, I was with them for years.  I was the translator for this group and so I heard all of their stories and so forth, and I had a desire to be a best-selling, you know, I don't know what, Robert Ludlum or Steven King or something, writer.  And you know, it became obvious that I had an opportunity to bear witness to people nobody thought about or cared about.  In some ways, that was career suicide, right? ‘Cause I thought, “Well, if I write a book about people no one cares about, it’ll be a great success.”   <laughs> Yeah, maybe not.  So I know them very well and it’s a really interesting place.  And it’s so close to San Diego that it’s got a lot of interesting, as my Cajun friends would say, it’s got frissons, you know, there’s a lot of interesting tension there in that world.  And like many travelers who fall on hard times in Tijuana, this group ends up in the garbage dump because the garbage dump is in some ways welcoming to all. And there they meet this wild character named Atomico.

Jo Reed: Do tell us about Atomico.  Here’s the thing about, Luis, your characters are so charming that I would go on a journey with them anywhere.

Luis Urrea: Yeah. Atomico’s a funny guy because some people are really intimidated by him, which he would love, he’d be happy about that, but you know, the basis for The Magnificent Seven, of course, is The Seven Samurai.  And so if you look at The Seven Samurai, you’ll see that Toshirō Mifune is Atomico; this unwanted, uncouth, unwashed warrior who’s wandering around looking for a mission and he takes on this mission to go with these young women.  And he happens to be a, you know, self-baked martial artist with a staff that he’s made that he beats people up with.  And <laughs> it’s funny to me because he’s become a kind of a minor sensation and you know, his catch phrase, because he’s always identifying himself, is, “I am Atomico,” which, to him, means so much profound something.  Nobody quite knows what it is, but people have been giving me, “I am Atomico,” presents, which is really great.  You know, they make, “I am Atomico,” plaques and so I think I’m gonna get a baseball hat with it put on it.  And sometimes on Twitter, people remind me, “You are Atomico.” I’ll say, “Oh, wow.  I am?”  <laughs> I don't know.  I bathe, unlike him.  But yeah.  What’s interesting to me about him is that I think a lot of times in life, especially the way the border and the immigration issue is pushed on the kind of media propaganda you hear, these folks are presented to you and scary and, you know, alien and incomprehensible, and so I thought, “Let’s make this guy the most scary alien incomprehensible character you can imagine.”  Comes out of the garbage dump; he has a bamboo staff, he beats people up, and he’s an implacable kind of a maniac.  Yet on a deeper level, he’s an oddly moral character.  And he’s got his own nobility, it’s just that he has had to find a way to express it in that milieu, that garbage dump milieu.  And he’s also blessedly eccentric.  He’s crazy as hell <laughs> you know, he really is.  Those things all came together for me.
Jo Reed: Well, he’s pure.  There’s a purity to him.  When Nayeli recruits her so-called warriors to bring back to Mexico, Atomico dismisses them as “unworthy for the great mission. And he means it.

Luis Urrea: Right.  Yeah.  He’s, you know, he’s funny because he has a matrix of misbehavior.  He presents himself as a very bad misbehaving scofflaw but in his essence, he wouldn’t misbehave even if you paid him.  In other words, he would not betray Nayeli in any way.  He wouldn’t harm people because he sees it as his mission to protect people.  He’s a kind of a samurai warrior in his own mind.  And that was based on some real stuff I saw in the Tijuana dump where you see people in a little shack and they had scrounged up a TV out of the garbage and then  they had hooked up car batteries to it so that they could watch the TV.  And some of them, you know, all they could get was San Diego TV, so some of them would watch PBS, right?  Channel 15, PBS, from San Diego, and I thought, “How bizarre is this?  These folks getting high culture on PBS,” and so it was easy to extrapolate a guy who caught Akira Kurisawa films on PBS and suddenly realized, “I'm a samurai.” It’s through this scrounged TV and there’s a wonderful-- in one of the shacks in the garbage dump, one of the fathers found a poster of Michelangelo’s David and he put the poster up in his house, but he didn’t want the women folk to see David’s privates, so with a little bottle of white out, he painted BVDs on him. <laughter>

Luis Urrea: How can you not want to write a book, you know?  It’s too rich.

Jo Reed: You can’t make that stuff up.

Luis Urrea: You can't.  It’s too good.

Jo Reed: Another quirky and likeable character is Vampi. And she makes the journey north with Nayeli. I just never imagined that a girl from a small village in Mexico would be a Goth.

Luis Urrea: Oh, <laughs> Vampi. Vampi, short for Vampira, Veronica.  She’s, she considers herself the only Goth girl in Sinaloa.  She discovered Goth on YouTube at the internet café in the back of the taco shop and went insane for the Goths.  So although her hair was already black, she died it with black number one to make it even blacker and she, you know, wears Goth outfits and, you know, makes her face pale.  The funny thing was I, it turns out that one of my nieces that I don’t know in Sinaloa is a Goth and thought she was the only Goth girl.  But she she has a feeling maybe Vampi was inspired by stories about her, which I thought was kind of sweet.

Jo Reed: Nayeli has an eccentric aunt…

Luis Urrea: Oh, yeah.

Jo Reed: Irma.

Luis Urrea: Yeah.  Aunt Irma the ferocious.  They call her the bear, la Osa.  I had an Aunt Irma who, in some ways, inspired this because she was the most terrifying person I’ve ever known.  You know, very tough, very uh.. implacable.  And I thought if anybody back in the old homestead in Sinaloa could become mayor, it would be Aunt Irma.  So I sort of took off on some elements of the real person’s character, but the, she’s largely invented out of whole cloth except that they’re both bowling stars.  My actually Aunt Irma was Mexico’s women’s bowling champion, so I thought that was very cool.  I liked that, so I made this Aunt Irma the Sinaloan bowling champion. 

Jo Reed: There’s a scene that is so striking with Irma interviewing men to return to Mexico as warriors, and suddenly there are lines around the block with guys hoping to sign on.

Luis Urrea: Yeah, I think, I tour constantly and I’ve talked to thousands and thousands of people about this issue.  And- and it’s interesting because I think people in America are curious, not as angry as one would be led to believe, just curious and concerned about this immigration thing.  And one of the things I think that surprises people is if there were something to go home to, people would go home.  It’s not about invading the United States, it’s about making money.  It’s about living.  It’s about feeding your family.  So one of the jokes in the book is when these guys find out that there’s a town looking for men to come back and there’s a full town and it’s full of women and there might be work, they end up with lines and lines of men begging to be taken home, which I think on some level is true.  There are lot of people who wish they could go home.  For many reasons, it’s very dangerous now.  There’s less back home than there was when they left.  The narco wars have heated up.  A lot of these people feel trapped here.  I just thought it would be-- it-- you know, it was interesting for the- the fantastical element of the story to have these guys want to go home.  And Aunt Irma who’s such a hard case and is busy insulting all the men, you find out later, in fact, can’t just keep it down to seven people.  She-wants to bring them all home if she can.

Jo Reed: Yeah.  Well, that’s the thing about this book.  There are serious issues that are being looked at and discussed, but it is fantastical and wacky with characters that are just charming.

Luis Urrea: Well, thanks.  Somebody told me that I had invented a genre which was slapstick immigration. <laughs> Which I thought was really good.

Jo Reed: That’s true.

Luis Urrea: But, you know, the thing is I think the humor in the book has confused some people because, you know, the reviews have been great, but every once in a while someone says, “Well, it doesn’t have the kind of substance that his other books have,” and I think that’s so funny because I consciously tried to put more substance than usual in this book.  But you know, that it’s funnier that the people have joyous lives even if they’re poor or desperate seems to throw some reviewers.  And I think that’s odd because I think, you know, laughter is the human condition much more than sorrow and tears and suffering.  Even at the worst possible time of your life, people are funny.  And that’s what gives you hope.  I, you know, honestly, I thought if I made it, if I made it really entertaining, if I made it an adventure, then it would be a subversive act and that it would make the general American reader not only read about, but maybe route for people that they either don’t think about or actually look down on or look at them with some disdain.  That’s why the male heroes are, you know, young gay men and a gangster and why the other heroes are teenage Mexican girls who are here “illegally.”

Jo Reed: There’s an interesting point here because it also means that it can't be an entertaining adventure story populated by extraordinarily likeable and eccentric people.  And somehow if you do that it means there’s nothing to learn there.

Luis Urrea: <laughs> Yeah.  Yeah, absolutely.  And, you know, much of the- much of the book is really a love letter to the United States.  I mean, what I didn’t think about, you know, because it’s available in Spanish and it’s being read in Mexico.  What it then occurred to me was that, you know, the Mexican stuff, the tropical stuff for us feels like magic realism and it’s full of all that juicy, amazing detail of what those Mexican villages are like.  It didn’t occur to me that in Mexico, Kankakee and the road from San Diego to Kankakee, Illinois is magical realism and they’re amazed at the things, you know, the Rocky Mountains, snow, mayfly hatches, you know, how friendly Americans can be, Slurpees giving you brain freeze.  They’d never heard of such a thing.  You know, the 6,000 pound parried roadside attractions on the road out to Kankakee, all those things to them, even Las Vegas, are just mind boggling.  And that’s been really interesting.  The things you and I take for granted:  lawns, lawn sprinklers, watering lawns, you know, and little playgrounds at the beach and police in shorts on mountain bikes riding by saying good evening, to these Mexican girls is one of the most shocking things they’ve ever experienced.  They can’t believe it.  It’s magical.  So I realized that I often think I’m representing this Mexican experience to American readers, but I’m also, I realize, representing the United States to other people, you know, what it’s like here.  And that’s been an education for me.

Jo Reed: Well, you know, what’s interesting is that you have these kids coming- coming north, into the beautiful north, and they’re experiences with Americans really shift depending on where they are.  There is not the uniformed response of good American or bad American. It really is much more complicated and varied than that.

Luis Urrea: Yeah, I mean, you know, they meet Americans uh.. at every level that they could meet.  And sure, they meet some white supremacist guys, you know, because you needed a cheap action scene, and so there’s a great fight, but you know, from waiters to bosses to librarians to police, they meet people.  And one of the ironies in the book is that the, the group of people who’s most angry at them is a group of Mexican folks with a restaurant in Colorado who are here documented and realize that these people are undocumented and just give them a tongue-lashing and throw them out of their restaurant and they’re humiliated and embarrassed and they had no idea that that was going to happen.  You know, there are people they meet who are critical of them, but aren’t cruel to them.  There are people who are extremely kind to them or generous because it’s really a human story.  And I think over and over again when you’re faced with someone’s humanity then the paradigm changes, you know, of your perceptions and I- I probably learned that most in Devil’s Highway, right, getting to know the border patrol and realizing that I was someone that they were leery of and they were people I was leery of, and we ended up actually having a very intimate relationship that continues to this day of growing trust and information, and I think humanizing each other.  So I had to put some border patrol in this book, but, you know, again, people who surprise you with their humanity.

Jo Reed: Well, we have to talk about Kankakee, Illinois which figures in this book and you spent time there and this is a real life town that has done extraordinary things.  Tell us about it.

Luis Urrea: I love Kankakee.  I- I- I discovered Kankakee when they invited me to come to the library and do a reading.  And the librarian who’s represented in the novel, Mary Jo Johnston, she said to me, “You know, when you drive down here be sure you don’t hit any turkeys on the road.”  And I thought, “This is hilarious.  I’m going to go to some place called Kankakee.  They’ve got turkeys on the road.”  You know, I thought it was going to be a little brick library, six or seven ladies and some cookies and I thought, “What the heck?  Let’s just, for fun let’s go down there.”  And my wife and I drove down there and we got to Kankakee and we could not find the library.  We drove up and down the street and the address simply was not this library.  It was a corporate tower, you know, seven, eight story silver-clad monolith.  And I thought, “Wow.  They’ve really messed up.  I’m gonna be late for the thing.”  And so we pulled into the parking lot of this corporate tower to ask for directions and realized that that was in fact the library.  And instead of six retirees, they had 300, 350 people there, and I was pretty stunned.  And the mayor showed up. He gave me the key to the city, which was a first, you know.  So I thought, “Wow.  I like Kankakee.”  And you know, but we started talking about their experience and their experience was you know, a city in decline, had gotten on some of the, you know, worst cities in America kind of lists and they’d lost their industry.  That building had been an HMO center that had left, and they had brilliantly made the library the centerpiece of their resurgence and they had discovered a pretty strong Mexican population that they didn’t know they had.  And they found out that they were largely undocumented and they found out where they were from. And the mayor of Kankakee instead of sort of throwing his hands up at this, you know, great influx of the illegal, took people from the city government and flew to their home town and asked the mayor there what’s going on. They formed a sister-city relationship.  They came back and started putting measures into play to help those folks learn English, to help them find paths to citizenship, to help them figure out how to handle mortgages and so forth, and to start doing workshops in how American government works.  It was an amazing thing.  They made the library a highly computerized, safe, open late-at-night haven for kids to go to, free of gang violence.  You know, brought in Spanish-speaking cops.  It was just an amazing turnaround of a town that figured it out on their own.  You know, no big theoreticians, no big liberals like me, just a conservative mayor who thought, “I have to save my town.”  And he saw instead of a curse, an opportunity and repopulated his city and so I wrote about it.  And Mary Jo unfortunately passed away and I wanted to make her the hero of the book and you- you- you worry about it because you’re talking about somebody else’s mom, but uh.. you know, it turns out to have been very well received in Kankakee and her family seems happy with it.  One of my most joyous I think outcomes of this book is her daughter said to me, “You know, my mother loved the library more than anything else and now you’ve insured that she’ll spend eternity in libraries.” Oh, man.  You know, it makes you cry.

Luis Urrea: So Kankakee, it’s a- it’s a wonderful place and, of course now when I go to Kankakee, you know, <laughs> they roll out the red carpet.  It’s really fun for my wife and me and we stay in a nice B&B and, you know, just try to give back a little bit.

Jo Reed: So you get back to Kankakee?

Luis Urrea: Yeah.  Yeah.  Actually when the book was launched, they, they we started out the book launch in May in Kankakee and sort of like, you know, beautiful north days.  <laughs> And there was a benefit in the name of Mary Jo at the country club and you know, I had written an essay about them for The New York Times called “Kankakee Gets Its Groove Back.”  And they had a gathering in the library and, unbeknownst to me, they had made a movie where people from Kankakee read my essay, one or two lines per person, all the ethnic groups, all the nationalities, everybody.  And they surprised me with that.  So you try to look all macho sitting there crying like a baby, you know.  It was magical.

Jo Reed:  That was Luis Alberto Urrea. We were talking about his novel, Into the Beautiful North.   And if you want the inside story of the revitalization of Kankakee, Illinois, check out the latest issue of our magazine, NEA Arts.  There, you can read all about the changes that resulted from making the library the cultural center of the city. You can it find it on our website,
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.  Original guitar music composed, performed, and used courtesy of Jorge F. Hernandez. 

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Next week, a conversation with Bert Crenca, he’s the founder and director of the Community Arts Center, AS 220, in Providence, Rhode Island.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.  For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Author Luis Alberto Urrea talks about the inspiration for and writing of his novel Into the Beautiful North, which takes place from Sinaloa, Mexico, all the way up north to Kankakee, Illinois.