Born in Tijuana and raised in San Diego, author writes from dual-culture perspective


Editor’s Note: Writer Luís Alberto Urrea was the guest speaker at the season-opening Nov. 3 luncheon of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society held at The Grand Del Mar. The next luncheon in the 2010-11 series on Jan. 10, 2011 will feature bestselling author Amy Bloom and her latest work, “Where the God of Love Hangs Out.” The RSF Literary Society luncheons are sponsored by Northern Trust Bank, the RSF Community Center and this newspaper.

By Arthur Lightbourn


Tijuana-born Luís Alberto Urrea knows Rancho Santa Fe well.

He worked here in his teens as a day-laborer, along with many of his Mexican compadres.

Last Wednesday, Urrea returned to the Ranch as a critically-acclaimed novelist, essayist, poet and short story writer, to address the season opener of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society’s 10th annual literary luncheon series at The Grand Del Mar.

The 55-year-old Urrea is the bestselling author of 13 books, including his third and most recent novel, “Into the Beautiful North,” which earned a citation of excellence from the American Library Association Rainbow’s Project and was a “One Book, One San Diego” finalist.

The son of a Mexican father and an American mother, Urrea is known for using his dual-culture life experiences in what has become a life-long quest to explore themes of love, loss, prejudice, violence and triumph in the Mexican and American cultures.

His latest novel, “Into the Beautiful North,” imagines a small town in Mexico left unprotected when all of its men head north to seek work in the U.S., prompting a group of young women, led by 19-year-old Nayeli and inspired by the movie “The Magnificent Seven,” to venture into the U.S. illegally in a quixotic search for seven brave Mexican expatriots who will return with her to rid the town of the invasive bandidos.

Nayeli is a karate-practicing cross between Joan of Arc and Don Quixote who helps her Aunt Irma get elected mayor of their beleaguered coastal town of Tres Camarones (Three Shrimp) before setting out on her cross-border quest.

We interviewed Urrea in The Grand Del Mar library prior to his address to the Literary Society.

“I had written a couple of pretty serious books and had done a lot of dark research …So I was looking for a book that was: A. fun to write, and B. would be fun to read…that might be labeled, like some of Graham Greene’s books, an ‘entertainment,’” Urrea said.

“I’m always interested in trying to define things for my readers and for myself, and being from the border, it’s a life-long quest to try to comprehend what’s going on.

“And I was thinking about my dad’s hometown in Mexico, which is a place I loved; and I was thinking of San Diego which is where I grew up; and I have a great affection for where the novel ends up in Kankakee, Ill.”

Incidentally, Urrea, pronounced “oo-Ray-eh,” is a Basque name and he concedes, with his sandy hair, he looks more Irish than Hispanic.

His parents met in San Francisco at a party sponsored by the Mexican Consulate. His father was a captain in the Mexican Army. Urrea said his father cut a dashing figure and looked like Hollywood movie star Errol Flynn. His mother, a New Yorker, had served overseas in combat zones with the Red Cross during World War II.

They fell in love, married and moved to Tijuana, where Urrea was born and contracted tuberculosis.

Fortunately, Urrea’s parents had registered him as a U.S. citizen born abroad and were able to move to San Diego where Urrea was cured of his tuberculosis.

“We settled in Logan Heights, which was not Paris, and later moved to Clairemont where there were houses with lawns,” he related.

Unfortunately, Urrea’s father, had difficulty finding decent-paying jobs throughout his life as an immigrant.

“His first job was a bell boy at the Hotel del Coronado and he lost that job. He worked at the tuna canneries and then as a driver for Helms Bakery, and played out most of his life working in bowling alleys. I grew up in the back of bowling alleys, hanging out with my dad at work,” Urrea said.

When Urrea’s father drove to Mexico to retrieve his life savings of $1,000 to help pay for Urrea’s college expenses, he was attacked and robbed by police and later died in the hospital under suspicious circumstances.

Urrea had to pay $750 to retrieve his father’s body.

After earning his undergraduate degree in writing from UCSD in 1977, Urrea did graduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, served as a missionary relief worker in Tijuana, and worked as a film extra and writer/editor/cartoonist for several publications.

When he was 26, in 1982, he accepted an unexpected and “miraculous” offer from one of his former professors to teach expository writing and fiction workshops at Harvard University.

Urrea’s first book, “Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border” (1993), was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the Christopher Award.

“The Devil’s Highway,” his 2004 nonfiction account of a group of Mexicans lost in the Arizona desert, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

He is currently working on a sequel to his 2005 historical novel, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.”

He is a professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago and he lives with his wife, Cinderella, and their family in Naperville, Ill.