By Marcia Chaiken
The selection of Luis Alberto Urrea as my favorite Spanish-language author was not made after careful deliberation. In fact, I surprised myself as I blurted out his name at The Eye meeting when we were asked to nominate authors. Only afterwards I wondered why I hadn’t said Carlos Ruiz Zafón, whose mystical books were an obsession for years. Or, why hadn’t Isabel Allende come to mind, since for decades I’ve immediately bought her enchanting novels while the ink is still hot on the page. There are so many deeper, more philosophical authors from Spain and Latin America than Urrea, including Gabriel García Márquez whose engrossing One Hundred Years of Solitude was published exactly 50 years ago.
So why did I spontaneously select Urrea? Perhaps because I had just recently discovered his books; first, Into the Beautiful North and then The Hummingbird’s Daughter. I binge-read the former on my Kindle and listened to the latter on my waterproof MP3 player as I exercised in the pool. Some days, I became so wrapped up in the Daughter saga that I was oblivious to time passing until I was totally waterlogged. But Urrea grabbed my mind and tongue for three more important reasons.
First, his life, like much of mine has been binational, with one foot firmly planted in Mexico and one foot in the U.S. As his books reflect, Urrea, who was born in Tijuana in 1955 and spent his childhood on both sides of the border, clearly sees and describes the flaws in both countries but also the beauty of the brash American world and the chauvinistic yet sweet paternalism of Mexico.
His father, a Mexicano, called him “Luis“ and spoke to him in Spanish. His mother, an American, called him “Louis” and only used English. Not surprising, Urrea’s books are a mix of English and Spanish…a delight for someone who struggles to read long texts in Spanish. Although he graduated from the University of California, San Diego, with a degree in creative writing, and completed graduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, like many young authors, Urrea struggled to be recognized sufficiently to be able to devote himself to his art. To support himself, he worked as a translator and social worker in Tijuana but continued writing whenever he could.
His first book, Across the Wire, remained unpublished for many years. Although the book eventually won awards, Urrea was told that the subject of the U.S.-Mexican border was of no interest and therefore a poor investment for a publishing house. (How times have changed!)
Seeking advice from a UCSD faculty member who had recognized his talent and encouraged him to write, he learned that his mentor had been offered a job at Harvard.
The idea of surrounding himself with major literary figures both dead and alive in the Boston area so appealed to Urrea that he begged his professor to find him a job at Harvard – any job – a job as a janitor would be appreciated. He was surprised when a request arrived from Harvard for his resume and was deeply impressed that even janitors at Harvard needed to submit curriculum vitae. And of course, he was overjoyed when the job turned out to be a position teaching creative writing. His academic career was launched and, fortunately for his readers, he was paid enough to concentrate on his writing.
The second major reason the name Urrea immediately came forth is no doubt due to his extraordinary story-telling ability. I am a trained Jewish story teller and part of my rationale for studying for years to learn the art was to be able to pass on the stories that were part of my childhood and deeply rooted in the lives of my family for generations. Urrea’s motivation seems to be the same – to pass on the rich stories of the different branches of his family: Basque, Mexican, Irish and American.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter brings to life the folklore, myths, beliefs, and unbelievable lives of his Mexican great grandparents and their family. The main and extremely complex multidimensional character, Teresita, was Urrea’s great aunt; although he heard stories about her for many years as a child, he thought the stories were family fables until he was an adult. In the book, Urrea, as a great storyteller, weaves her tale into the context of major migrations and revolutions in Mexico. In retrospect, I believe that listening to the book read by Urrea himself, rather than reading it in black and white, provided a palette of color that enhanced the experience.
Finally, Urrea is one of the few authors that evokes, often simultaneously, laughter and tears. He has described his work as “the saddest comedies or the funniest tragedies,” which pretty well captures readers’ reactions. I’m usually a very quiet reader, but while reading Into the Beautiful North, I found myself laughing out loud and uproariously. The premise of the novel itself is so funny – three teenage girls and a gay cafe owner from Tres Camarones/Three Shrimps (actually based on the town of Rosario, Sinaloa) decide to sneak over the Mexico/U.S. border to find their own Magnificent Seven Mexicanos and convince them to return to Mexico to save their village from banditos. While the antics of the characters are hilarious, Urrea’s description of the poverty in Tijuana and the desperate attempts to cross the border are heartbreaking. So I cried.
I’m looking forward to reading two more of Urrea’s novels, Queen of America and In Search of Snow. And when I finish those, I’ll turn to his nonfiction and poetry. Who knows? The next time I’m in Chicago, I may even audit one of the creative writing classes he teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago. One thing for sure – it may have been impulsive, but not a mistake, to nominate Urrea as my favorite Spanish-language author.