Luis Alberto Urrea
What Borders Are Really About, and What We Do With Them
Krista Tippett, host: The wonderful writer Luis Alberto Urrea says that a deep truth of our time is that “we miss each other.” We have this drive to erect barriers between ourselves, and yet this makes us a little crazy. He is the warmest and wisest — the most helpful person with whom I’ve pondered the deep meaning and the problem of borders — what they are really about, what we do with them. The Mexican-American border, as he likes to say, ran straight through his parents’ Mexican-American marriage and divorce. He was Luis to his Tijuanan-born father and Louis to his Philadelphian mother. His works of fiction and non-fiction confuse every dehumanizing caricature of Mexicans — and of U.S. border guards. The possibility of our time, as he lives and witnesses with his writing, is to evolve the old melting pot to the 21st century richness of “us” — with all the mess and necessary humor required.
Luis Alberto Urrea: It’s ridiculous and, in some ways, a folly to say, “Can’t we all just get along?” But it is the truest thing that I don’t understand why we can’t.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zöe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: I interviewed Luis Alberto Urrea in the St. Croix Valley on the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, at the invitation of ArtReach St. Croix. That community was reading his novel, Into the Beautiful North, as part of the NEA Big Read program.
Ms. Tippett: I’m delighted to be here tonight with Luis Alberto Urrea. He has published in nearly every genre. He’s written nonfiction, memoir, short stories, and poetry. He’s written historical novels; his historical novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is based on the story of his father’s Aunt Teresa — is that correct? That’s that book?
Mr. Urrea: My great-great-aunt.
Ms. Tippett: Great-aunt, known as the “Mexican Joan of Arc,” [laughs] a Mexican mystic folk healer and revolutionary insurgent. And I have to say, you have an inordinate number of characters like that in your family.
Mr. Urrea: I do.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] So, we could go on. He’s even written an award-winning mystery story, and so, not surprisingly, has been called a “literary badass,” [laughter] which we probably can’t say on public radio. I see, in your person, another quality that is not quite so sexy, but in our global moment is so urgent and, I think, so vividly desired and needed, and that is that you are a bridge person. Here’s something Luis Alberto Urrea likes to say: “There is no them. There is only us.”
So how would you start to think about what is the spiritual imprint on you, or perhaps the spiritual work that that left in you for the rest of your life, straddling a border like that in your person, from the very beginning of your life?
Mr. Urrea: A couple of things: I was — I don’t know why, but I’ve always been God-crazy.
I have been drawn toward whatever the cosmic mysteries are, from boyhood on, to my father’s chagrin. Even though he was Mexican, he was not pro-clerical in any way, [laughs] and he didn’t like church, and he didn’t like religion. I don’t know why I loved the concept of God so much; perhaps that I, even then, needed some kind of transcendence, some kind of hope because things were a bit rough. And honestly, back in those days — I’ll reveal myself a little bit here, but back in those days, in the early ’60s when I was there, it was a different Catholic church than now. There was a lot of grimness. There were certainly no folk masses. It wasn’t even in English yet, when I was a kid.
And the nuns would terrorize us with these amazing stories. They’d say, “Well, what are you going to do when the communists take over the country?” And we’d be like, “We’re gonna stand up for Jesus.”
She’d say, “Are you? Are you really? So when they come to torture you, what are you going to do?” “We’re going to not renounce Jesus!” And she’d say, “When they’re tearing flesh off your back with hooks, then? Then? Will you stand for Jesus?” And we’re like, “Uh…yeah.”
And in the midst of that, a Franciscan friar came to my school, full robes, and he was laughing. And he was playing with the kids. And I think that was the moment when I thought, “Oh, that’s what Jesus is about. That guy.” And so it was an instant and in some way cutting-of-the-cord of all the traditional stuff and leaping into some childish mysticism. But I’ve always had that moment in my heart, of seeing that guy and his laughter, and I thought, “Oh, that’s what I want God to be.” And so, God has always felt like my companion in everything.
But critics often identify me as this political writer, and I say, no, I’m more interested in the soul’s journey. First, you have to admit, yes, we have a soul. A lot of people don’t want to go there. But I find the sacred in almost everything.
Ms. Tippett: I think that’s not unconnected to something Ursula Le Guin said to you, who was a teacher to you and…
Mr. Urrea: She was my discoverer.
Ms. Tippett: …your discoverer.
Mr. Urrea: She started my career.
Ms. Tippett: You report, this was something she said, I believe, in a class: “We writers are the raw nerve of the universe. Our job is to go out and feel things for people, then to come back and tell them how it feels to be alive. Because they are numb. Because we have forgotten.” You go out to feel things about the boundaries between humans and the borders we build between ourselves; specifically, the U.S.-Mexican border. And the back and the forth of it, really, has been there all the way through your life, as well as your writing. So, as you said, you were born in Tijuana. You moved to the U.S. at a young age. You were finishing college on this side of the border. And then, in the year of your graduation, when your father was on a trip on the other side of the border, he was killed. And that’s obviously a terrible part of your story.
Mr. Urrea: The journey was really interesting for me, because I went to college. I was the first to go to college in my family, because my parents pushed me. And thank goodness for that. And in my senior year, being my father’s first child — he had other — my dad was a traditional Mexican man. He had families.
But I was the only one in this family. And since I was the first, he wanted to get me a graduation gift. So, he drove into his hometown — 27 hours — and he retrieved money for me as a graduation gift. And he drove back 27 hours and was caught by bad Mexican cops, and he died. And it was not good. And then, they wouldn’t let me bury him. They made me buy him. I was 20 years old, not ready, so I bought my dad.
And that ended everything for us. We were completely destitute. My brothers and I took up a collection to bury him. We buried him in an unmarked grave in Tijuana. But then, in steps Le Guin, who — I had written a story about that, and she took me in when she read it, and she published it. It was my first sale. So, in some ways, that sacrifice launched everything that’s meaningful.
Ms. Tippett: Well, it also seems to have led you — it could be surprising to someone that what you did next, at 20, after that had happened to you, is that you actually went back to Mexico.
Mr. Urrea: I did.
Ms. Tippett: And sometimes it gets described as “relief work,” but I think it was more missionary work, right?
Mr. Urrea: I was preachin’ the gospel!
Ms. Tippett: And Vaughn.
Mr. Urrea: Pastor Vaughn.
Ms. Tippett: Pastor Vaughn, who you also intriguingly describe as a “Zen Baptist.”
Mr. Urrea: Yeah, not a Zen Buddhist, a Zen Baptist: Pastor Vaughn. He was tremendous. After the events with my dad, I was looking for some meaning in the world. And friends of mine urged me to go meet Pastor Vaughn. He was quite well-known in San Diego. He was a superstar preacher and had a very deep voice, a resonant voice, and a big black mustache. And they said, “He goes to Tijuana to feed the poor.” And I was like, “Pssh. Some Baptist gringo is not gonna teach me about — I am Tijuana, man. I am the terror of Tijuana.”
And of course, I went, and he immediately took me to things I had never seen in my life.
But one of the things, the first night we went — because I became his translator, so I translated every one of his bible studies for many years, all of his preaching. But I also had to negotiate communication with everybody, and that meant seeing awful things. And it really helped me as a writer because I understood that I had the gift of speaking to people, but I had to exercise the discipline of listening to people, because if I wasn’t listening, I would tell someone the wrong thing. And I had to do medical exams with American doctors. I had to see injured and wounded people. I had to see people buried, and so forth. So those things ignited in me the desire to bear witness.
Ms. Tippett: Yes. And there’s a story that you tell about a particular man who said he was born in a garbage dump — “spent my entire life picking trash.”
Mr. Urrea: Why, Krista, you went in deep, didn’t you.
Ms. Tippett: Yes. [laughs]
Mr. Urrea: Yeah, I haven’t told that in a long time. We would rove all over northern Baja, California, into the hills, and there were a lot of orphanages and all kinds of interesting places in the backcountry. And I was keeping my journal notes, and this gentleman was walking by, and I was writing in my notebook, and he was looking at me. He was completely covered in adobe, and he was singed and black with cinders. He had a handkerchief tied on his head and a stick. And he came over, and he said, “Oye, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m writing in my journal.” He said, “Huh, that’s good. What’s a journal?” I said, “It’s like a diary.” “Oh, yeah? What’s a diary?”
I said, “Look, it’s a blank book, and you write stuff.” And he said, “Write what?” And I said, “What I see, what I’m doing, keeping a record.” And he said, “You writing about this place?” And I said, yeah. And he said, “You writing about these people?” I said, yeah. And he said, “You writing about me?” And I said, “Probably will.” And he looked at me — I’ve described it elsewhere as that moment when you’re around somebody, and you don’t know if they’re gonna hug you or hit you.
Perhaps if you’re out drinking or something, and that person smiles a little and leans back. And I thought, “Uh-oh, what’s…” And he came back, and he said what you said, “That’s good. That’s good. Write it down. Write about me,” he said, “because I was born in the trash. I spent my life picking trash. When I die, they’re gonna bury me in the trash.” He said, “You tell them, I was here.”
I was like, “wow, yes.” You know callow youth; I didn’t quite understand, I don’t think, the depth of what he had said to me. But it resonated forever.
Ms. Tippett: And I think it’s important, also, right here, to point out that you write about the fullness of what it is to be Mexican.
Mr. Urrea: Well, yeah. We rule.
Ms. Tippett: And it’s not all poverty, and it’s also, as you say, it’s not like everybody in Mexico is dying to get to the U.S., which is a narrative that’s very strong at the moment. So you draw out these layers of complexity, which also includes beauty and whimsy and all the things that happen in life. And one of the things you write about very convincingly — you don’t just write about it, you live it convincingly — you say, “Mexico is the true melting pot.” You are the living, breathing embodiment of that.
Mr. Urrea: Yeah, look at us. We have Apaches in our family, Yaqui indigenous people; of course, the Murrays…
Ms. Tippett: My kin…
Mr. Urrea: We have Chinese — huh?
Ms. Tippett: That’s where our lines cross.
Mr. Urrea: Oh, really?
Ms. Tippett: Well, yeah.
Mr. Urrea: Oh, we’re cousins.
Ms. Tippett: We’re cousins, yeah.
Mr. Urrea: And Urrea is not a Mexican name, it’s Basque. My grandfather was Basque, and in Basque, it means “golden man; man of gold.” So in other words, bubba looking, once again. And then we have Chinese Urreas, the Wong family, Wong Urreas. And recently, I met a bunch of Samoans. So I thought, ah, my Samoan cousins. How cool is that?
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] And it goes all the way back to, what, the Visigoth invaders of Iberia?
Mr. Urrea: Well, you know. When I was researching Hummingbird’s Daughter, I was — my family’s always been really thrilled that in Don Quixote, Don Quixote mentions the Urrea family. And he says, “You know, I am not a powerful man like the Urreas of Galicia.” And so, we’ve been going out to lunch on that for about 500 years.
[music: “Cottontops” by Huma-Huma]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with master storyteller — writer Luis Alberto Urrea.
Ms. Tippett: You point out some interesting things about language, and how our vocabulary is full of borrowed words. I think that’s important and interesting, also, because the insistence that Spanish-speaking Americans have on speaking Spanish feels like something new, I think, in this melting-pot culture.
I’m not sure that’s right; I wonder, if we could go back 100 years, if we would find that the Germans were still speaking German, and whatever.
Mr. Urrea: All you have to do is go into the North End in Boston, and people are speaking Italian. Amongst your folks, you do.
Ms. Tippett: You also say, “English! It’s made up of all these untidy words, man, have you noticed? Native American (skunk), German (waltz), Danish (twerp), Latin (adolescent), Scottish (feckless)” on and on. “It’s a glorious wreck (a good old Viking word, that). Glorious, I say, in all its shambling, mutable beauty. People daily speak a quilt work of words, and continents and nations and tribes and even enemies dance all over your mouth when you speak.”
Mr. Urrea: Why, thank you. Well, it’s true. I don’t quite comprehend the need for insult, the need for paranoia and aggression. I understand; I’m hearing all this new scientific talk, explaining how, of course, the mind is tribal, and we bond with our tribes, and we’re fearful of the stranger, and so forth. But there’s a particular tide of it in the United States, and it’s been here for an awfully long time. And I think I got a bit politicized when people started — well, I did when I was a kid, when they started calling me “greaser,” “wetback,” “taco bender,” “beaner,” all this stuff, which was a shock to me, and started telling me that everything bad was Mexican, everything filthy — because honestly, until fifth grade, everyone I revered was Mexican, and all of a sudden, in fifth grade, you’re told they’re all scum, invaders. I thought, what? It’s no accident to me that in fifth grade I lost my Mexican accent and started speaking like my mother. I didn’t mean to, but I wasn’t — I was in full-on survival mode, because I didn’t understand what had just happened. And I think that bafflement sticks with me to this day, and I don’t understand.
As a teacher, I teach in Chicago, and I watch students fear each other. I come into a class, and African-American students are on one side, and white students are on the other side. Or I come into a class, and there’ll be two young ladies with the hijab, and no one will sit near them. There’s an empty arc of seats around them. And so I’m always trying to find ways to stop these things, because it only takes this much, I think, for us to see each other, know each other, and then, love each other. And that’s what’s so dangerous. That’s very dangerous.
So one of my writing rules with my students, which I use all the time — and it’s why the books are so comedic in places — is, I always tell the students that laughter is the virus that infects you with humanity. And if you sit with somebody and laugh — not at them, but laugh with them wholeheartedly, how in the world can you get up from that table and say, “Pssh, those people.” You can’t. And if you’ve laughed with them, you’re going to cry with them too. That laughter is a very dangerous portal for humanity.
Ms. Tippett: And you’ve written recently about going to visit the Otay Mesa border crossing to see the wall in progress. And I love — one thing that you do is, you just plant that place in its history of 12,000 years of being inhabited by…
Mr. Urrea: The Kumeyaay.
Ms. Tippett: …Kumeyaay Indians. That also softens something, seeing that sweep of time.
Mr. Urrea: Yeah, it’s been on my mind for many years. When the immigration issue caught up with me after a couple of books, and I was talking about it, people would be really offended and upset with me. And I would always get the same response: “My family, sure, they were immigrants. But we did it legally, unlike you guys. We had papers.” And so I started being a jerk and saying, “Who checked them, Geronimo?”
“Crazy Horse stamped the papers?”
It’s ridiculous and, in some ways, a folly to say, “Can’t we all just get along?” But it is the truest thing that I don’t understand why we can’t. And part of it, I have to say — in my new novel, for the first time — I’m feeling very mature right now, because for the first time in my writing career, I’ve made the hero a Republican, just to show everybody that I can…
Ms. Tippett: Like your mother; a Republican like your mother.
Mr. Urrea: My mom was a serious Republican. So I just wanted people to know. And I was telling everybody, we need to be able to enjoy each other’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it. And when we can’t, we are in serious, serious trouble. And we’ve seen what the world is like, over and over again, when you must be silent. It’s not good.
Ms. Tippett: And I feel like one thing you do — as much in your fiction as in your nonfiction, and certainly in Into the Beautiful North — is, you work with the idea of a border or a wall, not, in fact, as a hard and fast thing: as a liminal space, as a liminal zone.
Mr. Urrea: It is a liminal space, absolutely.
Ms. Tippett: Right, but just to think about it that way opens up a lot of imagination.
Mr. Urrea: I think liminal space is where all writers go. That place of crossing, that place of pressure, of two things meeting, that’s a rich — that’s where the plankton wells up and the currents meet. And you can choose to see it in different ways. And either the border is a hideous, festering scar of oppression, horror, and violence, or it’s a fraternal space where two cultures meet and can exchange. And honestly, particularly before the narco wars, there was and there still are bastions of friendship along the border. And all you have to do is go to places near Nogales or Yuma, where kids on the Mexican side and kids on the American side play volleyball over the wall with each other.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and see, we don’t hear these stories.
Mr. Urrea: No, you don’t. And I recently did a ballet — I didn’t. I read poems while they danced.
Ms. Tippett: I’m imagining it.
Mr. Urrea: No. Me in a tutu — nah.
But I narrated this ballet. It was the 100th anniversary of a Stravinsky piece, which included a Faustian journey through a wasteland, where the man trying to get to safety has to make a deal with the devil, essentially. That was 100 years ago; this time, it’s people dying in the desert, making that terrible deal to survive. But when he did his other piece — his name is Steven Schick.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, yes.
Mr. Urrea: He’s brilliant. I keep saying, “This guy’s…”
Ms. Tippett: He also spent some time in Berlin, right? And that was a wall with which I had some intimacy. And I remember, still, when Michael Jackson came and did a concert right on the western side of the wall, just as things were falling apart. But the concertgoers gathered on the eastern side. It was exactly that. But one thing you point out is — so in Berlin, on the western side, the wall was painted and raucous and alive and rebellious, on the western side, where people were free. In Mexico, what do you say? In Mexico, it’s the Mexican side —
Mr. Urrea: It’s the reverse.
Ms. Tippett: It’s the reverse side that’s —
Mr. Urrea: Well, thank God for Steven Schick. I stole it, when he was telling me it, because it was the perfect wrap-up for that piece for The Times. When you went across to the other side, he said, the Mexican side, the entire fence is an art gallery covered with paintings, sculptures, graffiti. There are ice-cream men and taco stands, and there are mariachis, and there are lovers, and there are people dancing and strolling. The American side: steel, trucks, dogs, helicopters, guns.
Ms. Tippett: No art, no graffiti.
Mr. Urrea: No nothin’, and he said, “I suddenly realized that that was the Soviet side in Berlin.”
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, it was. And I think you said, “Who was free? Who was free, and who was prisoner?”
Mr. Urrea: Yeah, what exactly is that wall for, then? Hmm.
Ms. Tippett: I want to read something that you wrote. Here’s another thing you said about borders; a border is “an imposed metaphor on a family.” You said, “The border” — you were talking specifically about that region — “the border remains a fluid, mutating, stubbornly troubling, enthusiastically lethal region. Perhaps it’s not a region at all. Maybe it’s just an idea nobody can agree on, a conversation that never ends, even when it becomes an argument, and all participants kick over the table and spill their drinks and stomp out of the room.” You say, “I was born there.”
Mr. Urrea: I was born there. And I do think that it’s a convo that is alien. Even if you go to Phoenix, regardless of what politicians tell you, people in Phoenix aren’t really clear on what the border is. It’s not very far away, but it’s already alien. Well, people in Mexico are the same way. It’s not like people wake up every day and say, “Ah, the border. Let’s go!” They don’t. And it’s just the direst need that brings you to it.
And it’s a different world, and an example of that was, I got to go to Mexico City in the late ’90s, and I was interviewed by La Jornada, a great Mexican newspaper. And they were asking me about myself, and I thought, “I’m gonna get ‘em now.” And I said, “In a certain way, the border fence goes right down the middle of my heart. My heart is bisected by barbed wire.” And the reporter said, “That’s great. That’s great.” Mexico City. When the article came out, it said, “If you cut his chest open with a knife, there’s a Border Patrol truck idling in his heart.”
That was truly lost in translation.
[music: “Coyoacán” by Calexico]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more conversation with Luis Alberto Urrea. Subscribe to On Being on Apple Podcasts to listen again and discover produced and unedited versions of everything we do.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m in the St. Croix Valley of Minnesota with writer, Luis Alberto Urrea. We’re talking about the deep meaning of borders — what they are really about, what we do with them. The Mexican-American border, as he likes to say, ran straight through his parents’ Mexican-American marriage and divorce. His works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction confuse every dehumanizing caricature of Mexicans — as well as those we might have about U.S. border guards. Writing, for him, is an act of witnessing.
Ms. Tippett: When did you write The Devil’s Highway? When was that?
Mr. Urrea: Well, I started working on it in 2001. They died in May, and I started working in August. But it came out in 2004.
Ms. Tippett: So that is a story, because to me, also, I see that as much as you’ve been thinking about this, not just for 25 years but since 1955 — you’ve also had a journey in just going farther and farther into the layers of complexity. And one of the things that struck me about this — this is really as much reportage, I think, as it’s narrative nonfiction. And it’s about a terrible story of 26 Mexican men who set out across this desert known as the Devil’s Highway, and heading for Arizona, heading hopefully for work, and 12 of them made it, and 14 were just burned to death under that sun. And one of the things you’ve said is that when you set out to write it — you were tired of people just demonizing, not seeing these people as humans. You were sick of the toxic reduction of these people.
One of the things that you also ended up seeing is the humanity of the Border Patrol.
Mr. Urrea: I didn’t mean to.
Ms. Tippett: You didn’t mean to. But that’s a huge, huge piece of the story, and it’s in Agent Arnie Davis in Into the Beautiful North, right? That’s a very affecting piece of this book.
Mr. Urrea: Well, thank you. It was a big shock to me. I went in as, frankly, a really bad writer. I thought I had it all. I thought, “I am Mr. Witness, Mr. Enlightened Progressive.” And I thought, I’m going to witness everybody except those jerks over there in the Border Patrol — I’m gonna burn those guys. Because I just believed they were bad guys. And they knew it. They knew it before I walked in the door, and they made my life quite difficult. They engaged in enthusiastic, ritual hazing. And I didn’t know what was going on; I realize now, a) it was really amusing to them, but b) they wanted to see what kind of person I was.
And the supervisory agent of Welton Station, Kenny Smith, a lovely man, a 30-year veteran of the Border Patrol, while they were basically eating me alive, tearing my sinews off my bones, he came out, and he said, “What’s going on?” They said, “This idiot’s writing this book about the…” And he just looked at me, and it is what I call grace. I don’t know what else to call it. But this moment came, when his eyes focused and he looked at me, and he said, “I sent out the rescue. I sent out that big banzai run.”
And at that moment, without knowing it, my life changed. And he took me in, and he began training me. And he took me out and showed me what it means to track people and how to know what time of the morning somebody walked by. It was incredible. I realized, this guy had a Ph.D. in dirt, I say in the book, because he could read a piece of dirt like we read a poem in a lit class; then he was saying things that were blowing my mind.
And there came this moment — the transformational moment, for me, was standing on the Devil’s Highway with him. And there’s nothing there. There’s no fence. There’s no barbed wire. It’s just desert, as far as you can see. And there’s a sign with some bullet holes in it that says, “If you come to the United States, we’ll really be depressed.” That’s about it.
And I am standing there with him, and he says to me — and mind you, I still think they’re evil. He says, “I know what you think of me.” And I remember looking, because he’s got his .40-caliber Glock on his belt, and I thought, oh, man. And he said, “You think I’m a jackbooted thug.” And I was busted. I wasn’t gonna say, “Well, yes, I do.” I just stood there. And he said, “I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor.” And he started talking about his life.
And he told me all this amazing stuff that I couldn’t have imagined in 100 years: how agents park — they live 70 miles, 50 miles away from any station, because it takes that long to get into the game and change the human being you were when you woke up, to the human being that has to go out now. And he said, “And you gotta drive 70 miles home, because you gotta go home and bounce your child on your knee.” And he said to me at one point — it’s a white cowboy. He says, “My daddy was a rancher. I’m a rancher. You know what I do all day? I chase ranchers around this.” He said, “I know they’re my own people.” And he said, “My job is to save innocent civilians dying a terrible death. My job is also to arrest those same civilians.”
Ms. Tippett: Right, both parts of that equation that you didn’t know.
Mr. Urrea: It’s the same person.
Ms. Tippett: Once, you talk about how there’s, in this swirl of things that get — these accusations that are made and assumptions that are made; that there’s the criticism that American taxpayers are paying for comfort stations and expensive light towers. And then you said, “Wrong. In fact, the towers are built, raised, maintained, and paid for out-of-pocket by those bleeding-heart liberals, the Border Patrol agents themselves.”
Mr. Urrea: They — OK, they’re cops. So they’re not stupid, they’re sly. So they designed lifesaving towers with shiny mirrors that can be seen from many, many miles away. And they’re solar-powered. They have a call button. And they have a sign that says, “You will die. You will not make it to the freeway. And if you’re in distress, push this button. We will be here before a half-hour and save you.” And being cops, they put them in the places where the most people walked. Yeah, it gave them more arrests, but yeah, it gave them access to save people. And that was designed and built in garages by Border Patrol agents; they went out and put them up themselves. And they paid for them. Those are little things.
And when he was telling me all this stuff — all my alarms went off — all my Chicano, border, Mexican, liberal, may-not-love-Border-Patrol. It was like the robot in Lost in Space — “Danger, Will Robinson. May not love Border Patrol.” And I couldn’t help myself. And he told me these things about being a dad, being a husband, and dead people he had seen, and all this stuff. And I turned to him, and I said, “Kenny — Kenny, I love you, man.” And he just — he never looked at me. He just kept looking in the desert and said, “I kinda like you too, buddy.”
How can you not write a book?
[music: “Flores y Tamales” by Calexico]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with master storyteller and author Luis Alberto Urrea.
Ms. Tippett: I think this is actually what you’re getting at right there. You have this experience, you’ve said, that at the same time people want to strengthen barriers, we seem to want to supersede them, and this makes us a little crazy. You said, “We’d like to be able to speak to each other. We miss each other.”
Mr. Urrea: Don’t you think?
Ms. Tippett: I do think, but there’s something about somebody like you writing it down that way, and I read it, and I know it’s true.
Mr. Urrea: I do think it’s true, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom that can be had from both sides of the aisle, if we’re willing to listen to it. And I admit, most of the time, I’m like, “Are you kidding?” I’m watching MSNBC every night, saying, “Are you kidding me?”
But I’m still willing to listen. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: OK, let’s have a couple questions.
Audience Member 1: How do we create empathy and love to replace fear and hatred?
Mr. Urrea: Ooh. [laughter] I just think, bearing witness, putting away that pointy finger and that ridiculous rhetoric. It’s really hard. Again, the danger is talking about a human being. That’s dangerous. What do you mean, there are really wonderful people in “that religion”? What do you mean, there are really wonderful people that I’m going to love, doing “that sexuality”? What about “that voting”? Guess what? Everybody has dreams. Everybody has people they love. Everybody has pain.
And for me, one of the greatest things that always sticks with me is walking into the Tijuana garbage dump and making that my world for years. Talk about fear and loathing. I still remember one of the women in the garbage dump hugging me. There were a bunch of missionaries, and she’s all hugged-up on me, and “Oh, Luis, Luis, Luis.” And she said, “You know why I love Luis?” And they’re like, “Why?” “He’s not afraid of us.” And I was like, “Ah, yeah, man.” And she’s like, “He doesn’t care if I have lice.” And I was like, “Whoa, what?”
So I think you gotta be willing to put your life — not just your money, but your life where your mouth is. I had a little deal with God. I was like, “I’ll do this if I don’t get lice, all right?”
Audience Member 2: This is two questions. You can answer either, both. What is the hardest thing about non-Latino audiences? When presenting your work way up North, what must you do differently compared to Los Angeles, San Antonio, or even Chicago?
Mr. Urrea: Not a doggone thing. It’s absolutely wonderful. There’s nothing — sure, in San Antonio we speak Spanish more. But other than that, no. These are readers. People are readers; they want to know things, or they wouldn’t be reading. So no, I feel — we have this phrase in Spanish, “en familia.” You’re “in your family” everywhere I go, because people are kind.
Ms. Tippett: So if the “we” is not a melting pot, what is it that we’re evolving towards? What would your hope be, your dream, that we’re evolving into?
Mr. Urrea: Oh, gosh — Star Trek.
We’re going to have a culture, perhaps, where there’s a kind of federation of planets. What is wrong with seeing a stranger in the dark and having that stranger only raise a hand to you to wave hello and not hit you? What’s wrong with that? And it seems so simple to me, and enjoyable, to be able to appreciate someone else’s culture or music or cuisine, or even to listen about their religion and say, “That’s very interesting.”
Ms. Tippett: I like that. So we evolve into just enjoying each other more.
Mr. Urrea: Well, wouldn’t that be nice? I think it sure would — except maybe in sports, right?
Ms. Tippett: We can still hate each other in sports.
Mr. Urrea: Yes, oh, absolutely.
Ms. Tippett: This is a beautiful book of poetry.
Mr. Urrea: Thank you.
Ms. Tippett: The Tijuana Book of the Dead. And actually, the first poem in here is called “You Who Seek Grace from a Distracted God.” And it’s way too long to read. But I’m so intrigued by where it ends. And I even wondered, maybe, if you would just this page. But I want to know about all these I love yous. Would you just read that and then talk to me about where that goes? What’s happening there?
Mr. Urrea: Well, the first line of the first poem is, “You who seek grace from a distracted God,” and the last line of the last poem is, “You are not forgotten.” Hence, in my mind, this is the world’s longest sentence. And it’s all about God — or about our yearning. And so this is a poem that was inspired by anti-immigrant rhetoric, and it’s a journey through the first hours of the morning of people desperately trying to get to work. And this is an echo of my own mornings, taking many buses to many awful jobs. And so you’re standing in the downtown plaza.
Ms. Tippett: You can start earlier, or wherever you want.
Mr. Urrea: I’ll find a spot, so it makes some sense. And you’re standing with all the people there.
“in tedium you walk silent, counting your manifold sins, / to the plaza, stand / in the crush of your family—these children heading for trade school, / the wheelchair man, the woman and her shopping cart, / the nodding hooker with blue tears on her cheek, paisanos / y borrachos, Ticos, Boricuas, Xicanos, Apaches, / Taínos, Habaneras, cariocas, Mayas, / tattooed cholo Samurai’d and inscrutable leaning back, / hushed as he watches / you. And you want to, you / really want to, you are bursting with it, you / are burning with it, you / who have no words / want to cup their cheeks in your hands, / you want to hold their faces between your palms, / you want to say it—say it, you have nothing / to lose—just say it: say // I love you. I love you. / I love you. I love you. / I love you. I love you.”
Partially, it’s really hard to say “I love you” a lot, to people, I think — certainly, to an audience. Interestingly — it’s funny you choose that, because that’s how they started the ballet. They made me say this to all these strangers. And often, if I’m feeling really dramatic, I will gesture to each part of the audience when I do it, because I want it to be sort of a pagan benediction, in a way.
But yeah, you want to say it. We all want to say it. But we can’t. And I deal with so many kids who can’t tell their story, and they don’t think anybody loves them. They think nobody cares. They think everybody hates them. They’re waiting to be thrown out of the country or their mothers to vanish. So part of it is talking to people who need to say it more. Part of it is talking to myself, to say, “Don’t be a coward. Tell people you love them.” And part of it is, I’m often talking to 600 kids, not you adults, and I telling them, “I love you. I love you all,” because somebody’s got to. You’ve got to — if I could have a radio show, I would just read them a story every night and tell them I love them.
Ms. Tippett: This has been so beautiful. And I wanted to ask you, as we finish, if you would read these lines from Nobody’s Son, which is kind of a memoir; notes.
Mr. Urrea: Yeah, OK. “Words are the only bread we can really share. When I say ‘we,’ I mean every one of us, everybody, all of you, each Border Patrol agent and every trembling Mexican peering through the fence. Every Klansman and each NAACP office worker. Each confused mother and every disappointed dad. For I am nobody’s son. But I am everyone’s brother. So come here to me. Walk me home.”
[music: “There Go the Leaves One by One” by Lullatone]
Ms. Tippett: Luis Alberto Urrea is an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His many books include: Into the Beautiful North, The Devil’s Highway, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, and The House of Broken Angels.
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Damon Lee, and Jeffrey Bissoy.
Ms. Tippett: A big thank you this week to ArtReach St. Croix, the Stillwater Public Library, Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, and the NEA’s Big Read program. A special shout out to Heather Rutledge, Stephani Atkins, Traci Post, Travis Nordahl, and Phil Kadidlo.
[music: “Quiet Mind” by GoGo Penguin]
Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project.
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.