If there is such a thing as reincarnation, Luis Alberto Urrea predicts, he will be back as Emiliano Zapata. In this lifetime, Urrea was born in Tijuana—”Jewel of the Border, The Great Walled City of the Barbarian Chichimeca Empire”—in 1955. He has lived in San Diego, Los Angeles, Boston, Boulder, Tucson, Lafayette, Chicago, and Sinaloa, Mexico. Currently he is a tenured professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is also one of the finest chroniclers of the U.S.-Mexico border—from his nonfiction collection of essays Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border to The Devil’s Highway, his book about a group of 26 immigrants who tried to enter the United States from Sonora, Mexico, in the summer of 2001; 14 of them died of dehydration in the Arizona desert. Devil’s Highway received a Pulitzer Prize nomination; production of a film version is scheduled to begin in February. His latest book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is an epic novel about his great aunt Teresita Urrea, a faith healer whose influence touched the Mexican Revolution. Urrea is now working on a sequel. While on book tour last fall, he met with the Observer. The following is an excerpt of that conversation:
Texas Observer: Is la frontera in need of a border brujo to give it a limpia, a cleansing?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Absolutely. We need somebody, but I don’t know anyone who is powerful enough to do the job. The border is accumulating so much bad energy—from Juárez to the killing fields of Arizona. It’s heartless and becoming more relentless than when I was growing up as a kid.
TO: Do you attribute this to one side or both sides?
LAU: Both sides. When I was hanging out with the Border Patrol for The Devil’s Highway, they made it very clear to me that they felt there wouldn’t be [an immigration] problem if it weren’t for the United States giving work to people, drawing them north. They had a realistic political view of what they were doing. It surprised me. But I think if you live in that milieu day in and day out, you know what is going on. The Mexican authorities would tell me the same thing. And so would workers. If there were work in Mexico, if there was some kind of justice, they wouldn’t come. They don’t want to leave home. But in the process of coming north, the victimization and predation happens.
TO: Carlos Fuentes recently asked what the United States would do with all the jobs it wouldn’t be able to fill it if closed its borders.
LAU: Well, the United States would be in trouble. Monetary figures speak loudly. The Center for Immigration Studies just released figures that “illegal workers” are putting $6.4 billion into Social Security that they will never collect. One of the deals with the devil that everybody at the government level has done is turn a blind eye and even encourage it. It’s one of the secret formulas that is keeping Social Security afloat.
When I first heard those figures, I didn’t believe them. It was a Mexican politician who told me, “Do you know why we’re in the U.S.? We’re taking care of your retirees. We’re keeping Social Security afloat.” And I thought, this is propaganda, but then the numbers started coming out, and it turns out to be true.
TO: On the other side of the border, you have remittances sent to Mexico by these workers.
LAU: It’s $45 billion to all of Latin America and the Caribbean. But it is $17 billion just to Mexico. When I was in Sonora with some of the Mexican immigration cops, we were talking about this. And I asked, what is going to happen? And they said nothing is going to happen to stop this because this is the second-largest source of income to Mexico—petroleum, remittance money, and tourism.
And I asked, what about illegal drugs? And all of the cops looked at each other and started laughing. “Okay, this is the third largest source of income then. First, cocaine and marijuana, then petroleum, and then remittance money or tourism.” That’s the big secret no one wants to talk about—drug money. I think that what is happening on the level of evil on the border is that the narcotraficantes‘ pattern of criminality is also taking over the coyotes’ world.
Now, one thing that is hopeful about Mexicans sending money home is that they are now targeting that money to do social engineering that the Mexican government can’t or won’t do. So you’re seeing people with action groups in places like Chicago, where I live, who target their home regions and they are asking that the money be used for infrastructure. You see people—communities—putting in sidewalks, stoplights, rebuilding schools because the gobierno won’t do it. So they are using that money almost as homegrown foreign policy assistance.
TO: So if both sides are benefiting from the present situation does that preclude any actual changes occurring on either side?
LAU: That’s why I think on the government level, you’ll never see that change. American citizens are panicking. And I always tell people it’s no sin to be worried about the security of your nation. People are afraid of terrorists. I think there is a racial component frankly. Some people don’t appreciate mexicanos.
In my family, we were the first Latinos in our neighborhood. I had never been called greaser before, wetback or taco bender. You look at me—I’m a bubba-looking kid—and they were still calling me those things. So you can imagine people in Arkansas or Iowa with a barrio all of a sudden, and they don’t know what to do. Outside of Chicago where I live, Naperville is the whitest town in the world, and there is a Mexican community now. So I think there is a racial component in all this.
TO: From the titles of your border nonfiction, from the first book, Life on the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border to the more recent The Devil’s Highway, it appears the situation on la frontera has gone from bad to worse. Has this taken a personal toll, burnout?
LAU: I told people after Devil that I was going to write haiku from now on. You can’t focus on that much pain and hopelessness without getting cynical yourself—which I don’t want to do. But I also began to see glimmers of hope. When I finished Devil, especially, I felt completely hopeless. I was left feeling a humanitarian tragedy that was never going to go away.
[An aspect] of the weirdness of our border policy is that people no longer migrate. They get here and stay because it is too hard to go back and forth. And that is why this remittance money is so big now. It’s easier to go to Western Union. And Western Union is making a lot of money every time you wire money. So if they’re sending $45 billion a year, they’re getting a share of that; everyone’s benefiting.
That’s the thing Americans don’t understand. It’s very easy to point a finger and say, “Look at these people invading your country,” while on the other hand, you’re making money.
TO: Let’s talk about the border itself. It’s a place that’s ni aquí ni allá, neither here nor there.
LAU: [The border] has its culture. It starts in Houston and goes down all the way to Chihuahua City. It is a very wide swath. I grew up in this area in Tijuana—Auntie Jane—but we called it Tijuanaclán, the Great Walled City of the Barbarian Chichimeca Empire.
Earlier generations in Mexico discounted the border, really didn’t like the border. They thought el norte wasn’t really Mexico; the United States didn’t [like it] either. They were embarrassed by it. The border was allowed to just fester. But what it did was it created this active, exciting can-do community.
Look at San Antonio. This is a city that seems to have found a hybrid between the two cultures that works pretty well. I don’t know about El Paso, but certainly San Diego, and the area south of it. Chula Vista is a city that has been totally overlooked. People barely even know it exists. It was seen as the poor, ugly stepsister of San Diego, so close to Tijuana, so far from San Diego.
But they realized that there is an immense wave of trade and culture and power in Tijuana and Mexico behind it. So Chula Vista, not being stupid, is building a very elaborate shopping center on la frontera with its entrances from Mexico straight into the mall. And they realize they can interdict hundreds of millions of dollars of trade from San Diego. They’re building, in cooperation with the Mexican university system, a new campus right on the border. They are also going to have a binational university village. Again, taking hundreds of millions of dollars away from San Diego and taking it back to the border.
It’s worth noting that once a forward-thinking community realizes it can work with Mexico you can move hand in hand ahead with these creative options to make the most of the border instead of suffering and being ashamed of the border. I think Vicente Fox’s one stroke of genius was pointing out that the border was a zone of possibility, not a zone of shame, and that it was the future of Mexico. Instead of disowning it, they should embrace it and make the most of it. So what I dream of is a type of border perestroika between the two cultures.
TO: More than just a geographical marker, the borderland was where the mythical pachuco was born. His influence was seen in Mexican films shown in Spanish-language theaters throughout the borderlands.
LAU: Well, you know [pachucos] gave birth to la raza, el movimiento, chicanismo. That culture of the 1950s and 1960s degenerated to a certain extent. A lot of my family is cholos and vatos. But you get in a situation where they feel rejected by Mexico and they reject Mexico. But they also feel rebuffed by the United States. And they are rebuffed in return. So you stay in that little valley and develop your own amazing language. But I think a lot of the youth lost the root of the Spanish, [then] they didn’t achieve enough in English and were reduced to only having slang. But those are transitional moments we’re coming through and coming out of.
In the Chicano writing world, a whole new generation of writers has achieved stuff that the old-timers, and even mid-timers, like me, probably couldn’t have dreamed of. They’ve been to the Ivy League now, gone to all these incredible schools. Chicanos are coming out of Alaska who are part indigenous [members of Alaskan native groups], because now we’re everywhere. There’s a whole new generation of new perspectives. Gay writers can be out and don’t have to worry about hiding. They don’t have to suffer what [El Paso writer] John Rechy suffered—being kept out of the community. So there is this wave of very prepared, very well educated, very savvy writers. They represent what’s happening with our younger generation.
The media want to focus on the MS-13 gang and gang-bangers, but the fact is we have a wide range of humanity and a whole lot of our people are accomplishing great things. It may have taken an extra generation to stabilize but we’re experiencing great success. I always tell people that success is the best revenge. Excellence is the best revenge.
TO: And for some, repopulating is the best revenge.
LAU: Yeah, you always hear that reconquista argument. When I talk to young kids I always tell them you have to be aware of the way people use language—on you. You’re part of a propaganda campaign. So when you hear about illegal immigration, beware. Illegal immigration is not even a criminal act. It is not a misdemeanor. It is a civil infraction. It’s civil law. It’s akin to getting a speeding ticket. It is not even a misdemeanor crime. So we should take out that term illegal. I use it in my book just because it is so irritating that I hope it will irritate the reader too. [At the time this issue went to press, the U.S. House of Representatives had passed legislation that would make illegal immigration a criminal offense; the legislation had not been heard in the Senate.]
And then you have some of the language they use on us: this “browning of America.” Doesn’t it sound like a detergent commercial? You have something in your underpants you need to wash out? That is not necessarily a complimentary term even if you think it’s a euphemism. Think about this: This continent was pretty damn brown before those guys got here. If anything, it has been the whitening of America. This was a brown continent.
TO: Recent Chicano literature has seen the release of longer novels like Sandra Cisneros’ Caramelo, Luis Rodriguez’s The Music of the Mill, Ben Alire Sáenz’s Carry Me Like Water, and your own book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter. But Latin American writers seem to be publishing smaller novels, even novellas.
LAU: For me, the bulk of my book was dictated by the epic nature of the story. We are the generation who grew up with James Michener and John Steinbeck. Maybe we are going through that tradition of the big American novel. Most of my books had been pretty slender. But there was so much to tell about Teresita that I am doing a sequel, which will also be a fat book. It is dictated by form—by the stories you have to tell.
TO: We have our Niño Fidencio, our Don Jaramillo and our Santa Teresita. What is it with our Chicano latter day, counterculture saints?
LAU: I think it is the same thing with Guadalupe in her day. We need this Mexican sacredness—we need a new world approach. I think it is interesting that Mormonism has been very interesting to Chicanos and mexicanos because it offers a new world theology, a new world Christianity. However, our metaphors are different.
One of the curanderos I studied with [while researching Hummingbird] kept telling me, “You know the missionaries came here and they didn’t understand this continent. And they thought snakes were evil. We didn’t think snakes were evil. They did. So they attributed our belief to some kind of satanic demonic force, whereas the snake was holding the same metaphorical place for me and my tribe as for the Hebrews.”
For me, with Teresita, it’s because it is personal.
t is a family story. It is also t
king ownership of our history. Learning how to tell our history. I worked on Teresita for 20 years before I could feel that I could write it and do it justice. So I think it is the whole body of work coming to fruition for all of us. I think Caramelo is a pretty personal text. And The Hummingbird’s Daughter is a personal text for me. Luis’ book [Music of the Mill] is a very personal text too. Ben Sáenz and Gary Soto do a lot of poetry and young adult books. We are now everywhere. I don’t know what it means—I think we now have entry into the mainstream, and we will be taken seriously as American authors. I am still seen as a regional writer, but I made my first foreign sales with this new book.
TO: Our earlier works were marginalized as too regional, while Faulkner, who wrote about a little postage stamp county, was considered universal. It wasn’t until García Márquez started writing about Macondo that a change occurred.
LAU: They didn’t recognize some of the cultural markers. [Chicano writer] Rudy Anaya used to tell me that your personal world is very political. He would come under fire in the old Marxist days of the movement for not being political enough. He told his critics, “What I write is very political. If you can make somebody from another culture think your grandmother is their grandmother, you then teach them something about humanity they hadn’t thought about.” I always took that to heart and I think he is right.
As we move out to a more universal reading public, it’s not a change necessarily in us but in the reading public accepting it. The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is a universal book in that it has a connection with anybody— regardless of culture—who has somebody in their recent past who was very connected with the earth even in a tribal way.
I talk about this with my students all the time. But many say, “We are just white people, we don’t have a culture.” I said that is the strangest thing I ever heard. You have the culture everybody else is ripping off so you better look at it and what you are going to do. And sure enough they had a grandma who healed warts or a grandpa who had a folk remedy. Everyone has a connection to the earth.
TO: That brings us back to healing the border.
LAU: I used to think that the only thing that would be helpful, that the only thing I had to offer, was my art. To that end, we wanted to make a concert on one side of the river with Mexican musicians and gringos on the other side and serenade each other. The only thing that can pass the border without problems is music—art as a symbolic bridge.
I think there is more brotherhood than we understand. We are programmed to think we are in competition. That we are against each other, that we are xenophobes. But the fact is we are often much more accepting of each other and welcoming of each other than we get credit for.
Gregg Barrios is a Texas journalist and playwright. He lives in San Antonio.