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Writer Explores Exodus Of Mexicans To The U.S.


I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, more companies are marketing toward Latinos. But first, we turn to a fictionalized account of immigration from Mexico. The massive migration north in recent years has emptied entire Mexican villages of their able-bodied men. That's the starting point for "Into the Beautiful North," the latest novel by Luis Alberto Urrea, a writer who's made a career documenting life along the U.S.-Mexico border and the lives of the people who cross it.

Urrea was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 for his non-fiction book, "The Devil's Highway," and he joins me now from Denver, Colorado. Welcome.

Mr. LUIS ALBERTO URREA (Author, "Into the Beautiful North"): Hi, how are you?

LUDDEN: Good. Your book is set in this imagined village on Mexico's western cost, Tres Camarones, three shrimps.

Mr. URREA: Three shrimp, yeah.

LUDDEN: A group of young women there are inspired when they see "The Magnificent Seven," and it prompts them to action and adventure. I'm wondering what inspired you to tell this tale.

Mr. URREA: My family comes from a little town down there called Rosario Sinaloa, and this town is the template for Tres Camarones. My uncle owned the movie theater. We'd go to these movies all the time, you know.

LUDDEN: Did you see "The Magnificent Seven"?

Mr. URREA: You know what I did see? I saw "The War Wagon" with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, but it was dubbed into German. And it had Japanese subtitles and then this little strip with some Spanish words, and I've never forgotten that weird image. It was so magical and funky.

LUDDEN: Well, that must have been a very strange image you were getting there through their translation of America. I mean, you were born in Tijuana, to a Mexican father and an American mother.

Mr. URREA: Right.

LUDDEN: So I'm curious. What was your image of the two countries as you were growing up?

Mr. URREA: It was really interesting to me because I, you know, born there and spent my first probably four or five years in Tijuana, and then we came to San Diego, and I didn't really comprehend a border. In those days, the Tijuana border, you actually had to drive through the muddy riverbed and through this really bizarre, surreal slum-land to get into Tijuana, but it didn't occur to me that they were different countries.

It was just on one side of the river, grandma lived, and on the other side of the river, we lived. And it wasn't until I moved away from the direct border region, up into a white, working-class suburb, that I started to understand that there was this divide and that the people to the north of it didn't have a very high opinion of Tijuana. I thought Tijuana was pretty cool, you know, until I found out it wasn't. Everybody told me it wasn't. I thought, well that's interesting.

LUDDEN: In the middle of the book, there's this really wrenching scene that takes place in Tijuana. And I just want to read a bit of it and ask you about this. Some characters have just been deported from the U.S. back into Mexico, and you write:

Tijuana street toughs with nothing better to do entertain themselves by jeering at deportees as they came back to Mexico tired and dirty and downtrodden. Old hands among the returnees knew the border game and faded away and vanished among the tough guys and headed back to the fences. But the fresh meat, the crying ones, the hunched and scuttling guilty-looking ones, they were the source of sport and derision.

Did you really see a scene like that?

Mr. URREA: Oh yeah. One of the points I try to make in the book is for most of the population of Tijuana, they have nothing to do with this thing, and they have their own lives. But there's a certain substratum of society that often preys on these folks. And the people coming back, they can tell, a lot of the kind of low-level criminals or tough guys in the street or, you know, cholos with nothing better to do or sometimes just low-level coyotes who want to get a quick buck and try to hustle those folks, they kind of shadow those people. If you know where to look, you can see all the stuff that's in the book, yeah.

LUDDEN: Well, the main character in your book is named Nayeli, and you write elsewhere that you heard that in Tijuana's garbage dump, you heard that name for the first time. And I gather you have quite a history with the garbage dump in Tijuana?

Mr. URREA: I do, yeah. I used to work with a relief group that took care of the people in the dump. We took them food and water and medicine and built homes and took them to church services, whatever was needed. And Nayeli is actually the daughter of a woman that I first met when she was six years old. So I've had a really long experience with the Tijuana garbage dump, oddly enough.

And so the scenes in the dump are as close as I can get to the real experience of it. You know, there's a scene in the book where the character Atomico(ph) is sort of proudly remembering his little paper shack that's...

LUDDEN: He's grown up in the dump.

Mr. URREA: Yeah. Yeah. And he's thinking about how fine and deluxe his paper shack was. And I realized when I was writing it that I actually was planning my own paper shack. Because I realized, you know, if something horrible happened in my life, those people who live in the dump would take me in.

LUDDEN: Did the dump kind of, your work in the dump kind of serve to inform your work?

Mr. URREA: Absolutely. I, you know, as a young writer you have those dreams of you know being some sort of super star. You know, think, wow, I'll be Stephen King or somebody. And you know, working there gave me a whole different perspective and I realized that it was really important to try to take a position of witness in what you write, that there are people who are voiceless not by choice. But they're fascinating, good people with hopes and dreams and feelings and families just like everyone else, who by an odd twist of historically fate or karma, if you want to call it karma, whatever that is, were born in a situation that was completely hopeless. And you sometimes start thinking as you know them if they had been given hope what might this story have been?

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Luis Urrea about his latest book, "Into the Beautiful North." You have written both fiction and nonfiction. More nonfiction, I think than novels.

Mr. URREA: Right.

LUDDEN: And I was struck, I've read a bit of both and I was really struck by the very different tone. I mean your last work of nonfiction, "The Devil's Highway," is about a border crossing gone bad. I mean it's deadly serious.

Mr. URREA: Yes.

LUDDEN: And your fiction also touches on very serious topics and tragedies, but you have this whimsical, light and irreverent tone. How do you account for that?

Mr. URREA: You know, people are funny. And even in "The Devil's Highway," I mean when you hang out with the border patrol agents you realize that they're a laugh riot. And some of the things they think are funny you may not think are funny. I think a lot of times people try to guilt you into feeling humanity and make you feel bad and awful. But I realized that we are united almost instantaneously by laughter and it equalizes us in a lot of ways. And also as an author, because a lot of writing I think is in a sense manipulation, there's a shameless factor to it in that you think, well, if you have warmed up or soften up the reader with some humor, when it's time for something truly terrible to happen it is even more impactful. And the other stuff, especially in "Into the Beautiful North" I thought, you know, I've worked on such heavy, massive or impactful projects for so long I wanted to write a book that made me laugh, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: So I wanted to sit there and have a cup of coffee and chuckle and think, wow, these people are really interesting, you know, they're really fun.

LUDDEN: The main character in the book, the young woman Nayeli...

Mr. URREA: Yes.

LUDDEN: ... is searching for her father. He's gone to Kenkehe(ph)? Is that how you say it?

Mr. URREA: Kankakee, Illinois.

LUDDEN: Kankakee, Illinois. Not far from...

Mr. URREA: Yes.

LUDDEN: ... where you're now teaching at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Mr. URREA: Right.

LUDDEN: And I see in your notes you, it's a real place.

Mr. URREA: Yes it is. Kankakee rocks, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: You know, Kankakee is a little town about, I don't know, 50-some miles south of Chicago that underwent a great fiscal collapse. The neighboring towns apparently call it the ghetto in the meadow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: And it came to my attention, sort of peripherally when David Letterman, as a one of his endless jokes sent them a gazebo on a giant truck to improve the city.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: And they swallowed their pride and accepted the gazebo, you know, and put it up. And they called me and invited me to come do a reading at the library. So you know, my wife and I drove down there and I thought, Kankakee, Illinois. So I'm thinking the library is going to be a little brick building, five retired ladies with chocolate chip cookies, and it's going to be a sweet little event. And we walked in and they had 325 people waiting inside.

LUDDEN: Oh my.

Mr. URREA: Yeah. And the mayor was there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: And he gave me the key to city. And I thought, wow, it really pays to come do a reading in Kankakee.

LUDDEN: You're not laughing at Kankakee anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: No. And they had a really amazing approach to things like undocumented immigration and so forth, in which they were integrating people into this town to help the town come back to life. And they had found out where the undocumented were coming from and they went to that town in Mexico, in Guanajuato, and forged a relationship. The mayor actually took detectives, police officers, city council. They flew down there to meet that city council and they're working together on both sides of the border to make both towns survive.

LUDDEN: I want to ask you about something, a quote I've seen from you.

Mr. URREA: Okay.

LUDDEN: You said growing up as you did with Mexican and American parents, back and forth across the border, growing up divided in half by a barbed wire fence has made see...

Mr. URREA: Yeah.

LUDDEN: ...a border everywhere I turn.

Mr. URREA: Oh, absolutely everywhere. All you had to do was watch the last election to see that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: You know, everywhere I speak you can see the border. There's a border between black and white. There's a border between gay and straight, as we see in California right now. We are all separated by endless complex series of fences. And you know, I think that part of our job as authors is not to build fences but to build bridges. I like bridges more than fences. And often when I do these readings I end it by telling the audience that my strongest belief in all of this is that there is no them, there is only us. And unless we start to understand that there is us, we are the people who live on this planet and we have to share it, that we're going to have a lot of useless heartbreak.

LUDDEN: Author, Luis Alberto Urrea, his latest novel is "Into the Beautiful North," and he joined us Denver. Thank you so much.

Mr. URREA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And to learn more about Luis Urrea's book, "Into the Beautiful North," go to the TELL ME MORE page at There you'll find an excerpt of the novel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.