Author Luis Urrea embodies contradiction. Though Mexican, he is blond-haired and blue-eyed. Though born in Tijuana and raised in San Diego, he lives in the cold and humidity of Chicago. Though he's written four books about the plight of Mexicans in the border region, he respects, even admires, the Border Patrol.
He learned that respect and admiration while researching his latest book, The Devil's Highway, in which he tells the story of 26 illegal immigrants who were led into the Arizona desert in May of 2001 as triple-digit heat descended on the area. The group's 19-year-old guide lost his way in the bone-dry valleys and mountain ranges southeast of Yuma. After walking about 65 miles and running out of water, 14 of them died of thirst and heat exposure -- a death process Urrea describes as being mummified while still alive. The rest were saved by the Border Patrol, with help from Marine helicopter pilots, in a frantic rescue effort. In another hour, all of them would have died in the sand.
Urrea started life in 1955 in Tijuana, where his family had relocated from Mexico City. "My dad had been on the presidential staff in Mexico City," he explained in a recent phone interview. "In fact, he had met my mom in San Francisco on a state trip of some sort. So when he left the presidential staff, he came to Tijuana. His mom and his dad and his sisters -- everybody was in Tijuana."
Asked why a man on the presidential staff of Mexico would uproot his family, move to Tijuana, and "work menial jobs in San Diego," Urrea responded, "One of the stories he always used to tell us was that he had been asked to perform a task he could not get himself to perform, and he had been paid $2000 in a check from the president of Mexico that he had never cashed. And after he had died, when I went through his papers, I found the check. He did in fact have a $2000 U.S. check written in, I think, 1954."
Urrea's father never told him what he'd been asked to do, "but you can assume what it was; they must have wanted him to kill someone, and he wouldn't do it, so he fled."
When he was five, Urrea's family moved to Logan Heights, a neighborhood he said was "Spooky; it's always been kind of spooky. It was tough; people got beat up a lot. When we moved there, it was in transition into being sort of African-American from a Mexican barrio."
As a blond, blue-eyed Mexican kid -- a guërro in the Mexican dialect -- Urrea found he had no clan to belong to in Logan Heights. "The black kids would beat me up for being white," he chuckled. "The Mexican kids would beat me up for being white, the white kids knew I was Mexican, so they would want to beat me up, so I thought, 'Screw this, I am going to stay home, man. I am going to stay home and read Mark Twain.'"
Despite the fights, Urrea said that while he lived in Logan Heights, during which time he often visited family in Tijuana, "To me Tijuana and San Diego were just inseparable; they were two sides of the same thing. I didn't ever think about it until we left Logan Heights and got to Clairemont, when I was suddenly living among nothing but white folks, who talked about taco benders and greasers and all of that stuff, I thought, 'Holy crap, there is something wrong with being a Mexican? Are you serious?' I suddenly was immersed in a whole different universe that I didn't imagine existed."
It was during this period of his life that Urrea started writing -- poetry at first. On a teacher's suggestion, Urrea says, "I got the collected poems of Stephen Crane from the library, and it totally blew my mind. I thought, 'I have found some magical thing that nobody else in the world knows about.' And that was free verse and blank verse -- these weird little poems. One of the great things about Stephen Crane is that all the poems are really tiny, and I thought, as we used to say in those days, 'This is bitchin'!' I rushed home, and I started writing Stephen Crane stuff immediately, but at the same time, I was listening to Leonard Cohen, so I was trying to write Leonard Cohen stuff all the time. A lot of those musicians just really touched me. And in about 1970 or 1971, I bought Jim Morrison's book The Lords and the New Creatures, and that was it. I was hooked on poetry."
Starting at Clairemont High School and carrying over to his college days at UCSD, Urrea found the clan that he had missed as a grade schooler in Logan Heights. "I was very involved in being a writer," he said, "poetry and so forth. And at the beginning of my UCSD time, I was a drama major, so I was seriously involved in my own little universe; I had a little theater group of my own. I was writing plays, and we were producing stuff, and I was writing lyrics for some local rock bands.
"It was amazing; we had this little army of creative guys, all of my best friends. And most of my friends were musicians." Urrea grew animated as the memories flooded back. "We had this long-standing sort of all-night brotherhood. No matter what we were doing or where we were, we would gather in places. It was for a long time a donut shop on Clairemont Drive, and we would stay there all night and write songs or argue about politics or occultism or religion or whatever. We had this bizarre klatch of creative people, and it was a lot of people. It was just a wonderful atmosphere to be in, to be creative all of that time. I was really fortunate. I think we were kind of monsters in a way, though, because we were pretty sure we were elite."