During his rock-and-roll intellectual monster years at Clairemont High School and UCSD, Urrea almost never visited Tijuana. "I was a San Diego boy all the way, man," he said. "I mean, I would go with my dad once in a while to visit. But, you know, the days of Tijuana and San Diego being exactly the same for me were definitely over."
Urrea graduated from UCSD in 1977 and began, as he put it, "doing the classic bum-poet-actor thing of not knowing where to work or what to do and ended up working in a 7-Eleven on Clairemont Drive across the street from Clairemont Bowl. I remember thinking, 'This is what I am doing with my college degree? Selling coffee and peanuts to prostitutes at 4:00 a.m.?'"
It was during this time that Urrea rediscovered Tijuana. "My house had become sort of a clearinghouse for mad musicians and arty guys," he recalled, "and one of the guys that lived with us, a keyboardist, was a born-again Christian, which I looked at rather askance. But he was pals with Pastor Vaughn of Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church, who was famous for his work in Tijuana. He invited me to go with him to see Tijuana, and I thought, 'Well, what are these gringo Baptists going to show me about Tijuana?' But I went, and it blew my mind. He took me to an orphanage, and there was this little blond, blue-eyed girl in the orphanage that looked just like me. Her name was America. And America just broke my heart. I visited her a couple of times, and Vaughn was watching me and asked me to translate for him a couple of times, and by that time, I was stuck. I became his translator, and we were together full-time from '78 to '82. And from '82 to '85, when I was teaching at Harvard, I would work with Vaughn for a month at Christmas and then all summer."
The work with the poor of Tijuana Urrea described as both intoxicating and maddening. While he loved the hero's welcome he received in the poor colonias, the sense that he could never feed all the poor and the constant sight of human suffering started to get to him. "I was so stressed out of my mind that I was hallucinating at night. I would come back from Mexico and see really bizarre things."
As he continued to work in Mexico, his group of rock-and-roll intellectuals became less and less of a comfort to Urrea. "Sometimes I'd get home from Tijuana at 1:00 in the morning, and I couldn't sleep, so I would go to the donut shop and sit with my buddies who had all played a gig at the Spirit on Morena Boulevard and were freaking out because they had oral sex in the parking lot or something, and I am thinking, 'Well, I am just going to eat my apple fritter,' because there was no way to communicate what I was living to my pals."
His fellow missionaries weren't a consolation to him either. "I was always reading sinful books or listening to the devil's music," he recalled. "I remember one time, there was this big biker dude that worked in this group with us, and he and I always spent the days in the last couple of years driving together, and we were listening to Bruce Springsteen, and one of the missionary girls in the van finally burst out crying and begged us to let her get out of the car because she couldn't stand listening to Satan anymore."
Indirectly, Urrea's work with the poor in Tijuana led to his job at Harvard. "I had a friend, a former writing professor from UCSD, who was at Harvard, and I wrote him a letter and basically told him that I couldn't take the violence and horror anymore. And I asked him, 'Could I get a gig out there, just as a janitor for a while, maybe six months?' He said, 'Send me a résumé,' and he got me hired, not as a janitor but as a writing teacher."
Urrea found Harvard to be "a total other world. I took an electric typewriter and had a duffel bag with about ten favorite books and some Elvis Costello records. And I arrived there, and I thought, 'Holy crap, I am going to die, man.' My host took me to Harvard, and my classroom was in this building called Memorial Hall, which looks sort of like the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It even has gargoyles on it. It was truly mind-boggling. It was the kind of thing somebody like me couldn't have dreamed of...meeting John Irving, I met Eudora Welty, and I saw Norman Mailer read. I dug it. I totally loved it. It was the kind of atmosphere that part of me had been longing for anyway; it was like a more extreme version of what UCSD had been like. And suddenly I was just assumed to be brilliant because I taught at Harvard. I thought, 'Well, this is great; I like being brilliant.' "
As much as he loved the world of ideas he was now living in, he was shocked by some aspects of Ivy League intellectualism. "I remember one of the first lunches I ate at that I had with some of the faculty members. Somebody asked me, 'Who are your heroes?' and I said, 'I consider Mother Teresa a hero,' and they said, 'What? She is no hero to anyone,' because she was anti-abortion, and she was conservative and Catholic. And I thought, 'Damn.' That was very hard for me because she exemplified what I was doing with my own life. To be told that that was a bad thing, that to help the poor like that was some kind of imperialist activity... I was totally stunned. My one great defense was that I was, in fact, Latino, and they were a little afraid of that, like, 'He was actually born there.'