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."
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.'
"The problem was that it was nothing but ideas; I suddenly was among the people who were supposed to be ruling the world, and I realized that they sat around and thought a lot, but I wasn't sure that they had ever done anything."
In 1990, Urrea returned to San Diego and for four years wrote articles for the Reader, some from the journals he had kept during his missionary days. "Then I combined some of those Reader pieces with the old stuff and published my first book, Across the Wire. It was about the Tijuana dump. I had started to write it in 1982, but it took me until 1993 to have anybody accept it for publication. Nobody would touch it. Books about the border are now a minor industry, but they weren't back then. I was told by one of the publishers that nobody cares about starving Mexicans."