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Luis Urrea and the Reader

Tijuana dump, running of bulls in Tecate, Mexican slang, father and grandfather in TJ, glue-sniffers, TJ cops

100,000 drunk sailors, bikers, cowboys, and college kids is no army of Hemingways.  - Image by Natalie Fiocre
100,000 drunk sailors, bikers, cowboys, and college kids is no army of Hemingways.

Born in Tijuana, Urrea wrote feature stores for the Reader from 1990 through 1994.

Urrea's collection of short stories, The Water Museum, was a finalist for the 2016 PEN-Faulkner Award and was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and Kirkus Reviews,

Into the Beautiful North, his 2009 a novel, is a Big Read selection by the National Endowment of the Arts and has been chosen by more than 50 different cities and colleges as a community read. The Devil’s Highway, Urrea’s 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize.

Stories Urrea wrote for the Reader:

  • Last running of the bulls in Tecate

  • During the Pamplonada, this bucolic scene would be fractured by an army of gringos from San Diego and Los Angeles and swarms of louts from Tijuana and Mexicali. The prospect of seeing hundreds of drunks pursued by angry bulls appealed to me. The year before, an American had actually died (anticlimactically, from a heart attack), and street legend was full of unimaginably ferocious gorings and tramplings. (Jan. 24, 1991)
Mexicans are shamed by accepting help of any kind. When embarrassed or ashamed, they can often overcompensate.
  • Reader writer befriends family at the Tijuana dump and they are killed

  • Then there are those who are so far "out” that the mind reels. In the Tijuana dompe where a group of us worked as poverty-relief volunteers, the outcasts were located along the western edge, in the shacks and lean-tos in and around the area called the pig village. This was where the untouchables of the society of untouchables slept. Like the Serrano family, the Cheese Lady, Jose and Pacha, Jesusita. (Nov. 15, 1990)
  • Tijuana dump now two warring colonias

  • My favorite resident of the dump, Negra, had been missing for five years, I still felt connected to the place. Negra was a skinny, dark child who ran barefoot through the trash. She taught me how to pick, how to handle the spiked staff they use to move the mounds and rake out goodies; we used to pull an old red wagon full of trash stacked taller than she was. (March 7, 1991)
After we ate lunch, I asked the boys how the monkey was. What monkey? they asked.
  • Mexicans are often criticized for being cruel

  • Mexico is full of dogs that are loved like sons and brothers, but their lives are often utter hell. Sometimes it’s the fault of well-meaning Americans. Church groups will occasionally appear at an orphanage with a dog for the kids. This is usually a dog the gringos don’t want, and they figure the orphans always need a pup. But when you’re trying to feed 30 or 60 kids, spending money on a dog is insanity. (May 9, 1991)
Urrea’s police identification and badge
  • I will take spit on the tips of my fingers and draw tears down my cheeks

  • In the meantime, in our old neighborhood in Tijuana, my Aunt Lety and Cousin Hugo are in the family house on Rampa Independencia. They are waiting for Beto to arrive from his visit to Sinaloa. Hugo has built him a small bedroom where he keeps all Beto’s tokens — love letters, bowling trophies, moldering Playboys, a box of photographs. In those photos, my father is a skinny boy with a heart-shaped mouth. He looks sad in every one. (July 3, 1991)
  • Glue-sniffing urchins in old Tijuana

  • It’s prostitution and drugs. Soon, it becomes obvious that the thousands of gringos who come to party on the weekends make easy targets, once they’ve had enough to drink. The boys (they’re all boys in Andres’s world) lure them away from the disco lights. All it takes is a promise: girls — muchachas bonitas. They are sly enough to know that we still believe the racist myth of fock my seester, and they say it. (Oct. 3, 1991)
"Puta Madre" It is a kind of cry against the world. A bellow of astonishment.
  • Do you make these embarrassing mistakes when you cuss in Mexican?

  • The exact same rhythm of “shave-and-a-haircut” translates in Spanish as chinga tu madre (“fuck your mother”). If we add the pleasant “two-bits,” it’s an even worse Mexican insult. Then you’re saying, “chinga tu madre, cabron.” You’ve called the guy a son of a bitch, for good measure. (Aug. 22, 1991)
  • Tijuana cops don't get no respect

  • Here is a man called on to preserve order in the most celebrated bastion of chaos in the Western world. This man is called on to enforce traffic laws in a country whose roads are haphazard at best, where stop signs often appear either 20 yards before an intersection — which is merely a dirt path straggling down to the road — or immediately after. There are no stop-lines. No one minds the speed limits. (Nov. 21, 1991)
When I moved to Clairemont in the fifth grade, I was suddenly being called the following: Beaner, Taco Bender, Pepper-Belly, Spic. My father had warned me about Greaser and Wetback. But these new words were spectacular and vivid.
  • Logan Heights comes to me in Colorado and Wyoming

  • I know a Chicana poet who teaches at the University of Colorado, and every semester or so, some genius in a truck calls her a “greaser” or an “Injun.” A verbal drive-by shooting. It’s funny: I never heard an anti-Mexican comment in Shelltown. For whatever bad things I could say about Logan, that is the best. When I moved to Clairemont in the fifth grade, I was suddenly being called the following: Beaner, Taco Bender, Pepper-Belly, Spic. (Sept. 24, 1992)
  • My grandfather hoped to establish a commune in Tijuana

  • The family house seemed to grow out of a hillside in Colonia Independencia. It’s still there, if you know where to look, though my cousin Hugo might shoot you if you show up unannounced. Hugo has some bullets in his pistols loaded with small buckshot instead of slugs. One time a neighborhood drunk kept disturbing Hugo’s beloved throat-eating herd of Dobermans. Hugo came out of the house and ran down the street shooting the guy. (Oct. 8, 1992)
Gringos have a strangely difficult time with the bizarre details of the daily life of Latinos.
  • Tijuanan brothers learn about grief the hard way

  • One day, an old man appeared in the dump. He wore a grimy old suit and had no past and no home. His left arm had come out of the socket years before, and he had wandered, half-crippled, from dump to dump, looking for young people to care for him. Chacho struck a bargain with him: if he would look out for the younger boys, then Chacho and Elijio would pick trash for them all. (Nov. 25, 1992)
In three months, my little book about the Tijuana dump will go into three printings, shocking everybody at Doubleday.
  • Urrea takes book tour media to Tijuana dump

  • I’ve been ordering room service for the first time in my life. And I think, lying in my king-sized beds, watching HBO and drinking goodies out of the rooms’ wet bars, I am here to talk about starving people on the border. I watch the doormen snag $5 tips for carrying some lazy bastard’s bag from the cab to the front desk, and I know that if my friends in Tijuana knew about this, they’d all come across the border en masse. (July 22, 1993)
  • Dalton's Luck: A San Diego Mystery

  • Colombia was not impressed with the Mexicans. They were less impressed with the Ruiz connection. As soon as the Mexicans had murdered the cardinal in Guadalajara, a bald-faced hit somehow covered up by the absurd claim that the shooters had ambushed the wrong car. (Sept. 8, 1994)
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100,000 drunk sailors, bikers, cowboys, and college kids is no army of Hemingways.  - Image by Natalie Fiocre
100,000 drunk sailors, bikers, cowboys, and college kids is no army of Hemingways.

Born in Tijuana, Urrea wrote feature stores for the Reader from 1990 through 1994.

Urrea's collection of short stories, The Water Museum, was a finalist for the 2016 PEN-Faulkner Award and was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and Kirkus Reviews,

Into the Beautiful North, his 2009 a novel, is a Big Read selection by the National Endowment of the Arts and has been chosen by more than 50 different cities and colleges as a community read. The Devil’s Highway, Urrea’s 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize.

Stories Urrea wrote for the Reader:

  • Last running of the bulls in Tecate

  • During the Pamplonada, this bucolic scene would be fractured by an army of gringos from San Diego and Los Angeles and swarms of louts from Tijuana and Mexicali. The prospect of seeing hundreds of drunks pursued by angry bulls appealed to me. The year before, an American had actually died (anticlimactically, from a heart attack), and street legend was full of unimaginably ferocious gorings and tramplings. (Jan. 24, 1991)
Mexicans are shamed by accepting help of any kind. When embarrassed or ashamed, they can often overcompensate.
  • Reader writer befriends family at the Tijuana dump and they are killed

  • Then there are those who are so far "out” that the mind reels. In the Tijuana dompe where a group of us worked as poverty-relief volunteers, the outcasts were located along the western edge, in the shacks and lean-tos in and around the area called the pig village. This was where the untouchables of the society of untouchables slept. Like the Serrano family, the Cheese Lady, Jose and Pacha, Jesusita. (Nov. 15, 1990)
  • Tijuana dump now two warring colonias

  • My favorite resident of the dump, Negra, had been missing for five years, I still felt connected to the place. Negra was a skinny, dark child who ran barefoot through the trash. She taught me how to pick, how to handle the spiked staff they use to move the mounds and rake out goodies; we used to pull an old red wagon full of trash stacked taller than she was. (March 7, 1991)
After we ate lunch, I asked the boys how the monkey was. What monkey? they asked.
  • Mexicans are often criticized for being cruel

  • Mexico is full of dogs that are loved like sons and brothers, but their lives are often utter hell. Sometimes it’s the fault of well-meaning Americans. Church groups will occasionally appear at an orphanage with a dog for the kids. This is usually a dog the gringos don’t want, and they figure the orphans always need a pup. But when you’re trying to feed 30 or 60 kids, spending money on a dog is insanity. (May 9, 1991)
Urrea’s police identification and badge
  • I will take spit on the tips of my fingers and draw tears down my cheeks

  • In the meantime, in our old neighborhood in Tijuana, my Aunt Lety and Cousin Hugo are in the family house on Rampa Independencia. They are waiting for Beto to arrive from his visit to Sinaloa. Hugo has built him a small bedroom where he keeps all Beto’s tokens — love letters, bowling trophies, moldering Playboys, a box of photographs. In those photos, my father is a skinny boy with a heart-shaped mouth. He looks sad in every one. (July 3, 1991)
  • Glue-sniffing urchins in old Tijuana

  • It’s prostitution and drugs. Soon, it becomes obvious that the thousands of gringos who come to party on the weekends make easy targets, once they’ve had enough to drink. The boys (they’re all boys in Andres’s world) lure them away from the disco lights. All it takes is a promise: girls — muchachas bonitas. They are sly enough to know that we still believe the racist myth of fock my seester, and they say it. (Oct. 3, 1991)
"Puta Madre" It is a kind of cry against the world. A bellow of astonishment.
  • Do you make these embarrassing mistakes when you cuss in Mexican?

  • The exact same rhythm of “shave-and-a-haircut” translates in Spanish as chinga tu madre (“fuck your mother”). If we add the pleasant “two-bits,” it’s an even worse Mexican insult. Then you’re saying, “chinga tu madre, cabron.” You’ve called the guy a son of a bitch, for good measure. (Aug. 22, 1991)
  • Tijuana cops don't get no respect

  • Here is a man called on to preserve order in the most celebrated bastion of chaos in the Western world. This man is called on to enforce traffic laws in a country whose roads are haphazard at best, where stop signs often appear either 20 yards before an intersection — which is merely a dirt path straggling down to the road — or immediately after. There are no stop-lines. No one minds the speed limits. (Nov. 21, 1991)
When I moved to Clairemont in the fifth grade, I was suddenly being called the following: Beaner, Taco Bender, Pepper-Belly, Spic. My father had warned me about Greaser and Wetback. But these new words were spectacular and vivid.
  • Logan Heights comes to me in Colorado and Wyoming

  • I know a Chicana poet who teaches at the University of Colorado, and every semester or so, some genius in a truck calls her a “greaser” or an “Injun.” A verbal drive-by shooting. It’s funny: I never heard an anti-Mexican comment in Shelltown. For whatever bad things I could say about Logan, that is the best. When I moved to Clairemont in the fifth grade, I was suddenly being called the following: Beaner, Taco Bender, Pepper-Belly, Spic. (Sept. 24, 1992)
  • My grandfather hoped to establish a commune in Tijuana

  • The family house seemed to grow out of a hillside in Colonia Independencia. It’s still there, if you know where to look, though my cousin Hugo might shoot you if you show up unannounced. Hugo has some bullets in his pistols loaded with small buckshot instead of slugs. One time a neighborhood drunk kept disturbing Hugo’s beloved throat-eating herd of Dobermans. Hugo came out of the house and ran down the street shooting the guy. (Oct. 8, 1992)
Gringos have a strangely difficult time with the bizarre details of the daily life of Latinos.
  • Tijuanan brothers learn about grief the hard way

  • One day, an old man appeared in the dump. He wore a grimy old suit and had no past and no home. His left arm had come out of the socket years before, and he had wandered, half-crippled, from dump to dump, looking for young people to care for him. Chacho struck a bargain with him: if he would look out for the younger boys, then Chacho and Elijio would pick trash for them all. (Nov. 25, 1992)
In three months, my little book about the Tijuana dump will go into three printings, shocking everybody at Doubleday.
  • Urrea takes book tour media to Tijuana dump

  • I’ve been ordering room service for the first time in my life. And I think, lying in my king-sized beds, watching HBO and drinking goodies out of the rooms’ wet bars, I am here to talk about starving people on the border. I watch the doormen snag $5 tips for carrying some lazy bastard’s bag from the cab to the front desk, and I know that if my friends in Tijuana knew about this, they’d all come across the border en masse. (July 22, 1993)
  • Dalton's Luck: A San Diego Mystery

  • Colombia was not impressed with the Mexicans. They were less impressed with the Ruiz connection. As soon as the Mexicans had murdered the cardinal in Guadalajara, a bald-faced hit somehow covered up by the absurd claim that the shooters had ambushed the wrong car. (Sept. 8, 1994)
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My favorite writer to come out of the Reader.

May 6, 2019

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