No writer understands the border culture between Mexico and the United States more intimately than Luis Alberto Urrea, whose life is the stuff of great novels. Son of a Mexican father and Anglo mother, Urrea grew up first in Tijuana and then just across the border in San Diego. Over the years he has produced a series of acclaimed novels, including The Hummingbird’s Daughter, The Devil’s Highway, and his latest, Queen of America — each a rich and revealing account of the people of the borderlands that join and separate our two nations.
Three of Urrea’s books were among scores of others removed from classrooms earlier this year when the Tucson school district eliminated Mexican-American studies on the accusation it was “divisive.” But there’s no ban on ideas in Bill’s studio, and Urrea talks with Bill Moyers about that episode as he unfolds the modern reality of life on the border.
Bill Moyers: This week on Moyers & Company.
Luis Alberto Urrea: The border ran right down the middle of our depressed little apartment. Kitchen was the United States, living room was Mexico. Walter Cronkite was the ambassador to both countries.
Bill Moyers: Welcome. There is no stretch of territory in the world quite like the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. A vast swath of terrain, a long and tortured history, and an endless stream of humanity both separate and join our two countries. It’s as complex a coupling as you will find anywhere.
From Brownsville and Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico, the border runs along the Rio Grande River to intersect with the Continental Divide, where it turns toward Tijuana and San Diego on the Pacific Ocean. One thousand nine hundred and sixty nine miles snaking through desert and desolation, dividing towns and cities marked now by stretches of steel and concrete fence, with infrared cameras and sensors, National Guardsmen, and Border Patrol agents. Well over a hundred million people cross this border every year, one way or another.
One day in May eleven years ago, 26 Mexican men set out across the murderous stretch of desert known as the Devil’s Highway, heading for Arizona, and hopefully, for work. Twelve of them made it. Fourteen were scorched alive by the torrid sun.
Their story became a stunning work by the author Luis Alberto Urrea. No one writes more tragically or intimately about border culture than this son of a Mexican father and Anglo mother. Born in Tijuana and raised in San Diego, he grew up in both worlds, and they appear and reappear in his acclaimed novels, essays and poems — fourteen books in all, including his most recent, Queen of America. Luis Urrea remains close to the people and places of the border – from the garbage pickers he knew in Tijuana to the desperate travelers on the The Devil’s Highway.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Thank You.
Bill Moyers: I’m delighted to be here.
Luis Alberto Urrea: I can’t believe I’m here.
Bill Moyers: You must grow weary of talking about The Devil’s Highway.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Tired of it.
Bill Moyers: Which is a classic. But anyone who’s read it, can never forget those 26 men setting out across that inferno, can feel the heat of the sun on the sand, can sense the foreboding of the mountains, can experience the thirst on their lips. And it still awes me today and humbles me to think what they will go through to try to get here.
Luis Alberto Urrea: It’s unbelievable what people go through. And, you know—
Bill Moyers: What’s the mirage that seduces them?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Life. You know, we have this illusion that they’re criminals, or they’re coming to steal welfare or, you know, take our jobs. You know, I’ve got to say, if you at all travel the country, you see the jobs that people do who come here, I’m not going to do those jobs. And it, for example, a couple years ago, the strawberry crop came into Washington State, massive strawberry crop, the same year that the undocumented didn’t show up. The work crews, for whatever reason, stopped coming. Those crops rotted on the ground because they couldn’t get U.S. citizens to come out and just pick them. Even for free. Take them. People wouldn’t do the effort. That’s, you know, it’s shocking, too. I feel like, you know, if people just stopped for a second and looked at what those guys, first do, and second accomplish when they get here. What fascinates me is the people who are the most angry at those walkers seem to be kind of social Darwinists, you know, post Ayn Rand Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged kind of characters who see these foaming hoards of alien critters coming in here. And, you know, the truth is that the entrance exam is so stringent and so incredibly brutal that the people who do make it here, I think, have proven themselves to have mettle and to have vision and strength in the kind of discipline that’s hard for us to even imagine.
Bill Moyers: Although many of them don’t get here. Out of the 26 who went along the Devil’s Highway in your book, only 12 came out. And it still grips me as to why these men would endure this inferno, temperature you write at midnight is 97 degrees, to come to this country to do stoop labor.
Luis Alberto Urrea: People don’t know that these folks are often recruited. These guys were in Veracruz, you know, they were, most of them had small plot coffee, traditional little coffee stands in the hills, that their family passed down. And they could augment their work with coffee, and coffee prices took a dive. The Mexican economy took a dive. One of the men was a bottler at a Pepsi-Cola plant, he carried bottles around. And so they were in trouble. And these guys sent this character known as a hooker, “el engachador”— not a hooker as in prostitute, but, you know, an angler. And he went in there and he made his presence felt, and he rooked them. He told them, “Look, we’ll send you to the United States and one summer of work, picking oranges. How hard can that be? That’s not hard. And we make you all this money.” And they said, “We can’t afford the trip.” And he said, “We’ll lend it to you at a high interest rate.” These are men who’ve never had credit cards, or— so they sold themselves to the company store, basically, blood to a shark. It was a mafia operation. And then they come to the U.S. and they’re turned over to guides. The experienced guide didn’t show up, so the inexperienced guide, being macho and bold, says, “I’ll take them.” And that walk isn’t really harrowing. The walk is up a ridge. You walk for basically two days, mostly at night, and you get to a ridge above Ajo, Arizona. You can see the town below. And they wait till the border patrol is gone, and they walk down the hill. Guy calls on his cell phone, cars come out of the reservation, pick you up, and take you to Phoenix. You go to a safe house with an attached garage, garage door opens, car drives in and closes, no one ever sees you. You get sent to Florida the next day. Now, what happened is, the guy got lost, and they’re in hell, and they can’t find their way out. But more and more people died that way. And the criminal element that started taking over— when I was a kid, coyotes were sort of Captain Jack Sparrow, you know, these sort of amusing little pirates. And then they started getting creepier. And then when the narco world started taking over and organized crime started taking over, I think there’s a generation of coyotes and then smugglers that got really dangerous. And it’s hard sometimes because the free operators, the sort of rogue charming guys, are still there. But they’re getting regulated out by the hard-core criminal.
Bill Moyers: Does it ever occur to you as a writer that other people are suffering for your material?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Oh yeah, oh absolutely. But I try to do honor to them. In fact, when I went down to start researching “The Devil’s Highway,” the first guy I spoke to was the Mexican Consul in Tucson. And he was not happy that I was there. And the only reason he spoke to me is that I have family in the Mexican government. One of my cousins is an ambassador. So he let me in. And he listened to my case. And then he said, “You know what, you don’t care. Your publisher doesn’t care and Americans didn’t care. You’re here because it was a catastrophe. So it’s, you know, saleable, it’s big. But this tragedy happens every single day, one person at a time. And no one’s down here to write about them.” And I— you know, that was one of those wakeup calls. And I had to be honest and I said, “You’re right, nobody cares. That’s why I’m here. Because this is a Titanic, maybe people will care. Maybe we’ll make them pay attention because of this spectacular story, and they’ll start to care about the smaller story.” Which I think, in a lot of ways, has happened.
Bill Moyers: But earlier, before The Devil’s Highway, you went back to Tijuana as a missionary?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Well, yeah, I guess, relief work. I call it missionary, you know, they— but yeah. They— it was a group out of a Baptist church. And people had been telling me about this pastor, Pastor Von. “You’ve got to go see Pastor Von.” And they’d always tell me, “You know, you won’t like him that much because his politics are to the right of Attila the Hun.” You know, I’d say, “Oh wow, great. That’s tempting to me, a Baptist preacher who’s a right-wing— that’s what I want to—” But it turns out that Von was just the most real and wise. I call him a Zen Baptist instead of a Zen Buddhist.
Bill Moyers: I know them. It seems to me that you were the one who was converted when you went back to Tijuana. You—
Luis Alberto Urrea: Well, I—
Bill Moyers: Even today when you talk about those garbage pickers and the kids eating dogs and they’re looking out and seeing the American dream like a mirage across the border, it seems to me that you flipped to see the world as they saw it.
Luis Alberto Urrea: I did, because you can be from a place but not know it. Do you know what I mean? Sure, I was born in Tijuana and I had known Tijuana my whole life. But that doesn’t mean that anybody I knew had ever gone to that tar paper or cardboard shack. Nobody had ever gone to the garbage dump to talk to garbage pickers. In fact, if I was radicalized, which I think I was in some ways, the radicalizing moment came when I was a little boy with my dad and my aunt and some of my cousins in downtown Tijuana. And we had gone to a restaurant to eat, we were going to eat chicken, Mexican style brassiered chicken, it was a big deal. And we were walking into the restaurant and there was an indigenous woman begging on the sidewalk, probably mixed. What they call Marias, you know. And she had the outfit and she had the baby. I still remember her. And she had that “limosna por favor” and put her hand out. And my aunt kicked her. She said, “Largate perra!” “Get the hell out of here, dog!” And kicked her and went inside.
And I was so shocked because, you know, this was my auntie, right? What’s this violence? And I was embarrassed and I was mortified and horrifi— I didn’t know what was going on. And we went inside to eat and it was very clear to me that here we were, the white— this is where I started understanding. We were superior and that was a dog. And my cousin, Margarita, we were all eating and I noticed she was taking the food when no one was looking and putting it in her lap in the napkin. And she snuck out and fed the woman. That haunted me. It’s always— it still haunts me to this day, that moment. So when I walked into the Tijuana garbage dumps and one of the women, mostly indigenous people, one of the women put her arms around me. She said, “You know why I love you? You’re not afraid of us.” How can you not change? And Pastor Von was very sly. He saw what I was like. I had my Hollywood hair and all this stuff. And you know the first job he gave me? Washing the feet of the garbage dump pickers. That’ll transform you. You think you’re doing something nice for them and you realize that you’re on your knees washing these feet and you start wanting to cry because these people are trusting you and they end up blessing you instead of you blessing them, it’s the weirdest thing.
Bill Moyers: Describe the garbage pickers and the world they live in every day. You do it beautifully in many passages. In fact, it’s confusing to me as to why you started writing about them because American writers don’t make money writing about—
Luis Alberto Urrea: Oh no. It was a mistake.
Bill Moyers: —marginalized people like that. John Steinbeck might have, but—
Luis Alberto Urrea: It took him a while though.
Bill Moyers: It took him a long time. But these are the lost and depraved of the world and you deliberately chose to write about them. And you describe them, you know, sleeping in boxes, picking trash, eating the dead dogs, selling their bodies. What are they like? Who are they?
Luis Alberto Urrea: You know, I love them, they’re my friends. They’re people I— truly there for the grace of God, right? I mean, who’s to say we won’t fall into bad times?
Bill Moyers: The grace of a border?
Luis Alberto Urrea: The grace of a border. Yeah, I always tell people, you know, if I had my choice I would have been born in Hollywood. I would have been Jimmy Stewart’s grandson. But that’s not, that wasn’t the choice. You know, here’s the scenario as the dump, for example, exists today. The one I write about in the first books was in a different location. It moved to this place which is actually in a weird way beautiful. It has a view of the ocean and there are islands off the shore. And it used to be a canyon, kind of an Edward Abbey desert canyon with a little seasonal waterfall, deer, quail down in there, coyotes that fed out to the ocean. There’s a hill here, okay, to the west. And then there’s this canyon. And then there’s an arc of graves. And at this far end there’s a crematorium that burns human bodies. On this hill is the potter’s field for babies. Anyone can bury a child who’s died. You just dig a hole and stick your child in there. The haunting thing is the headstones are often their cribs, and the cribs have the names painted on them. The canyon fills with garbage and becomes a plain and then becomes a mountain of garbage. And on the other side of the arc of graves is the community where the people have built homes to live. That’s the modern dump as it is now. Now, the garbage technicians who drive the tractors and so forth as a humanitarian act bring out the backhoe once a month and they scoop out seven or fourteen holes so that anybody can bury anybody. That’s the world they’re in. They are mining for glass, they’re mining for copper. They’re taking out cans and so forth.
Bill Moyers: Didn’t an editor say to you when you proposed writing about these people, “Nobody cares about starving Mexicans”?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Yeah, direct quote, yeah. And that book— and I have to tell you—
Bill Moyers: It’s true, isn’t it?
Luis Alberto Urrea: It is true. I was kind of stupid. I was naïve. You know, I thought, honestly, I thought if I write a book about people nobody cares about, it’s going to be a hit, ’cause everyone will read it. What was I thinking? But here’s what happened. I wanted to be Steven King or Led Zeppelin. I didn’t care who— what I wanted to— you know, I was a poor boy. I wanted to be famous because if I was famous, I’d be rich. I would never worry about money again. I would never eat a ketchup sandwich on white bread again. You know, I would never watch my mother and my father tear themselves apart. A lifetime of no dentistry because there was no money. I wouldn’t— none of that would happen. And I went into that world with Von, and Von is the first one who proposed it to me. He said, “You know—”
Bill Moyers: The pastor?
Luis Alberto Urrea: The pastor. He said, “Nobody who has access to this world writes books. You do. And you should write about the— you should give witness to these people.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s a really—” ’cause it hadn’t occurred to me. And it certainly had not occurred to me to write nonfiction. So I started keeping notes, right? And I was keeping notes. And the moment, you talk about my— this is my Damascus Road moment, I’ll confess to you. You, me, and, you know—
Bill Moyers: And for the, and for the benefit of the rising generation of atheists in a secular world.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Yeah—
Bill Moyers: That Damascus moment is when the—
Luis Alberto Urrea: Oh yes.
Bill Moyers: —Paul is converted in a blinding flash—
Luis Alberto Urrea: Blinding flash—
Bill Moyers: —on the road to Damascus.
Luis Alberto Urrea: That’s right.
Bill Moyers: And becomes the apostle who changes the world by preaching the gospel.
Luis Alberto Urrea: For better or worse.
Bill Moyers: Yeah.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Yeah.
Bill Moyers: What was your Damascus. Yeah, for better or worse—
Luis Alberto Urrea: This was my Damascus Road, but it was—
Bill Moyers: You said it, I didn’t.
Luis Alberto Urrea: It was a blinding flash of smoke, pretty much, not light. But I was at this place called Ladrillera, the brickyard. And Ladrillera is outside of Tecate, where our Tecate beer comes from. A wonderful, bucolic border town that I just adore. And, these folks live on an adobe plain where they can dig up their ground and make bricks. That’s their industry. But anyway, I’m there, and I’m keeping my notes. I was writing in my journal, and a man was walking by and he was looking at me, he was a worker, completely black, covered in oil, diesel fuel. And he had a handkerchief on his head, four corners tied in knots, like a skullcap. And he had a big stick.
And he walked over to me and he was looking, he said, “Qué estás haciendo?” “What are you doing?” I said, “Oh nothing, I’m just writing in my journal.” “Ah. What’s a journal?” I said, “You know, it’s a diary, right.” “Oh good, yeah. What’s a diary?” I said, “Well, it’s a book, and I write in it.” He said, “What are you writing about?” I said, “Writing about what I do, what I see.” And he said, “Wait a minute. You’re writing about this place?” And I said, “Yup.” And he said, “Are you writing about the people here?” I said, “Yeah, I guess.” And he said, “Are you writing about me?” And I said, “I probably am now.” And he said, “Is anybody going to read this?” And I said, “I hope so.” And the man said to me, he said, “You know, that’s good, that’s good. Write about me. Write about me.” He said, “I was born in the garbage dump. I’ve spent my entire life picking trash. And when I die, they’re going to bury me in the garbage.” He said, “So you tell them I was here.” I don’t know if that was a blessing or a curse, right?
Bill Moyers: Well, you did learn from it because you went on, I mean, “Into the Beautiful North,” which is one of your memorable stories. You make heroes out of undocumented people. And reading it, one has to wonder why, if a people who are so God forsaken in one sense, is God so important to them? How does— why does that hold on down there?
Luis Alberto Urrea: I think people who are God forsaken seem to cling to God very strongly. I mean, you know, look at the roots of scripture, right? Those guys weren’t high rollers. I don’t know what it is. It’s an unbreakable bond of faith. Fascinating to me, I think partially— a shift in my own perception from working on things like The Hummingbird’s Daughter and being deeply embroiled in the indigenous world in Mexico as well and realizing that there’s a kind of an absolute faith that is based on experience rather than church. They feel that they see God everywhere in every way and that God loves them perhaps because they have to.
But you think of someone who is despised at home and they come here and are despised here as well, sometimes to their great shock. So a lot of those folks come here thinking, “I’m going there to serve them. I’m going there to help. I’m going there to work hard.” And they’re shocked that they’re hated. Where else do you turn? You can’t just absorb and swallow the belief that you’re nothing. That you don’t have right to your place on this earth and that you know, you are completely abandoned in the universe. And so they cling to God. You know, you need someone to hold on to. And I think our culture, our literature lends itself to magical realism, for example, because I think so many times magical or inexplicable or sort of almost supernatural things seem to happen by rote in our world that is evidence to people who have no other hope that someone cares.
Bill Moyers: Well, you refer often, or frequently to miracles, to grace. Well, I’m wondering where you are in this journey. I mean, I know that you had a tough ten years. You started writing, you were broke, right?
Luis Alberto Urrea: I was—
Bill Moyers: You were down and out. And for a whole decade you got one rejection note after another.
Luis Alberto Urrea: My sunny disposition hides I think a black desert with a howling wind inside because I’ve come through a, you know, a long, tough journey. But everybody does. And I realize that’s part of the message. I think that everybody, you and I, deal with somewhere in their lives has had the Tijuana garbage dump experience. Even if it was—
Bill Moyers: Oh I think that’s exaggerated.
Luis Alberto Urrea: No, I think everyone has had—
Bill Moyers: I haven’t had a Tijuana garbage—
Luis Alberto Urrea: No but—
Bill Moyers: I’m a very lucky—
Luis Alberto Urrea: But everyone has lost someone dear to them or has faced some heartbreak, or is sitting on cancer. Or everyone has had what I call the Tijuana dump experience. Not that extreme certainly. But everybody—
Bill Moyers: Because tomorrow can bring something different. But for the garbage pickers, tomorrow brings more garbage.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Unless Pastor Von comes. There’s always a tomorrow. The whole point of this I think is hope. When the hope ends, your life ends I believe. And there’s a lot of death, there’s a lot of suicide. There’s a lot of giving into sniffing glue, you know, taking drugs.
So the hopelessness is the struggle. It’s not hunger, it’s not poverty, it’s the hopelessness. And as long as they have some semblance of hope, and it might be a terrible delusion. Right, you have a hope that it’s going to get better and you eke out another couple of years. But—
Bill Moyers: It can be a drug, can it not?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Hope?
Bill Moyers: Hope.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Oh absolutely. I think so.
Bill Moyers: In your most recent book, Teresita who was at one time queen of the Yaqui Indians, right?
Luis Alberto Urrea: That’s what they said.
Bill Moyers: And then she was— had dreams of being queen of the world. When she comes to this country she says, “You have to have a different dream in America, a different hope.” What is that American dream for people like Teresita?
Luis Alberto Urrea: The things about the United States that intoxicate people. I mean, if people understood I think that the people I write about are enacting a love letter to America, not an evil assault. This is, this is hope. You know, for example, this sounds like I’m not answering your question. But I’m trying to answer it the way my mind works. There’s a scene in “Into the Beautiful North” where the people come to San Diego and they see lawns for the first time. That was me. I didn’t see lush green lawns until fifth grade.
And when we went up to Clairemont— San Diego, Clairemont little, blue collar community, I saw these green lawns. And I thought, “Oh my god. Americans are rich.” Americans are— I’d never seen anything that beautiful in my life as these stupid little lawns. They were so green and because we could throw water away.
So, you know, that you could come to a place where your children can be healthy, where you can have access twenty four hours a day to stuff that you can’t have elsewhere, where you can, you know, lead the good life. Yeah, that is expressed in physical stuff, better underpants, better hygiene products, whatever, TV, all that stuff— yes.
But also a clean street, you know, a pretty garden, a culture where there’s not a potential death squad coming after you. If people had called this propaganda war about illegal aliens something different, what if the people had been called refugees? What if the people had been called pilgrims? That might have been a completely different mindset.
Bill Moyers: Conquistadores.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Well, I always tell people, you know, “My family, the original illegal aliens. They were conquistadores.” They came here uninvited. They hit Peru first, the Urrea brothers and burned their way up to Mexico. We were undocumented for sure. So, you know, I—
Bill Moyers: That’s quite a lineage from Visigoths to—
Luis Alberto Urrea: It is.
Bill Moyers: —conquistadores.
Luis Alberto Urrea: The Visigoth hit Northern Spain. The Urrea family came out of the Visigoth invasion. They say that the genetic packet came from, let’s say, involuntarily received Visigoth genes. That’s politically correct. And then they came to the new world and they set this journey north. And, you know, I took about this in several books.
But one has to understand that our manifest destiny pointed west. We have a long, broad continent and we wanted to go west to get stuff. Their manifest destiny went north and south ’cause they have a long, narrow continent and it made sense that they kept going north. We didn’t like their manifest destiny. We liked our manifest destiny. I write columns for “Orion Magazine” now. The next one coming up is called “Manifest Density”. And it’s about a moment that is germane to our conversation that really changed some of my feelings about a lot of this story. And that was driving west, went to South Dakota which I love.
I have a lot of brothers Pine Ridge reservation. Whatever reason, really close to a bunch of Oglala guys. And we were heading to see some of those guys and we were going to the badlands. And they had sodbuster huts. Original sodbuster huts preserved. And my wife and I both love history. She’s a journalist. So I, you know, let’s go see the sodbuster huts. This is great. And we went in and I’m walking in American history, American pioneer history.
We entered into the sodbuster hut. And it was as though you’d hit me in the face because it was in every detail including the residual smell, this far later, the shack of a Tijuana garbage picker. The same color, the same beat up wood, the same homemade improvised furniture, the same newspapers put up on the walls, the same dirt floor, even the same bugs. They just had a sod roof. But otherwise it was the exact same dwelling. The same size, the same darkness, the same odor. Everything was the same. And it was like somebody put the world on a spinning pivot ’cause I thought, “Holy cow. This sad little shack is heroic to us because it’s our myth. But that shack is depraved and filthy because it’s not our myth.” You see what I mean?
Bill Moyers: So why is this subversive literature. Somehow I wasn’t surprised being familiar with your work that two of your books were among those banned earlier this year by the Tucson school district that declared an end to Mexican-American studies. And then went, actually went into the classroom if I heard this story right, went into the classrooms and in front of the children took away the books that were about the Mexican-American experience. And two of yours, “By the Lake of Sleeping Children” and “Nobody’s Son” were included in those.
Luis Alberto Urrea: And that one.
Bill Moyers: “Devil’s Highway”?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Yeah.
Bill Moyers: As well?
Luis Alberto Urrea: They told me last year, last year at the Tucson Festival of Books, I was stopped by a TV camera crew. It’s one of those gotcha moments, you know, “What do you feel about superintendent blah, blah, blah, going to ban ‘The Devil’s Highway?'” I said “What? What’s… Why?” And the guy said, “Well, it’s been called anti-American, and it has devil in the title.” And I thought, “You know, this is a comedy, right? It’s ridiculous.” And I said, “Anti-American,” I said, “You know, it’s being taught to border patrol agents at the academy.
So if it’s good enough for the border patrol they’re hardly Marxist, you know, invaders.” And I said, “As far as devil in the title, it’s on the map. Are you really going to try to change history and remove things that you don’t like off the maps? You can’t do that. That’s—” and I didn’t take it seriously. So later on this thing happened. Now the Tucson Unified School District’s take on this is that you weren’t banned, you were boxed.
Bill Moyers: What do they mean by that?
Luis Alberto Urrea: They didn’t really ban it. They just took it out of brown hands. They banned Mexicans basically. They got rid of Mexican-American studies. They put all of the books that they took away from the students, they boxed them and put them away. The catch-22 seems to be that anybody who’s not from that ethnic studies world could teach it but that there would be disciplinary action as I understand it if anyone complains about those being taught. So in essence they’ve been, what I call a soft-banning. They’re out of the picture. And—
Bill Moyers: But just look at the books. I brought a list of the titles.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Oh yeah.
Bill Moyers: Chicano, the History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement, boxed. Critical Race Theory by Delgado and Stefancic, boxed. Five Hundred Years of Chicano History in Pictures, boxed. Message to Aztlan, boxed. Occupied America, boxed. Rethinking Columbus, the Next 500 Years, boxed. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, boxed. And then Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States?
Luis Alberto Urrea: He’s a lefty. He’s a lefty.
Bill Moyers: Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek. Junot Diaz, Drown. Martin Espada’s Zapata’s Disciple. Bell Hooks, Feminism is for Everybody. Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. Luis Rodriguez’, Always Running. Urrea’s By the Lake of Sleeping Children and Nobody’s Son. I mean, you have to help me understand this.
Luis Alberto Urrea: They got rid of Sherman Alexie, they got rid of Shakespeare.
Bill Moyers: Oh, The Tempest.
Luis Alberto Urrea: The Tempest.
Bill Moyers: Because it deals with race—
Luis Alberto Urrea: It’s anti-colonial. They got rid of Thoreau. But, you know, let’s celebrate that because Thoreau’s been banned non-stop. They took away Ofelia Zepeda who’s a Tohono O’odham poet, the Papago tribe, who’s a MacArthur Genius Grant winner. You know, how should that not be taught? You know, here’s the situation, it’s not about books. It’s about ethnicity. It’s about the power in Phoenix— what I call the Arpaiocracy.
Bill Moyers: Joe Arpaio.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Joe Arpaio. And Governor Brewer and that whole crowd I think. If the Tucson school district does not comply with what the big boys, the big bullies tell them, you know, they’re going to lose $15 million in funding. Then what happens? So everybody’s between a rock and a hard place.
Bill Moyers: What effect has had this had on the kids, on the students?
Luis Alberto Urrea: It’s heartbreaking. They cry, you know, they’re— when you come into something like ethnic studies and Mexican-American studies, there’s a good chance that you’re slightly disenfranchised to begin with. You know, you’re in a population that’s frowned on by the power structure. You’re an ethnic student, Mexican-American or indigenous-American or black-American. You’re probably not wealthy. You’re often from that other side of town like I was. And you come into a world where you will be expected to read “The Great Gatsby” or something like that. And it’s sometimes a very large gap to jump. And so you go to ethnic studies which give you literacy through themes that you understand and are comfortable with.
And it is a gateway. If I had anything I could tell the TUSD people or Governor Brewer, though she’d never listen to me, it’s a gateway into Americanness, not out of Americanness because literacy opens your world. And sure, it’s not going to be 100 percent perfect, you know, college attendance. But if you look at the numbers of that school district, you know, those kids were doing well in tests. They were doing well in placement. The teachers were award winning teachers that— it’s all gone because of this craziness. And it’s about Mexicans. That’s what it’s about. Let’s face it. It’s about that other.
Bill Moyers: So what’s happening now Luis — I mean, you’ve got Alabama passing a severe anti-immigration law. You’ve got the turmoil in Arizona. You’ve got the— whatever they call— it’s book banning. You know, saying, “Kids can’t read these books.” Tell me what you see is happening.
Luis Alberto Urrea: I have to say my usual, you know, sunny façade is cracking because I’m starting to feel just, it’s hopeless. You know, I know it isn’t. But in my darkest hours I just think, “What, you know, if these—” and maybe this is what they want. But if these people could go out and see the effects on these beautiful, beautiful kids, the heartbreak and the, you know, you live your life like this at a flinch. You know, you see kids who think the color brown is bad. You see kids who feel like there’s no place for them. That is heartbreaking. That is, like, I feel like the world is being taken over by villains from Dickens. And you know, all I can do— I’ve tried everything. You know, and I think we all have tried everything. All I’ve got is art. And I keep flinging art at it and flinging art at it. And people are listening. Things happen in small ways and perhaps that ultimately is, you know, is the answer.
Bill Moyers: Do you have sympathy for the anglos in Arizona who say, “We don’t want to change our community. We like—”
Luis Alberto Urrea: Their community?
Bill Moyers: Well, this is what they say. “We don’t— we want our neighborhood as it was.” What do you say to those people when you just— if you could— you must talk one-on-one with some of them.
Luis Alberto Urrea: All the time.
Bill Moyers: So what— tell me about that exchange. Do you see their plight?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Oh yeah, absolutely do. I’ll put it in a microcosm, I was in Missouri. I was speaking at Truman State. And—
Bill Moyers: College there, right?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Yeah, great college. And there was a poetry reading and my host said— because it was one— typical student poetry with a lot of outrageous stuff. And my host said, “Wow, the Limbaughs aren’t gonna like this.” And I thought, “The Limbaughs? Oh, that’s funny. Yeah, Rush Limbaugh’s from here.” And he said, “No, the Limbaughs, they’re over there.” And I looked over there and there with this family listening to this stuff. And I thought, “Holy cow, really?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s Rush Limbaugh’s cousin.” So I thought, “Wow.” You know, and they were kind of like, “You probably don’t want to talk to him, you should leave him alone.”
The next day there was a barbecue at a faculty house and the Limbaughs came. Colonel John Limbaugh, fine Army colonel, and I said, “How do you do, sir?” And he said, “You can call me John.” And I said, “Well, I’m, you know, I was a military son.” So I said, “No, sir, you’re a colonel and I’ll call you sir.” And he looked at me, you know, and he said, “You know, I’ve been reading “The Devils Highway” and I’ve been trying to figure out your agenda. And I haven’t found a liberal agenda.” And I said, “Well, I am a liberal, sir, but my agenda was to tell the truth even if I didn’t like it.” And he warmed to— you know, and then we sat and spent the afternoon (to the great shock, I think, of some of my pals), having barbecue.
And I think if we can— the Limbaughs and me, unlikely pals, having barbecue in Missouri, how can that not be a fantastic bridge? And we— they came to the reading and, you know, we had a really good time. I think in America we forget that we love each other. We forget we need to love each other. And part of the task, I think, is being able to speak. And that is fully aware of the horrors of civil rights.
Bill Moyers: But if what you say, Luis, is true, why is their rhetoric so feverish? Why is the anger so poisoned? If we really love each other I can’t, you can’t say that about the people who passed the law in Alabama.
Luis Alberto Urrea: No, no, no, no, but—
Bill Moyers: The people who passed the banned the books in Tucson.
Luis Alberto Urrea: I think people forget. People forget. My ultimate message is always there is no them, there is only us. And we function so well having a them. We always have to have a boogie man. There’s always somebody that’s a bad guy lurking. And you know, part of the issues with the Latino, of course it stabs me, it hurts me, and it outrages me, I’m angry about it. But I understand that part of what’s happened is a relentless propaganda war. Illegal, illegal, illegal, alien, alien, alien. Often, you know, the angriest people I confront are people who are good Christian church-goers.
And I always ask them, “Let’s open the bible together and let’s find out how many scriptures tell you to kick around the widow. How many scriptures are there that tell you do not care for lost travelers or wanderers or the hungry or the poor or the oppressed or the downtrodden? How many tell you do not care for the orphan? Let’s see how many bible scriptures tell you to go out there and kick the butt of a poor person wandering in the desert? Let’s see that.”
Bill Moyers: So what’s behind it? What’s behind the— propaganda is propaganda because it works.
Luis Alberto Urrea: It does work.
Bill Moyers: Words change reality, right? They can change the reality within us even if they don’t change the reality around us. So you’ve got this incredible vitriolic conflict going on. What is it in human nature?
Luis Alberto Urrea: I don’t know. It’s a poisonous thing. I grew up with it. I was born in Tijuana, and then when we moved north just a few miles to this little suburb called Clairemont, which I wrote about sometimes, I suddenly was “other.” I didn’t know I was an “other” until I got there. I did not know I talked with a Tijuana accent, you know? I thought people were called “vato.”
Bill Moyers: Vato?
Luis Alberto Urrea: And then I found out vato—
Bill Moyers: Vato meaning?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Dude.
Bill Moyers: Dude?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Comes from the Spanish conquests where the Spaniards apparently in those days called each other “chivato,” which means, you know, goat. “Ay chivato, que estas hacienda chivato?” And it became vato and it went, passed down through the ages as dude, guy. But you know I had that talk and I had that accent and though I looked Irish. And we got to this neighborhood and suddenly I went to fifth grade and I was in the restroom my first week of fifth grade and this spectacularly white boy, you know, freckles, bright red hair the epitome of who I’d be with from now on said to me, “You’re a greaser wetback.” And I thought, “What is that?” And I said, “I’m a what?” And he said, “You’re a greaser wetback.” And all the boys laughed at me, walked out of the bathroom. And I remember sitting there thinking well, you know, you’re a kid and you internalize these things and you take them concretely. And I was convinced somewhere on my back there was a patch of grease I couldn’t find, right, and I was looking for the grease, I couldn’t find it. And that was the most spectacular moment for me when I realized I was other, I hadn’t known it before.
Bill Moyers: Well, now, that’s a common experience for immigrants in America, wop, spic— all of that. How do you process it?
Luis Alberto Urrea: I came home that day and my father processed it for me. And this may be partially why I’m a writer. But I got home, my father worked in bowling alleys night crew, he was a very smart, literate man who had achieved quite a bit in Mexico, couldn’t get there in the United States. He couldn’t find his way in a lot of ways. He, you know, he knew English was paramount, so he memorized the dictionary, five pages a week. I had to give my father English tests. But I got home and my father was getting ready to go to the night shift. And he always smoked Pall Malls, and he would tip his head when he had a point to— he’d do this. And he was looking at me when I came in and he said, “What’s the matter with you?” And I said, “Nothing.” And he said, “Mi hijo, que traes?” And I said, “Nothing.” “I can see you’re upset. What are you upset about?” I said, “Oh, they called me a name.” He said, “Really? What name did they call you?” I said, “They told me I was a greaser.” And he looked at me just for a second, and I knew because he went like this and I thought, “Oh, here it comes.” And what I thought was going to happen didn’t happen, because I thought he was going to go on a diatribe about these people. And he says to me, “Mi hijo, in the western expansion across the United States the Americanos came in covered wagons. The wagons were made of wood, entirely of wood. The axles, los ejes was made of wood, mi hijo. So they would get to about Texas and the friction heat up the wood.” He said, “y se quemaba todo.” The wagons would burn down.” He said, “You know who the only people in the world with the technology to grease the axles was Mexicans.” And I was looking at him, and he said, “So when they call you a greaser hold your head up because it’s a term of pride.” And I knew my dad was lying. You know, I knew he— but it was so brilliant. Even as a fifth grader, I saw my father take a moment of shame and through a story, right, turn it into something to try to lift his kid up. And then he went off to the bowling alley to clean toilets all night.
Bill Moyers: Now, he was born in Mexico? Your mother was born on Staten Island, in New York?
Luis Alberto Urrea: My mom was from originally, yeah, she was born on Staten Island, but the family are Virginians.
Bill Moyers: But here’s this paradox— there’s many paradoxes in your story, in your life. Your parents battled over your ethnicity, over who you were. Your mother used to scream at you. What would she say?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Well, I can’t repeat it on the air, but she would get so flustered. You know, she was a lady, you know, she was a Junior League lady with those roots in Virginia. But she was under siege by poverty and Mexicans and Spanish, and she could not make me understand that I was something other than a border rat. And so she would basically say, “I’m so sick of your Mexican—” we shall say shenanigans, you know. And she called me Luis. Luis or Dear Boy. She’d always move her hand like this and say, “Dear boy.” And she’d make me use a demitasse cup, you know, and all the fineries. And my Mexican relatives thought, “What is this? Americans drink coffee out of doll cups?” They didn’t get it, you know.
Bill Moyers: And your father, what’d he think about this?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Didn’t like it. “Luis, Luis, eres Mexicano, eres Mexicano.” And as their marriage got worse and worse, I mean, you know, people wonder why I write about the border. It’s not just that I came from the border, it’s that the border— I always tell people this, the border ran right down the middle of our depressed little apartment. Kitchen was the United States, living room was Mexico. Walter Cronkite was the ambassador to both countries. That’s the only time we came together is we would sit down to watch Walter Cronkite. And my father had a chair that never moved and my mother had a chair that never moved, so much so that the little holes from the legs were sunk in the carpet. They never moved, they never got close to each other.
There was a little table in between with a bowl of Fritos and cashews and a glass of Thunderbird or sherry, and everybody sat there watching the television, very tense. They had separate bedrooms, it got more and more separated. So I felt like this weird border ran down the middle— not only of the— of the apartment, but of our lives. So part of the time I was an American boy, part of the time I was a Mexican boy and they didn’t cross.
Bill Moyers: The twain didn’t meet?
Luis Alberto Urrea: That twain did not meet.
Bill Moyers: Have you decided on which side of that border you really belong?
Luis Alberto Urrea: I’m an American, aren’t I? I mean, this is where I live, you know, and I consider myself American. I was educated here, I love it here. I choose English as my chosen art you know, to craft. Now, when I go to Mexico if I’m there a couple of days I start dreaming in Spanish. Isn’t that interesting? So I am very proud of my roots and my cultures that I share. But see, I have this illusion from the way I was raised that I believe everybody is at least bicultural.
Luis Alberto Urrea: But my task, I think, all my life as a writer has been to find that common ground, that communication zone where we can talk and we can get our souls together, you know.
Bill Moyers: Keep trying to take that fence down metaphorically.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Bridges are better than fences.
Bill Moyers: Is that deliberate?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Yes, sir, it is. It’s not necessarily that fence. Like I said, you know, the fence went through my house. The fence— the Mexican border is a physical metaphor for everything that separates human beings. And all you have to do is turn on any debate, turn on Fox News, you know, turn on Rush and you’ll know that there are fences everywhere, on the right and left, white and black, gay and straight, male and female still, Christian, Muslim, Jew. The fence is everywhere. And any audience I speak to has border fences everywhere.
Bill Moyers: I brought just a page from Devil’s Highway. Would you read it?
Luis Alberto Urrea: I would. Oh.
Bill Moyers: Tell me about it.
Luis Alberto Urrea: I think that human details are haunting and tell stories all by themselves. And when I realize that these men who died were people, like I said earlier, they were disparaged at home and certainly disrespected here. And were disrespected after their death on the American side, mocked, you know, used for political gain. On the Mexican side I thought, you know, hypocritically used as suddenly folk heroes. “Oh our heroic suffering brothers,” you know, and they were given this big state return of the corpses with big grandiose promises to help the families. And then as soon as the bodies were out of camera range, that was it.
The families were abandoned and left to their own devices. And these guys, you know, they were victimized over and over even in death. And when I started the investigation the angry Mexican console allowed me into his death archives which were the endless piles of paperwork of all the dead. And in these files there are manila folder, file folders, there are Ziploc baggies with whatever they took out of the pockets. And as soon as you opened the baggy the stench of a rotting corpse comes out. And one of the first things I got was a guy’s comb and it had hair and looked like brill cream. And he’s gone. That’s all he left in the world. And they don’t know his name. And I’m smelling him.
And the women are lighting candles. And I think in my naiveté they’re doing a beautiful religious— and it’s because it stinks. And each— like a jasmine, vanilla. They’re all, you know, supermarket scented candles because they don’t want to smell that. That crushed me. And I realized that if I could somehow make people understand this is what is in the man’s pocket, maybe it would make him alive to you even though he’s gone.
So that’s what this passage is about.
“Somebody had to follow the tracks. They told the story. They went down into Mexico, back in time, and ahead into pauper’s graves. Before the Yuma 14, there were the smugglers. Before the smugglers, there was the Border Patrol. Before the Border Patrol there was the border conflict. Before them all was Desolation [and desert] itself.
“These are the things they carried.
“John Doe # 36: red underpants, mesquite beans stuck to his skin.
“John Doe # 37: no effects.
“John Doe # 38: green socks.
“John Doe # 39: a belt buckle with a fighting cock inlaid, one wallet in the right front pocket of his jeans.
“John Doe # 40: no effects.
“John Doe # 41: fake silver watch, six Mexican coins, one comb, a belt buckle with a spur inlaid, four pills in a foil strip — possibly Advil, or allergy gel caps.
“John Doe # 42: Furor Jeans.” Quote, “‘had a colored piece of paper in pocket.’
“John Doe # 43: green handkerchief, pocket mirror in right front pocket.
“John Doe # 44: Mexican bills in back pocket, a letter in right front pocket, a brown wallet in left front pocket.
“John Doe # 45: no record.
“John Doe # 46: no record.
“John Doe # 47: no effects; one tattoo: Maria.
“John Doe # 48: Converse knockoff basketball shoes.
“John Doe # 49: a photo ID of some sort, apparently illegible.
“They came to the broken place of the world, and taken all together, they did not have enough items to fill a carry-on bag.”
Bill Moyers: Luis Urrea, thank you very much for joining us.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Thank you sir. Thank you. It’s an honor.
Bill Moyers: You’ll want to hear more from Luis Alberto Urrea, and this week you’ll have a chance when he joins us for a special live chat on our website, BillMoyers.com. Go there for more information and to start asking him your questions. I’ll be reading what you, and Luis, have to say.
That’s all for now. See you next time.