Sunday, October 25, 2009

Into the Beautiful North with Luis Alberto Urrea

Olga Garcia Echeverria

Imagine this…

Undocumented immigrants risk their lives to venture into the U.S.

But they don’t do it to clean houses, mow lawns, pick crops nor to pursue the ever-elusive American dream. Instead they come to recruit and take fellow immigrants back home.

Sound surreal and somewhat unexpected?

Well, this is what a small band of young, charismatic characters set out to do in Luis Urrea’s latest novel, Into the Beautiful North.

Urrea’s narrative begins with bandits riding into Tres Camarones, a bucolic village in Sinaloa, Mexico that’s been depleted of its male population. The men have vanished North in search of work, leaving behind a community of mostly women, children, and elderly individuals.

It’s the 21st Century, so when the narco-bandidos arrive they do so in a large police LTD with tinted windows, cruising down the Tres Camarones’ streets “like a jaguar sniffing for its prey.” These outlaws suck on cinnamon toothpicks and praise Kanye West and Diddy, while sneering at the village’s outhouses and skinny dogs.

Enter the main characters and defenders of the town: Nayeli, a 19-year-old soccer star; Tía Irma, the matriarch and ascending mayor of Tres Camarones; Verόnica, a Goth shrimp peeler; Yoloxochitl, a pin tender at the three lane bowling alley; and Tacho, a gay owner of a Taco Shop and Internet Café. Together these unlikely heroines and hero sets out on a mission—to go into “Los Yunaites” and bring back some of their men to help fight off the scalawags threatening to take over their village.

Unlike Urrea’s previous works, Into the Beautiful North is a playful fusion of fiction and reality. “In fiction, you are only answerable to your own limitations,” says Urrea who admits he set out to write a border story very different from any other he’d previously done. And he does create something quite distinct--his narrative is part modern-day immigrant odyssey, part parable, part comedy, with characters that could easily take center stage in a graphic novel. Take Atόmiko, for instance. "King of the Hill. Baddest of the trash pickers. The master of the dompe, known by all, feared by many. He wore baggy suit trousers cinched tight at his narrow waist, a sleeveless white undershit. His tattoos...Zapata on his right biceps, the yin-yang symbol on his left shoulder" (121).

Some critics, however, haven’t been too fond of Urrea riding off freely into the fiction sunset. One writer from the San Francisco Chronicle writes about Into the Beautiful North, “With this book, what once was a terrible rite of passage for slews of dirt-poor Mexicans has become quick, easily digestible—even cute—fare. This is Border Crossing Lite” (June 2009). This same critic also accuses Urrea of letting the champagne bubbles of previous accomplishments go to his head. I found this last statement humorous.

Personally, I like the idea of Urrea exploring new literary frontiers and sipping on champagne as he writes. He deserves it. He’s worked in trash dumps in Tijuana and found poetry there, among the “malodorous volcanoes” of garbage. His investigative journalism has given us the grueling details of border poverty and border injustice in books such as By the Lake of Sleeping Children and Across the Wire. He’s sorted through the remains of the desert dead to be able to honor them and guide us through their heart-wrenching journey in The Devil’s Highway. Urrea has long been known for his serious border material. So is the expectation, then, that Urrea only write dark, tragic stories about the border? Border Crossing Heavy. Por Vida?

That would suck. Especially since, as Urrea himself says, “Not all border culture is harsh. We border people laugh a lot.” This is true. I've heard horrific border-crossing stories, but I've also heard comical or lite ones. Like the story my parents told me of crossing the border once on a bus. They were sitting way in the back and neither of them had papers. When the border agents boarded the bus to check documents, my mother freaked. She was sure that she and my father would be dragged off the bus like several of the other passengers. But my father instructed her to stay calm and to just say "Ah-meh-rikan ci-ten-zen." They only had a couple of minutes to practice these two English words in whispers before the agents reached them.

According to my mother, her and my father's English miraculously came out perfectly or at least well enough to fool the White border agents. Of course this is difficult to believe since 40 years later neither of them can pronounce the two words very well. But according to both of them this is the way it happened. So, myth or reality? The point is the border's not just a place that bleeds death and injustice, it also bleeds mythology, cuento, testimonio, and yes, even humor. These are the things Urrea is playing with in his novel and that amplify our view and understanding of the border and the people who cross it.

Although Urrea’s narrative is marked with humor, there's a definite political undertone running throughout the narrative. Similar to O Brother, Where Art Thou? the humor is meant to reveal something deeper about the political forces of the times. In O Brother those political forces are the Ku Klux Klan (representative of an extended White Southern and racist population). In Into the Beautiful North those political forces are ICE Agents, camouflaged soliders, deportation holding cells (representative of the country's anti-immigrant legislation and sentiments).

Aside from it being radically different from anything Urrea has previously written, the prose is so clean that I felt I was galloping through the pages—I read it in two days and I’m a slow reader. As always, Urrea's details are rich and poetic. But most engaging of all is the actual physical and emotional journey of the main character, Nayeli. She's faced with repeated obstacles, but she is strong, feisty, and ultimately driven by a desire to not save only herself but her entire village. This is Ulysess or Odysseus, but undocumented inmigrante style y con un buen sentido de humor.

I was fortunate enough to catch up with a very busy and touring Urrea earlier this month. Here he is sharing some of his insights on his book, "Illegal Alien" Halloween costumes, and Lou Dobbs.

What inspired the idea for the novel?

All novels need a motivator to set the story in motion. It amused me to imagine a reverse migration scenario, and it fit the feminized heroes’ journey to give them a quest. Like the classic quests of ancient literature, they have to go to a dangerous foreign place, often at night, to return the prize to save their homeland.

What were your intentions when writing the book?

My task was to make mainstream readers who are unsympathetic, if not hostile, to the undocumented and find themselves rooting for them. What it was meant to do was to be the most subversive book I ever published. I dreamed that I could make the Lou Dobbs crowd root for undocumented women and gay men before they knew what they were doing. I launched ITBN as my most revolutionary project to date.

What has the response to your gay character Tacho been?

Interestingly, I got a comment from a Mexican politician; he said Tacho represents the best of us. Again, subversion. But also celebration. Years ago, in the village that became Tres Camarones I met the real Tacho. I have always wanted to honor him and I knew if Lou Dobbs hated the undocumented, steam would come out of his ears at an undocumented gay hero.

What about your main character Nayeli? Who or what was the inspiration behind this young heroine of the novel?

I would like to say that Nayeli was invented out of whole cloth; it would make me sound like a real genius. But you know, there are hundreds of Nayelis. The women who struggle with these issues are heroes. In their own small ways, in each of their days, they must be masterminds and warriors. We simply refuse to see them. Also, there is a young woman in Tijuana named Nayeli. That's where I got the name and her physical description. And she was a soccer star.

I’m dying to know what you think about the “Illegal Alien” Halloween costumes that are being sold at different stores?

The illegal alien costume...hmm. You know, if it were a Paul Rodriguez joke, we'd laugh. But it isn't. Is the context the problem, or the suit? After all, it's a spaceman. But dressed in a cartoony "Mexican" outfit. Don't like it.

Any thoughts on Lou Dobbs?

Lou Dobbs. Wait, I just had a nausea attack. Urp! I'm OK now. Look, Dobbs uses the basest forms of wicked propaganda and disinformation in a cynical way. He knows what he's saying is bullshit. But he sees himself as a patriot...or not. I will tip my hat to that asshole's championing of the workin' man. I agree with him about the laborers and the suffering middle. But to lay that onus on the Latinos is bogus, and he knows it's bogus. Gee, let's see--it was once those dirty Europeans, wasn't it? Ben Franklin didn't want the Germans messing things up. We hated Irish workers, too. Italians. Freed slaves. Chinese. Does anybody remember "the yellow peril"? Eh? Now it's the Browning of America. But, you know, America was pretty damned brown before 1492! Don't get me started on Lou Boobs. If he really cared so much, he would dedicate a few weeks, no, a few days, no a few hours--all right, I'll take one single stinking hour--to discussing Title 8 immigration law. Just one hour. I offer the invitation to Beck and Hannity and Limbaugh, as well. One hour explaining to Americans what, exactly, "illegal" means. I will kiss Dobbs on the air if he does. But first, he has to show that it is not a criminal law, that it is a torte and contract civil law, that it is the same law that governs speeding in traffic, and that he has sped and is thus an illegal alien and ought to be deported.

What do you think about the current campaign to get him off CNN?

I deeply dislike the cynicism and racism of the lying and propagandizing on that show. However, I am nervous about censorship. If I silence Dobbs, am I then to be silenced? It's an American trade-off, isn't it. That bastards can say whatever they want to, and we have to hope we can, too.

Can you share what you’re currently working on?

I'm writing the sequel to Hummingbird's Daughter right now, but I am also preparing two new books of poetry after a ten year absence. I also have a graphic novel coming out early next year based on my short story, Mr.Mendoza's Paintbrush. It's being drawn by an amazing muralist out of Brooklyn named Christopher Cardinale ( He actually went down to the small town where the story is based so the artwork is really representative of that part of Mexico.

For more information on Luis Alberto Urrea and his work:

For more information on "Illegal Alien" Halloween Costumes:

For more information on the Anti-Lou Dobbs campaign: &


Anonymous said...

Great post and fine interview with Urrea, Olga. That book I will read.


msedano said...

xlnt, olga. makes me want to read it again because it was so much fun. thanks for reminding me.


Viva Liz Vega! said...

Here, here. I too will read that book. About the costume though I don't know if I would laugh if it were Paul Rodriguez making a joke...I don't think he's funny...maybe George Lopez?

Ken Montenegro said...

Greg and Susan bought me a signed was the last book i devoured before going into bar prep.

LU and his wife are such kind folks that it's nice to see the commercial success of ITNB....They gave me a CD of music for ITBN, te lo presto anytime!

When do we see a sequel to the brilliantly crafted, designed, and executed Falling Angels?

Anonymous said...

This is the best review of
"Into The Beautiful North" that
I have ever read! And I have
tried to read them all! This
reviewer gives excellent
perspective. Beautifully done!
It couldn't get any better than
this! Felicidades
Juan Sanchez

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Right on, Olga! There's nothing wrong with using humor in tackling tough topics. It's a novel worth reading.

el poquito said...

Excellent novel, excellent writer.

Atomiko, the "King of the Hill, Baddest of the trash pickers" gives us witness to the poorest of the poor, eking out lives in the Tijauna dompe.

My eyes were opened more in recently reading Luis Urrea's 1996 book "By the Lake of Sleeping Children", an account of Luis' years spent serving the residents there in the Tijauna dump.

Those who criticize ITBN as 'lite" have no idea the depths from which Mr. Urrea mines this 'story' to bring forth for norte americanos who perhaps would never see beyond the caricature portrait those like Lou Dobbs presents.

Mr Urrea writes about humans and families with dignity who happen to live at the bottom. Luis speaks the truth as he's witnessed it and very artfully tells a story that is easy for ALL to read.

If others want more 'nitty-gritty' they won't be disappointed by his graphic accounts in Devil's Highway, Across the Wire or By the Lake of Sleeping Children. But they should be prepared to feel quite disturbed by the brutal life of the border - But inside of that, hopes, dreams and aspirations - just like everyone else, wanting a life a little better for the children.

Thank you, Ms. Echeverria. Very nice review of one of my favorite authors.

Maru Lozano said...

Excelente Olga! You've done it again. You highlight with insightful humor and boldness what makes this work unique. Makes me want to run and get it. Also, in your interview with the author, the responses he gives you reveal a level of comfort and trust with your interviewing presence and estilo. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

no i did not enjoy the book it kinda made fun of the Mexican race wich alot of people find offensive if you dont know how it feels to cross the border than dont write about it ever!!!!! Because its like insulting what they realy go through when crossing the border