Archive for the ‘Luis Alberto Urrea’ Category

Into the Beautiful North

June 7, 2009


This first week of summer school was really tough.  I am in class 8am to 5:10pm every day, expect Fridays.  Monday and Wednesday I only have a one hour break during the day.  Plus there’s my online calculus class to deal with when I get home.  At the end of day I trudge the 4 long avenue blocks from school towards my subway station, carrying my textbooks, computer, notebooks, and lab books; feeling tired, hungry, lonely, and worn out.  I finally get to the subway and have to juggle said textbooks and computer without dropping everything to get into my wallet for my MetroCard, then there’s always at least at 10 minute wait for the R train, even during rush hours.  Then, finally!  The train comes, and I get to sit down and read.  I was so happy to have this book to read.  A book is a friend after a long day. 

Funny how in my last entry I was worried I would not have time to read during my commute because of school, and then I finished Into the Beautiful North in 4 days.  Because really, reading about physics, chemistry or calculus at 7am while I’m in the train the morning?  Turns out that is impossible.  And reading about physics, chemistry or calculus on the train ride back home after I’ve spend 8 hours studying physics, chemistry and calculus?  Also impossible.  

Luis Alberto Urrea is one of my favorite authors.  I read his blog on a regular basis and I have the link in my side bar so all you 3 people who read this blog can also read his.  I was really looking forward to this book after reading and loving The Devil’s Highway and The Hummingbird’s Daughter, and I was not disappointed.  Into the Beautiful North is about a group of friends from a rural southern Mexican village who realize that there are no more men left in their town.  They travel to the United States to recruit a group of men and bring them back to their village. It sounds like a far-fetched idea for a book, but it works.  Urrea writes about sad and difficult situations with love, humor and optimism.  His characters are feisty, funny and likable.  This was a quick, satisfying read.  I was sad to see it end.  Here’s a YouTube clip of Urrea discussing the inspiration for this novel:

The Hummingbird’s Daughter

May 1, 2008

Just finished the book this morning on the train.  Urrea is quickly becoming my favorite authors, and this book did not disappoint.  The Hummingbird’s Daughter is like a grown up’s version of Bless Me UltimaUltima is a coming of age story of a young Mexican-American boy who learns life lessons from Ultima, the local curandera who moves into his house in her old age.  In Hummingbird, the old curandera is named Huila, and she is definitely no Ultima.  Huila is a crass old lady.  She drinks and curses like a sailor, she walks around the ranch with a shot gun across her chest and keeps her herbs in a dead man’s ball sack.  She’s great.  But anyway, the hummingbird’s daughter is actually Teresita Urrea, born out of wedlock to an Indian ranch worker and the ranch patron, Tomas Urrea.  Under the teaching of Huila and a desert medicine man named Manuelito, Teresita becomes a skilled healer and political and spiritual leader for local Indian tribes.  Indians from all over make pilgrimages to see her and be healed by her.  She tells the pilgrims that since their land is given to them by God, only God can take away that land, and not the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz.  She is considered a saint by the Indians, and a dangerous political enemy by the government.   

I said this about The Devil’s Highway and I’ll say it again here.  The reason why I enjoy Urrea’s writing is all the details.  He does not hold back in describing the sad state of poor Indians pilgrims seeking out Teresita’s help (lice, fleas, open wounds covered in worms and maggots, open sores leaking out pus, diarrhea from bad food and water, etc.)  Urrea takes about a paragraph to describe what the characters are eating for breakfast and dinner and it makes me crave Mexican food so badly.  The details that he adds never weights the story down, they’re part of this story.  This is not like a Steinbeck novel where an entire chapter is about the geography of the Salinas Valley.  (Don’t get me wrong, East of Eden is one of my favorite books, but you know what I mean)

This book was a joy to read because of dialogue.  It is witty, sharp, and just fun to read.  Urrea uses profanity quite a bit in this book, but is never overused.  All of his characters, even the minor ones, are well developed and memorable.  I really liked Tomas’ relationship with his friends, the educated engineer Lauro and the top ranch hand Segundo.  I think I had a smile on my face the entire time I read this novel.    It is that good.

The coolest thing about this book is that Teresita Urrea was a real person and her story is documented in Mexican and U.S. newspapers.  She is a distant relative of the author and he spent 20 years researching this novel.  He offers more Teresita details on his website.

I don’t know what to read next, if anyone has recommendations, let me know.

The Devil’s Highway – A True Story

April 18, 2008

I was going to stop reading The Devil’s Highway after I almost started crying on the train ride home on Monday. This is the story of 26 men who tried crossed the U.S. / Mexico border on foot. They got lost in the desert. Fourteen of them died. The part that almost did me in? When the author, Luis Alberto Urrea, lists the things the Border Patrol agents found the bodies: a rooster belt buckle, a folded letter, green socks with matching boxers, a tattoo of a name: Maria, a pocket mirror, Mexican coins, a wallet, a faded photo ID. But I couldn’t stop reading. I started this book on Monday and now I’m finished.

The writing is so engaging and so poetic and surreal, it is beautiful, but at the same horrific. I couldn’t put it down. It is the all of the details that you read about that make this book so nightmarish. When Urrea goes through the step by step process how hyperthermia and heat stroke affect the human body (“Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot. Once rotting in you, they dump rafts of dying cells into your already sludgy bloodstream”). The way the bodies looked like when they were discovered by the border patrol (“Have you ever seen a mummy from ancient Egypt? That gives you an idea. They looked shriveled up”). How the men looked in death (“The dead have open mouths and white teeth. They are stretched in angular poses, caught in the last gasps or shouts, their eyes burned an eerie red by the sun. Many of them are naked. Some have dirt in their mouths . . . They look like roadside attractions, like wax-and-paper torsos in a gas station Dungeon of Terror”). How the women at at the Mexican consulate in Tuscon light candles for each body that is found in the desert. The magical realism of the landscape, the Devil’s Highway becomes the main character of this book. The desert in this book is terrifying (“Desert spirits of a dark and mysterious nature have always traveled these trails. From the beginning, the highway has always lacked grace – those who worship desert gods know them to favor retribution over the tender dove of forgiveness. In Desolation, doves are at the bottom of the food chain. Tohono O’Odham poet Ofelia Zepeda has pointed out that rosaries and Hail Marys don’t work out here. ‘You need a new kind of payers,’ she says ‘to negotiate with this land.’ “)

So, an emotionally difficult read. But also, an important read. Definitely one of the best books written about the border. I found the author’s website and his blog, which he actually seems to update a lot. It’s interesting to go back and read his entries about this book; to read about his frustrations with his book tour, because whenever he tried to give a speech or lecture at a college or bookstore there was always someone in the audience yelling at him about how Mexicans are destroying America, and that he must hate America and accuse him of being unpatriotic. Still, other entries are really funny, especially the entries about his children. I plan to read his other books; his newest one is The Hummingbird’s Daughter, a historical fiction novel based on his family’s history that took him 20 years to research.

Among other things that I am thankful for, including being able to live comfortably in a country where I have citizenship, I am glad I don’t live anywhere near the desert.