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Author Luis Alberto Urrea: Telling stories to link disparate worlds

By Catherine Rendón
La Voz Latina

In late August, Mexican-American author Luis Alberto Urrea and his wife, Cindy, visited Savannah. It was Urrea’s birthday and the couple was happy to be in Georgia as special guests of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.

For many years, the Urreas lived in Lafayette, Louisiana, so they were delighted to find themselves, albeit briefly, in the beautiful setting of Savannah and its distinctive coastal landscape which reminded them of the Louisiana bayou.

O’Connor, a well-known Southern author, was born in Savannah and spent her early years in a house across from St. John The Baptist Cathedral. Today the home is open to the public and O’Connor’s stories are celebrated as acutely-observed testaments to human foibles and weaknesses.

Urrea had been invited to give the 4th Annual Ursrey Lecture, an event which has brought several well-known novelists to Savannah. The lecture was set up in memory of Terry and Ashley Ursrey, the deceased sons of Mrs. Alene Ursrey who co-sponsors the annual lecture series with her friends, artist Betsy Cain and Dr. John Hunt.

Urrea said he was especially pleased to participate in an event connected with Flannery O’Connor.

“She’s always been one of my favorite writers,” he said. “Gabriel García Márquez gave credit for Latin America’s magical realism to writers from the American South like Flannery O’Connor.”

For the past decade, Urrea and his family have lived on the outskirts of Chicago where he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He and his wife travel around the country bringing stories of courage, wonder, magic and resourcefulness of both Mexican and American individuals and how they sometimes meet and even meld on this vast continent.

Urrea was born in Tijuana of an American mother and Mexican father. His childhood and adolescence were divided between Tijuana and San Diego. The differences between his parents and the contrast between his life in Mexico and the United States made him aware of how deeply entrenched memories and values can be in all of us from an early age. He also witnessed the isolation individuals can experience when they have the courage to step out of their own familiar setting.

Urrea saw how a sense of displacement affected each of his parents when they found themselves relinquishing their worlds, but how each, in turn, hoped for a better, braver world for their son.

Urrea could have spoken of many things since he is author of over a dozen books, some non-fiction, others fiction, poetry and essays as well. But on this occasion he spoke mostly about his mother, a white-gloved, quintessential Southern belle who had worked with the allied troops in Europe during the Second World War.

Although she had been born in Richmond, Va., and lived in New York, she ended up moving to California. It was there that she met a handsome Mexican, Urrea’s father, and married him and moved to Tijuana.

Perhaps she imagined a fancier life than the one she found south of the border, but there she read books to her son and later, encouraged him to write. His mother’s emphasis on education and his father’s pride in all things Mexican, along with his simultaneous admiration and frustration for “the American way,” were all factors in Urrea’s formation and ultimate career.

While he was still in high school, Urrea’s mother gave him the wondrous gift of a manual typewriter and bound his first manuscript into a little book. “Her gift opened my eyes in so many ways,” Urrea said. “Even though I spent all of my spare-time writing, it had never occurred to me that I was allowed to write a real book.”

Sadly, neither parent lived to see the publication of Urrea’s first book Across the Wire, a collection of stories about poverty along the Mexican border or know of his later success as a writer, teacher and public speaker.

When Urrea was five his family moved to San Diego and there his father battled the mysteries and differences between life in Mexico and the United States.

Young Urrea too found ways to navigate between two contrasting worlds on a larger scale than he had encountered at home in the differences between his mother and father. Although California has been a gateway and home to generations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, Urrea had to make his own way and found himself drawn to and divided by the things that mattered to each of his parents.

As he grew older, Urrea explored the rich mines of family lore. The stories and personalities of his
Mexican relatives loomed larger by his proximity to his Mexican family. Urrea’s great-aunt was a healer and popular folk heroine named Teresita Urrea and he tells her amazing story in The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America.

Urrea’s big break as a writer came…

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  • Elia Esparza
    September 12, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Luis Urrea is an old friend of mine. He has always been a great writer and compassionate man. His wife is lovely and so happy you’re giving them coverage.

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