Luis Alberto Urrea was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his 2004 book The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, about a group of Mexican men who cross the border into the United States.
Growing up with a Mexican father and an American mother, author Luis Alberto Urrea often felt like there was a border wall running through his family’s San Diego apartment.
“The kitchen was the United States; the living room was Mexico,” Urrea says. “One side was struggling with all her might to make me an American boy, and the other side, with all of his might, was trying to keep me a Mexican boy.”
As a child, Urrea was often confused by his own dual culture, which he describes as a “super-American look” combined with a “super-Mexican outlook and accent.” But as an adult, Urrea realized that he could draw on his heritage in his work.
“All those things that as a kid seem so painful and were such a liability to me ended up being the strength of everything,” he says.
Urrea’s latest novel, The House of Broken Angels, borrows from the real story of his older brother, Juan, who was dying of cancer when Urrea’s mother died.
On celebrating Juan’s birthday with a big party when he was dying of cancer
I spent the day laughing and then weeping. It was whiplash all day long. As I described in [The House of Broken Angels] with the character Big Angel, my brother was greatly physically reduced. He was in a lot of physical pain. He couldn’t stand very well by himself anymore. He spent a lot of time in his bed.
But he would come forth to this insane gathering of every kind of person all at once, all the stories going at once, all of the romantic and erotic hookups, all of the feuds, all of the jokes, all of the weeping, all of the strangers sitting in corners kind of baffled about what was going on, a DJ playing weird mash-up music that people were dancing to — all happening at once. …
I think the book came out of two moments, one of them directly quoted in the novel, when I told him, watching [people] kiss his hand, “You’re like Don Corleone.” And he said, “I am Don Corleone.” And the other: His having to go to bed and asking me to lie in bed with him at several junctures of the day. … We had every kind of talk. … It was the moment of reconnection and farewell.
On his father’s death after an encounter with the Mexican police
My father wanted to celebrate [me getting into college] somehow, even though he and my mom were long separated by that point. So he drove alone down to his hometown in Sinaloa, [Mexico,] … to retrieve money, because he, like so many immigrants, was sending remittance money home. …
He retrieved $1,000 from the bank — U.S. bills, 20s — and then he drove back. And he was trying to get home and … he got to a [Mexican] town south of Yuma, Ariz., and ran afoul of the police.
It’s very nebulous what exactly happened with them, but he ended up extremely hurt physically and they took a lot of his belongings. They took everything. They took his shoes, his luggage, all of his belongings. And the injuries to his abdomen particularly made him wet himself, and they never reached into his pockets, so they didn’t find the money. The doctor who came did find it because he was wearing rubber gloves and he knew if he said anything that they would take it, so he hid it.
Essentially, my father waited eight hours in this state: naked on a table, waiting for an ambulance to take him to the American border so he could be saved. The calculation, I believe, is that he would die, and he did. So, the doctor passed that money to relatives who passed it on down the border to me. I was waiting in the funeral home in Tijuana, and the police brought the body and made me buy it. They said if I didn’t purchase my father, they would keep him. So I spent that money to buy him.
On how his father’s death inspired him to write
I felt everything crashing down and I didn’t know what to do. It was such a harrowing experience being with his body. I sat in a room with him all night, his body, dealing with the police. And then I had to go to the border and deal with immigration and have all of his papers.
I didn’t know what I was doing. By the time I got back to San Diego, I had forgotten English. It took me a minute to get back into being an American. I had only one way to deal with it, which was writing. I had been writing since high school, and so I wrote about it. The happy ending to that story is that Ursula Le Guin came to my college and she found me and helped me become an author.
On how the Trump presidency influenced The House of Broken Angels
It definitely affected my rewrite of the novel. The novel started out as a kind of a slim memoir inspired by the events of my brother’s death and final birthday party on Earth before his death, and it was kind of what I call the Mexican Finnegans Wake. …
But then as I expanded it, … it started taking on more of a cultural statement and turned into a novel, which seemed to want to become epic. I couldn’t shake my growing sense of rage and astonishment at the tone. People I loved facing horrible fear with DACA, and people I loved and knew being confronted by good Americans spewing demented vitriol at them.
On the Trump administration’s proposed border wall, which Urrea wrote about in The New York Times
I try to be respectful, and one of the points for me is to listen to people and hear them, because I think sometimes people get more and more outrageous because they feel insulted or looked down on. So I’ll listen, but sometimes it’s really hard.
I’m telling you, this wall is a boondoggle. It’s a joke. And … the eight new [prototypes] of wall that President Trump claims he’s finally going to go see, I’m telling you, one day it’s going to be a kitschy tourist stop for ironic hipsters. It’s going to be spray-painted. It’s going to look like Cadillac Ranch and people are going to take selfies at it. But it’s not going to start a multibillion-dollar Great Wall of China project. I promise you. There’s no way to build it.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Luis Alberto Urrea, writes what he describes as a literature of witness. He was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother. When he was 3, they moved to California. He grew up in a San Diego barrio. He has family on both sides of the border. His dual culture was the subject of his memoir, “Nobody’s Son.” He’s written about the period he did relief work in Tijuana with the garbage pickers who survive on what they can find in the mountainous garbage dumps. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his 2004 nonfiction book, “The Devil’s Highway,” about a group of 26 Mexican men who crossed the border illegally guided by smugglers through the Arizona desert where they were abandoned by the smugglers. More than half of the men died in the desert.
Urrea’s new novel, “The House Of Broken Angels,” borrows from the real story of his older brother, Juan, who was dying of cancer when his mother died. The day after her funeral, the family threw a party for Juan that was part birthday celebration, part wake. Urrea is a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Luis Urrea, welcome to FRESH AIR. So did Donald Trump’s candidacy and election and build the wall and end DACA influence your decision to write this novel, or influence the content of it?
LUIS ALBERTO URREA: It definitely affected my rewrite of the novel. You know, the novel started out as a kind of a slim memoir inspired by the events of my brother’s death and final birthday party on Earth before his death. And it kind of was what I call the Mexican “Finnegans Wake,” right? All these mad people. And I started out writing a slender memoir a little bit, I think, focused like Truman Capote’s little memoirs. Do you remember the “Thanksgiving Memory” and the “Christmas Memory?”
But then as I expanded it and it started taking on more of a cultural body, more of a cultural statement and it turned into a novel, which seemed to want to become epic, I couldn’t shake my growing sense of rage and astonishment at the tone, and people I loved facing horrible fear with DACA and people I loved and knew being confronted by good Americans spewing demented vitriol at them.
GROSS: You know, part of me wants to ask you if you have relatives who are here illegally or have relatives who would be deported if DACA ends. But if you have relatives who are in danger of being deported, why would you want to tell me that in public like this?
URREA: I ain’t saying they are and I ain’t saying they ain’t, (laughter) but…
URREA: Yes, I do know people intimately who are undocumented. And I know a lot of people in Chicago not related to me who are dreamers who are in fear. So I would say in the most general terms without pointing fingers at any specific relative, yeah.
GROSS: You said that when you were growing up, there was, like, a border wall within your home…
GROSS: …Because of the ethnic divisions. Your mother was born in Staten Island.
GROSS: Some of her family is from Virginia. Your father was Mexican, grew up in Mexico and lived there until you were 3. But your father, on the other hand, was white. Blond-haired and blue-eyed?
GROSS: So I’m not sure what his ethnic background was, but – so describe that wall in your own home.
URREA: The situation was kind of complicated in that my mother didn’t speak Spanish. My father spoke English, you know, as best he could. And I think that the worry in the family, our little tiny family, was that one side was struggling with all her might to make me an American boy, and the other side with all of his might was trying to keep me a Mexican boy. And in my mother’s world, I wasn’t named Luis, I was named Louis. I was Louis Woodward, one of her people.
And that kind of combat over me (laughter) was extended into so many other things – you know, the two cultures clashing, the relationship coming apart at the seams but sort of trapped together by my fervent Catholicism. I was that kid that told them they couldn’t get a divorce, even as a little kid ’cause you’re going to go to hell if you get a divorce. You can’t. And so jokingly I tell people when I’m on tour that the kitchen was the United States, the living room was Mexico. In the kitchen, I was Louis. In the living room, I was Luis. And it was obvious to me even then that that weird border that I crossed constantly with my dad was right there in my silly little apartment.
GROSS: You must’ve been pretty confused when you were growing up if your parents were fighting over your identity. Identity is really hard to form when you’re coming of age. You’re asking yourself who you are. You try on different masks until you find your real face.
GROSS: But if your parents are arguing about who you are and whether you’re Mexican or American, how can you figure out who you are?
URREA: Good question. I don’t know. I mean, you know, I went from living in Tijuana full time to then being in the barrio, which was Tijuana lite, and spending…
GROSS: This was in San Diego?
URREA: Yeah. San Diego. Spending maybe 30 to 40 percent of my time going back to Tijuana. Spanish was my first language. Honestly, I learned to first speak in Spanish, not English because my poor mother had to go to San Diego every day to work and then come back. And she would come home when I was an infant long after I was asleep. And so I had a Tijuana accent. I talked like this. It’s easy for me to slip back into talking that way. That’s how we talked. And my mother was beside herself with the fear that this was happening to her boy, and she combated that with Mark Twain. Gift from God – right? – Mark Twain.
She would read me “Tom Sawyer” in bed, and I thought, this is the coolest thing ever. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I had not seen rivers. You know, there’s a Tijuana River, but it was basically an effluent overflow. And there’s a San Diego River, allegedly, which is kind of, in Colorado, would be a medium mountain stream, but it’s not a river.
So the Mississippi, aside from being a really strange word, seemed like this science fiction thing to me, a fantasy thing. And Mark Twain, who was this old, white man who’s been dead maybe a thousand years – I couldn’t quite comprehend – telling these hilarious, exciting, modern-sounding, adventuresome tales about these incredible people. She brought me into American-ness, into English, through story. And I often tell this tale on tour with people. Now that I’m telling you, I won’t have to tell it again, but, my dad was eager to find a text in Spanish ’cause he saw my mom winning. You know, I all of a sudden didn’t care for mariachi music. I liked the Beatles, you know? He called them Los Beatles.
URREA: And he hated – he was like, what kind of a man wears hair like that, Mijo? She was winning on all those fronts. And my father was combating it with Tijuana television and old Mexican records that I didn’t want to listen to. And he was trying to find a Mexican classic so I would read it in Spanish and preserve that part. And what I love about him is that he scoured Tijuana looking for a bookstore. In those days, even today, Tijuana, not quite the incredible Brooklyn hipster literary town, though it’s getting there now. So he couldn’t find a bookstore. And somehow he found a book in Spanish for me, and it was from Spain, and it was a translation of Homer, the “Odyssey.”
URREA: And he brought it home. And he slammed it on the table, and he said, Mijo, story this book in its original Spanish.
URREA: And I – even at that early age – it was probably fourth grade – I knew that he was pretty far off target. But it made me love him so much.
GROSS: Why don’t we take a short break here? And then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is novelist and journalist and poet Luis Urrea. His new novel is called “The House Of Broken Angels.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG “HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us my guest is writer Luis Urrea. His new book is a novel called “The House Of Broken Angels.”
So in the conflict between your mother wanting you to be American and your father wanting you to be Mexican, did you at some point say to yourself, I’m Mexican-American?
URREA: I’ll be honest with you. So the neighborhood we lived in was full of ethnic violence and strife. And it was a neighborhood where black versus brown versus white and any combination of those, OK? So if you can imagine me, Irish-looking kid, talking Tijuana with a Mexican accent going to a Catholic school – right? – walking – this sounds like a great hard-luck story. But, you know, it wasn’t quite a mile. But it was a pretty long walk through the barrio in my little silly Catholic school uniform every day. And can you imagine all the homeboys watching this? And I always have this weird fantasy of them all saying, gentlemen…
URREA: Right? Let us make peace and kick his butt today – which is perhaps what made me a big reader, right? I’d rush home and lock myself in and read. And in fourth grade, a scary event happened, which is melodramatic to talk about. But I escaped some street violence – let’s put it that way – and my parents felt that it was time to get out of that ambiance. And my mother had come into a little bit of inheritance money, and we suddenly moved north again. And note the journey – right? – heading north.
We went north to a little essentially Anglo, working-class suburb – in other words, to my mother’s at least ethnic group not my father’s. And we were the first mixed family in our little neighborhood, which caused a lot of interesting things. But I suddenly, for the first time in my life, heard pretty harsh anti-Mexican rhetoric. And I myself was called greaser, wetback, taco bender – which was a San Diego specialty. I thought that was a good insult because it was creative – you know, a little bend in the taco. You’re so witty.
URREA: And I had gone – I had joined the Boy Scouts. I was instantly an American kid, and I liked it. I thought, OK, Americans have lawns. That’s cool. I had not seen lawns till fifth grade – big green lawns. And they have the Boy Scouts. And my father didn’t like the Boy Scouts, and I couldn’t figure out why. Now talking to you, it suddenly makes a little more sense that it was, in his eyes, a capitulation – right? – to more American-ness – though he struggled hard. He memorized the dictionary, five pages a week, to learn English. But he didn’t like the trappings – I don’t think. And I remember him telling me, mijo, if you want to be a man, join the army. And I said, Dad, I’m in fifth grade. How can I…
URREA: But that was the moment when people started calling me greaser, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I found my Mexican accent – it wasn’t a conscious choice. It just vanished. I started speaking like my mother.
GROSS: And you describe yourself as looking Irish?
URREA: Kind of, yeah.
GROSS: Pale skin.
URREA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. My dad, you know, he looked like Errol Flynn.
GROSS: Your new novel is inspired in part by your older brother. You shared a father with him but had different mothers. Was his mother Mexican?
URREA: Oh, yes.
GROSS: So he grew up culturally different than you did with your American mother?
URREA: Absolutely, yeah. He was 110 percent a Mexican man.
GROSS: But he grew up in the States?
GROSS: Oh, no, he grew up in Tijuana?
URREA: He grew up down in Mexico – yeah, Mexico City.
GROSS: OK. So in the novel – well, in real life…
GROSS: …Your brother was dying of cancer when his mother died…
GROSS: …In 2016.
URREA: Yeah, it was three years ago – yeah, 2016.
GROSS: And then the day after her funeral, he had a party that was part birthday party and part wake because he was dying. And he knew he was dying, and everybody knew he was dying. And in fact, he did die a month after that party.
URREA: He died a few weeks after. It was almost 10 days after he died.
GROSS: And so the novel is kind of centered around the funeral and the birthday-wake and all of the emotional changes within the family as a result of those two events. Would you describe what the real party was like when your brother was dying right after your mother died – or rather his mother died I should say.
URREA: It was the most remarkable thing I’d seen. And I spent the day laughing and then weeping. It was whiplash all day long. So you know, as described in the book with the character Big Angel, my brother was greatly physically reduced. He was in a lot of physical pain. He couldn’t stand very well by himself anymore. He spent a lot of time in his bed.
But he would come forth to this insane gathering of every kind of person all at once – all the stories going at once, all of the romantic and erotic hookups, all of the feuds, all of the jokes, all of the weeping, all of the strangers sitting in corners kind of baffled about what was going on, a DJ playing weird mashup music that people were dancing to – all happening at once and my brother.
And I think that the book came out of two moments – one of them directly quoted in the novel – when I told him, watching people kiss his hand, you’re like Don Corleone. And he said, I am Don Corleone – and the other, his having to go to bed and asking me to lie in bed with him at several junctures of the day.
GROSS: The brothers in the book talk very intimately when they’re lying side by side.
GROSS: You describe the process of dying. And I want you to read a paragraph from “The House Of Broken Angels” in which Big Angel, the character who’s dying, the brother who’s dying, is actively dying.
URREA: (Reading) Big Angel was aware of the sad steps of the dance. It cost him great effort to speak now. When you died, you died in small doses. You had trouble speaking. You forgot who was beside you. You were suddenly furious and in a panic of outrage. You wished you could be saintly. You wished you weren’t so weak. You suddenly felt better and fooled yourself into believing that a miracle was about to happen. Well, wasn’t that a dirty, rotten thing to pull on somebody?
GROSS: So you’ve witnessed people dying who you loved. Your mother died. Your brother died. You are, fortunately, alive. What was it like for you to imagine the process of dying from the point of view of the person who is dying?
URREA: Perhaps poetic license, though we spent a lot of time talking about mortality and how it felt.
GROSS: You and your brother?
URREA: My brother, yeah. But I had experienced a whole lot of death, you know. Our father died horribly in the hands of Mexican cops. And, you know, I actually had to buy his corpse from them. So I’ve spent a lot of time pondering it. I worked with a missionary crew, and part of our job was people being ill and dying in Mexico. So yeah, it’s been greatly on my mind.
GROSS: Was the way he died consistent with who he was? Like, he wanted to maintain his virility. How – did that affect how he handled his own death?
URREA: He went out as heroically as he could. I think he was a man of great vigor and a man with a very strong sense of his self. And I think that he orchestrated the exit. He wanted to be magnificent. He wanted to leave behind a kind of a guide for everyone because he took the patriarch role very seriously. And I think he fought to do that till the very end. And, you know, he orchestrated gestures to be delivered to the family from anonymous sources for a year after he was dead.
GROSS: Wow. Like what?
URREA: He planned out these timed things.
GROSS: What kind of things?
URREA: On the anniversary, he had white flowers delivered to his widow with a handwritten letter from him, as though he had sent something from heaven. And, of course, being Mexicans, everybody said, oh, my God. You know…
URREA: …Juan (ph) wrote a letter from heaven (laughter) – little things like that. And the tradition has carried on. And now in the family, of course, everybody says, wow, Juan’s helped Luis write this book. It’s really cool.
GROSS: He kind of did (laughter).
URREA: Oh, yeah, he did. I owe it to him.
GROSS: My guest is Luis Urrea. His new novel is called “The House Of Broken Angels.” After a break, he’ll tell us the story of his father’s mysterious death in Mexico. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAT METHENY AND CHARLIE HADEN’S “FIRST SONG”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Luis Urrea. Much of his fiction and nonfiction relates to his life as a Mexican-American. His father was from Mexico, his mother from America. Urrea was born in Tijuana. At the age of three, his family moved across the border to California. His new novel, “The House Of Broken Angels,” is about a family with relatives on both sides of the border dealing with the deaths of family members. His nonfiction books include “The Devil’s Highway” about a group of Mexicans crossing the border illegally through the desert and how half of them died there. He also wrote a memoir called “Nobody’s Son.” So you mentioned your father was killed by cops in Mexico. What happened?
URREA: Yeah. Oh, gosh. Well, I was the first to go to college. And again, you know, my siblings are all half-siblings. I was the only one – only child in our family. And my father wanted to celebrate it somehow, even though he and my mom were long separated by that point. And so he drove alone down to his hometown in Sinaloa – it was about a 30-hour drive – to retrieve money because he, like so many immigrants, was sending remittance money home. In his dreams, he would return home one day and live in a nice, little house in Sinaloa. And he retrieved $1,000 from the bank – U.S. bills – 20s. And then he drove back. And he was trying to get home, and he’d driven back about – not quite 30 hours. And he got to a town south of Yuma, Ariz., and ran afoul of the police. It’s very nebulous what exactly happened with them. But he ended up extremely hurt physically. And they took a lot of his belongings. They took everything, took his shoes, his luggage, all of his belongings.
And the injuries to his abdomen particularly made him wet himself. And they never reached into his pocket, so they didn’t find the money. And the doctor who came did find it because he was wearing rubber gloves. And he knew if he said anything that they would take it, so he hid it. And essentially, my father waited eight hours in this state, naked on a table, waiting for an ambulance to take him to the American border so he could be saved. And the calculation, I believe, was that he would die. And he did.
So the doctor passed that money to relatives, who passed it on down the border to me. I was waiting in the funeral home in Tijuana. And the police brought the body and made me buy it. And they said if I didn’t purchase my father, they would keep him. So I spent that money to buy him.
GROSS: What incredible corruption and heartlessness.
URREA: It was stunning. It truly was. I – you know, I was a kid. I was a senior in college. I had no way to comprehend what was happening, really. And, you know, we had to bury him in an unmarked grave in Tijuana because that was it. That was all anybody had. And later, when the death certificate came, which we had requested because we thought we could – my mom and me – at least get insurance money to help us survive, they said he died in a clinic of a stroke.
And when I started trying to investigate, the chief of police of that town called me and said, well, we wish we could help you, but the entire police department has retired this year. They’re all gone. So nobody knows what happened. And I wrote him an angry letter. And he wrote me back, and he said, it is better for you and everyone you know that there was no accident. And the punchline to this awful joke is that then he sent me a bill for damages he had caused in what we suspect was a police chase of his car where they rammed the car and forced him off the road.
GROSS: They billed you for damages they said your father caused.
URREA: Yeah. Yeah. While dying in a hospital bed. And the piece I wrote about it – I wrote in my first book, he must have fallen out of the bed really hard.
GROSS: You know, you’ve written that your father was a superstar in Mexico but never found his footing in the U.S. What made him a superstar in Mexico?
URREA: He was on the presidential staff under several presidents in Mexico. He was – the president of Mexico – his license plate number was MEXICO1. He gave my father MEXICO2 (laughter).
URREA: Yeah. He met movie stars. You know, he traveled all over. He flew on the presidential plane. He represented the president. At one point, they were on a trip into Texas. And the president of Mexico was denied service in a restaurant. My father was told, you may eat here. You’re a white man. He’s got to go. And my dad said, he’s the president of Mexico. And the restaurant person said, I don’t care who he is. And so my father’s one unbreakable rule was, you may never go to Texas (laughter), which I do every chance I get. But yeah.
GROSS: And when your father moved to the U.S., he had jobs like driving a bakery truck.
URREA: Yeah, he…
GROSS: Must have been so frustrating for him to have been so highly appointed in Mexico and come here – not that there’s anything wrong with driving a bakery truck, but it’s certainly not the life he was used to.
URREA: No, it was not. And yeah, bakery trucks – it’s great when Dad comes home from work (laughter) because he drives the truck home, and then you get a donut. But my dad – you know, the Mexican government is complicated. And as – what he would say to me is that he had been asked to do something he refused to do. And when that happened, they turned against him.
GROSS: What did – what was he asked to do?
URREA: Kill somebody. And he didn’t want to.
GROSS: Like, assassinate somebody?
URREA: I don’t know. Kill somebody. And he used to tell me, I was paid $2,000 to do it, and I never cashed the check. And I thought, you know, it was one of those tall tales until he died. And I went through all his paperworks. And I found the check. I have the check. He never cashed it, never endorsed it – 2,000 U.S. dollars, which, you know, in 1950, maybe, ’51 – that was a lot of money. I mean…
GROSS: This is just remarkable because, like, he goes to Mexico to get $1,000…
GROSS: …For you. He ends up being killed. The money that you get, that $1,000, you need to use to buy back his body from the corrupt Mexican police. But meanwhile, he has this $2,000 check that he will never – that he never cashed because of principle.
URREA: Yeah. It’s kind of a Tolstoy novel, isn’t it? (Laughter) I mean, it’s got these levels of strange, spiraling incident and history that are pretty amazing. So yeah, that was the story. And he came to Tijuana to join his mom and dad and – which is how all of this – me happened later because he was fleeing Mexico City. And I believe he got a green card to get away from them because those – the government sent people to find him. He was really in trouble.
And his first job in the U.S. was as a busboy. And then he worked at a tuna cannery. And then he became the Helms Bakery truck driver, which was like an ice cream man with bread and doughnuts. And then he found bowling alleys. So my whole life, really, after the Helms Bakery life, was hanging out in the back of bowling alleys with my dad.
GROSS: Why don’t we take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more? If you’re just joining us, my guest is novelist and journalist and poet Luis Urrea. His new novel is called “The House Of Broken Angels.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOACIR SANTOS’ “EXCERPT NO. 1”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, my guest is writer Luis Urrea. His new book is a novel called “The House Of Broken Angels.” Both of your parents sound kind of remarkable. Your mother worked with the Red Cross during World War II.
URREA: Yes, she did.
GROSS: Well, let’s just talk about her a little bit. I mean, what did she do with the Red Cross?
URREA: Well, she wasn’t a nurse. They had a program called The Clubmobile program, instituted by Eisenhower following the model of the Englishman. And the Clubmobile ladies were known in the vernacular among the GIs as Donut Dollies. They didn’t like that term, but that’s what has stuck. And we don’t know much about them anymore. The Donut Dollies drove 2 1/2 ton trucks with a kitchen mounted on the back. And they went into combat and made coffee and doughnuts for the troops. And there were three women per truck, and they were essentially sent out there as big sisters to these younger guys. They were – had to be 27 years old, had to have some education, had to go through some pretty harrowing training, had to learn to drive these giant trucks. And they had to learn how to make doughnuts.
And they would drive into – usually in the rear but nearby so that troops who are having trouble and exhausted and terrified could come and find a little bit of home. They had to dress well. They had a beautifully tailored uniform. They had a government-issued lipstick that had to be a certain shade. And they would offer conversation. And they would carry mail. And they would distribute chewing gum as well. And they would keep these registers full of the names of all the GIs in that area so men could look up where their best friends were by region. And also, the trucks had record players, so they carried Benny Goodman records and that kind of stuff and they could play the hits for these GIs, so it was hope.
GROSS: You wrote about your mother a little bit in your memoir, “Nobody’s Son.” And, you know, you write about how she experienced, you know, like bomb blasts…
GROSS: …That could have killed her.
GROSS: She was, you know, basically on the battlefield.
URREA: She was. She was in the Battle of the Bulge.
URREA: She was trapped in the Siege of Bastogne. And she and her two truck mates were given a government citation for being the women most forward in combat in World War II. They were trapped right in the middle, and then they went and helped liberate Buchenwald.
GROSS: And then she was in a Jeep accident…
GROSS: …In which she nearly died and suffered severe injuries.
GROSS: So, you know, you write about how when you were growing up, she’d cry in her sleep every night. And I was thinking about how frightening that must have been for you because parents always reassure children, you don’t have to be afraid of the dark. The monster is not going to get you at night, but the monster got your mother every night.
URREA: Both of them, in the years they were still together. He – who knows what he experienced in the Mexican government and military. And he was a federal judicial police officer as well. So my father – they lived in – they slept in separate rooms. So at one end of the house was my father having nightmares every night and grinding his teeth. He ground his teeth until they broke to the root. My mother in her room, crying and yelling and having terrible nightmares. And me in my room, learning to be an insomniac, you know. So I – I spent my nights with Leonard Cohen. That’s what I did.
GROSS: That was a good choice.
URREA: It was a good choice. Thank God for Leonard Cohen – and, you know, reading Ray Bradbury and Richard Brodhagen, and sooner or later getting a notebook. And so I’d sit up and write and listen to music and walk around my mom’s backyard in my underwear, you know. And I never got to sleep before 1, probably.
GROSS: Do you sleep now?
URREA: Yeah, I can sleep. Sometimes it’s hard for me to sleep and it may be that – I don’t know. But, yeah, I like sleep. I’m happy now, you know.
GROSS: Something else that you’ve done I want to ask you about. You wrote a book that was published in 2004 called “The Devil’s Highway.”
GROSS: And this is the story of a group of 26 Mexicans who in May of 2001 tried to cross the border into America through the desert with smugglers, you know, who were guiding them. And then the smugglers abandoned them in the desert. And they woke up one day and they were just lost in the desert. So 12 of the 26 survive, 14 of them I guess died of, like, from the sun and the thirst.
GROSS: So you write about that and also write about the larger issue of the people who try to cross the border illegally through the desert. And you write about the Border Patrol guards and the trucks. And one of the things you write is that your missionary background made you deeply sympathetic to the undocumented. You’re Mexican-American background made you feel antagonistic toward the Border Patrol, but then you met Border Patrol agents. And, you know, you describe them as disrespected and demeaned by the right and the left.
GROSS: What was it like to meet them and try to kind of see the world from their point of view?
URREA: I can laugh about it now (laughter). But in the midst of their giving me a really rough time, out at Welton station, their supervisory agent came out from the back room. And he saw it. And he asked what is going on out here. And they’re like this guy’s writing a book about the Yuma 14. And they were all scoffing. And he looked at me, and it was one of those weird moments that I call grace, for lack of another word. But he just looked at me with some compassion. And he said, you know, I was in charge of the station that day. And he said, I sent out the rescue run to go get those guys. And that – I don’t know – there was a connection. And he said, come with me, man. And he took me in the back. And from that point on, he undertook a bit of training for me. He took me into the field. He showed me how to track. He – so on.
And once I had his blessing, the other agents dropped their guard. And when they did, it was a revelation to me that I actually felt a lot of honest human feelings for them. And they told me things. They were aware that I could hurt them. I could damage their careers. I could say anything I wanted to. But more than one agent pulled me aside and said, I don’t care if you hate me, but tell the truth. We’ll be watching. Tell the truth about us because everybody lies about us. And I thought, OK. And so it became kind of clear what I said in that book – that everybody in that desert, barring indigenous people, is an undocumented alien – the smugglers, the walkers and the enforcers.
GROSS: What do you mean?
URREA: We’re all from other places. We’ve invaded. If you think the Indian wars are over – not so. There’s a cavalry chasing Indigenous people over tribal lands to this day. And I’d say that the border, in some ways, formed a one-walled reservation – where some people had to stay on the reservation, or they were seen as hostiles. And a lot of the agents put it in terms very similar to that. And I thought, you know, none of these agents were born on this land, learned how to harvest cactus or any of that. We’re all from somewhere else, you know. And the walkers all come from places – they’d never even seen deserts. And the smugglers are guys in the United States or guys in Tijuana or Juarez or so forth – many of whom come from elsewhere. The head smuggler in the story is from Guadalajara, hardly a desert place.
GROSS: Why don’t we take a short break here? And then we’ll talk some more. If you’re just joining us, my guest is writer Luis Urrea. His new book is a novel called “The House Of Broken Angels.” We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY’S “GAVE PROOF”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is writer Luis Urrea, and his new book is a novel called “The House Of Broken Angels.”
So I want to read the dedication that you wrote in your book “The Devil’s Highway,” which was about the group of 26 Mexicans who crossed into America illegally through the desert, were abandoned by the smugglers guiding them. Twelve of them survived, but 14 perished in the desert. So in that dedication, you write (reading) for the dead and for those who rescue the living. That’s a beautiful dedication.
URREA: Thank you, yeah. You know, how could I hate those agents I went in hating when I realized what they go through? And, you know, they don’t talk about it. They won’t tell you what they go through. But their families do. And, you know, that was remarkable. And this supervisory agent, at one point, said to me – I didn’t put it in the book because I was trying to leave my own experiences out as much as possible. That seemed kind of sinful, you know, to say, wow, I had this wild experience because people died. But, you know, he said to me, you try walking across the desert carrying a dead 19-year-old woman in your arms and tell me I don’t have feelings.
And, you know, that was haunting. And the people who did the rescue had experiences that have marked them to this day. The main – what they call a sign cutter, who walked – I believe – I don’t remember how many hours, but it was a lot of hours – backtracking the steps from the survivors and finding the corpses one by one. And he said he came around a corner in a canyon, and there was a crucified man at the end of the canyon staring at him. And it terrified him until he realized it was a guy who had gotten into a tree and spread himself out on the limbs to try to get shade and had died. But just for that moment, here’s a crucified guy. It was like something out of a frightening film, staring, but he was dead.
And, you know, when the book came out, the – because the Border Patrol has different groups, they’re the agents themselves, but they have a secretive group called BORTAC that they will not talk about. And BORTAC are the tactical guys, the SWAT team. But then they have another group called BORSTAR, and BORSTAR are the actual agents who are lifesavers. And they’re the ones taken out into the dead zones and dropped from helicopters, and sometimes they lower little ATVs out of the helicopters, and these maniacs take off to find who’s dying. You don’t hear about them, but when the book came out, a couple of those guys actually mailed me the shirts they were wearing when they did the rescues in my book.
GROSS: When you meet people who really believe that we should build a wall between Mexico and the U.S., what do you tell them? I mean, what do you think about this moment in the life of our country where the president is insisting that he’s going to build that wall?
URREA: It’s – you know, I try to be respectful. And one of the points for me is to listen to people and hear them because I think sometimes people get more and more outrageous because they feel insulted or looked down on or – you know, so I’ll listen. But sometimes it’s really hard. And I’m telling you, this wall is a boondoggle. It’s a joke. And this new section of the eight new pieces of wall that President Trump claims he’s going to finally go see, I’m telling you one day it’s going to be a kitschy tourist stop for ironic hipsters. It’s going to be spray painted. It’s going to look like Cadillac Ranch, and people are going to take selfies at it, but it’s not going to start a multibillion dollar Great Wall of China project. I promise you.
There’s no way to build it. What are you going to do at the Rio Grande? Are you going to give Mexico the Rio Grande, or are you going to steal it from Mexico? Because one side or the other has to have the wall unless you’re going to build the wall through the Rio Grande. And what are you going to do with the mountains and cliffs and canyons? It can’t possibly work, and it can’t possibly be paid for. And if you look at President Trump’s rhetoric, he’s all over the place in it. He says that part of it should be transparent. Really? So there are going to be glass sections?
People in Mexico make jokes about it. They say hilarious things. Somebody told me, you know, it’s OK. When they build it, they’re going to hire us to build it, you know? And once it’s up, then we will run the concessions. We’ll take pictures. We’ll make tacos. We’ll have tours. And then when it’s time to take it down, they’ll hire us to take it back down. But it won’t stop anything. People are like, you know, they invented this thing called airplanes. There’s a thing called ships, you know?
GROSS: It has been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much, and…
URREA: Thank you.
GROSS: …Let’s do it again.
URREA: Oh, yeah, anytime.
GROSS: OK. Luis Urrea’s new novel is called “The House Of Broken Angels.” Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we’ll talk about the Steele dossier on Russian interference in the election and Trump’s ties with Russia. My guest will be New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. Her new investigative piece is about the bizarre twists and turns of how the dossier came to be, what the Clinton campaign knew and didn’t know about the dossier and how Steele warned the FBI about Trump’s ties with Russia and Russian interference in the election and why there was so little done in response. I hope you’ll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO’S “FIESTA CON DE LA CRUZ”)
GROSS: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I’m Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO’S “FIESTA CON DE LA CRUZ”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.