Wednesday, May 22, 2019
Luis Alberto Urrea Found Inspiration for ‘Into the Beautiful North’ In a Garbage Dump
Monday, March 11, 2019


Luis Alberto Urrea may have been born in Tijuana. But it was in San Diego where he experienced his family’s personal border war as his American mother struggled to make him an American boy and his Mexican father worked to keep him mindful of his Mexican heritage.

This border war, however, provided rich fodder for his 17 novels, as did his colorful familial members, which included his great aunt Teresita Urrea, a Mexican Joan of Arc celebrated for her supposed healing powers, and his spiritualist grandfather.

And Urrea provided an entertaining evening for Wood River Valley readers this past week as he pulled back the curtains on the characters in his novel “Into the Beautiful North,” revealing the real-life people behind the characters.

Urrea’s novel was chosen as the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read project this year, and more than 400 Wood River Valley adults and teenagers read the book, taking part in book discussions, taco bars, film viewings and other events.

Urrea told those gathered at the Community Library Wednesday night that his father was a military man until he fell from favor after refusing to carry out an assassination order.

His mother was a New York socialite who served with the Red Cross in the Battle of the Bulge. She met his father in San Francisco.

“My dad looked like Errol Flynn and she thought she was moving into a hacienda,” he said.

But, instead, Urrea’s mother found herself in a house in Tijuana packed full of relatives who didn’t speak English. His grandmother was the matriarch of the clan; his grandfather, Basque.

“They began this genetic experiment,” he said.

His parents moved to San Diego when Luis was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His father, who had been personal assistant to the vice president of Mexico, was relegated to working as a janitor. And Luis grew up feeling the need to stand up for his Latino brethren, even though he looked like an Irishman.

“I had a super American look combined with a super Mexican accent, he said. “My mom was smart—she registered me as an American citizen born abroad. But, when I go to Mexico, I just tell them I’m Mexicano.”

Urrea said he intentionally wrote “Into the Beautiful North” to make people root for people they might not normally root for. How cool would it be for someone on a Princess cruise to root for young man like Atomiko, he said of the self-professed king of the dump who believes he’s a samurai.

Urrea said he has gotten the inspiration for many of his characters from his own family. That includes an aunt who was blind in one eye and smoked out of the side of her mouth so it looked like smoke was coming out of her blind eye.

His grandmother, he said, was a lapsed Catholic who thought God would put a check in her box if she did  religious things so she burned incense throughout the house.

“My aunt was a neat freak so she told me those ashes were the souls of dead men so I wouldn’t spread them through the house,” he recalled.

One relative complained she was dying so many times that family members told her, “You’ve been dying for 20 years! Why don’t you die?!”

She finally died at 95, bowling in Mexico City, he said.

Urrea said he used to ride around in a car announcing movies like “Love Story” and “Godzilla” over a speaker with his uncle, who published a newspaper and owned a TV station and movie theater.

Even Cesar Milan is a distant cousin.

“His only talent was talking to dogs and now he’s a multi-millionaire TV star!” Urrea said.

It was one of his relatives who saw “The Magnificent Seven,” proclaiming Yul Bryner was the greatest Mexican actor in history that gave him the idea for “Into the Beautiful North.”

 “I had seen articles where villages were stripped of men. So, for the first time ever women were taking jobs like projectionists in movie theaters. I saw a story where girls threw a prom without boys, and I thought: What would happen if you had a town where the women were so busy they didn’t even notice the men were gone until bad men came to town?”

Urrea said he was doing missionary work in a garbage dump when he met a young girl named Nayeli  who became the basis for the 19-year-old in his book who goes north looking for seven courageous men to rescue her village from banditos after watching “The Magnificent Seven,”

She’s a real person who owns one pair of pants and one dress and can’t stop smiling, he said. Her mother, stout and muscular, makes her living as a trash picker but refuses to let her daughter pick trash.

When he asked why, she told him about taking her shoe off to find a chopped-off human finger wedged inside.

“I swore my daughter would never do this,” she told Urrea.

After recording a radio show one day at the dump, Urrea and the radio crew took Nayeli and her mother to dinner where Nayeli went into anaphylactic shock after eating shellfish. They rushed Nayeli to a hospital only to be turned away.

“We can’t take her. She’s an Indio,” the orderly told him.

The camera man whipped out his mic and said, “You want to tell the United States and others you intend to let this girl die on the air?”

One quick shot later and Nayeli recovered.

“I’m going to make it and when I make it, I’m going to make you the hero of a novel,” Urrea told her.

When the book came out, people started Facebooking with her, leaving her incredulous that she was hearing from people in the United States, Urrea said. He sold the TV rights to TNT, vowing to give Nayeli and her mother the profits. but TNT dropped the project amid the mounting anti-Mexican rhetoric.

“But she doesn’t care. ‘I never loved you for money,’ she told me,” he said.

Sadly, things did not go as well with his father, he said. He was killed by the Mexican police when he drove to Mexico to withdraw $1,000 from bank as a graduation present for his son, who would go on to Harvard.

But his father’s murder led to Urrea’s first publication—an essay about having to pay the police $750 to retrieve his father’s body for burial.

Today, Urrea lives in Naperville, Ill, where he moved in the late 1990s to teach creative writing at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago.

Part of point of the book is how astonishing America is, he said. The prairie dog village the kids see as they travel through Kansas was one of his favorite places.

And the prune shake often mentioned was inspired by the date shake Urrea always gets at the Mad Greek restaurant outside Las Vegas.

Not everyone has responded enthusiastically to his book. Tucson educators banned it.

“I thanked them for upping my book sales,” he said.

And, as one woman from Oregon who was in the audience at the Community Library noted, those in Wallowa County removed the book from the library because, the principal said, “You have a gay agenda.”

“I said, ‘I have a character who is gay,’” Urrea said. “I didn’t know what to make of it. Did they think people would turn gay if they read my book?”

Urrea said he’s received one frequent complaint about his book: “Dude, the end sucks.” People want Nayali to have it out with her dad, he said.

“I tried to write it but I can’t.”

Ketchum resident Ed LaGrande said he has seen Urrea speak 10 times in the past four years.

“The way he steps in and out of his characters makes him the most entertaining author I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I heard him in Tucson last year and he described how his teenage daughter invited girlfriends over for sleepovers at the time of the writing. And he used to listen—not snoop—to them gabbing from the next room. Then he used much of their talk style for the teenage girls in the novel.”

Tim Price, program director for The Community Library said that the book promoted a cross cultural conversation in the community.

 “Luis is a natural born storyteller. For him it’s not just about the craft but the spirit of storytelling,” he added. “He read all our minds and he knew that we wanted to know more about the characters. And I thought it was striking that some of his more absurd characters were real people.”


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