‘The Pope of Chicanos,’ Luis Alberto Urrea on Aspen, Trump and a new novel
If You Go …
What: Benefit for English in Action, featuring Luis Alberto Urrea
Where: Casa Tua, Aspen
When: Wednesday, Aug. 31, 5-7 p.m.
How much: $150
Tickets: www.englishinaction.org; 970-963-9200
Who: Luis Alberto Urrea
Where: Third Street Center, Carbondale
When: Thursday, Sept. 1, 6 p.m.
How much: $10 suggested donation
Tickets: May be reserved in advance at 970-963-9200
Luis Alberto Urrea’s most memorable moment in the Roaring Fork Valley came not in the forest or on the hill but in the basement of an Aspen hotel.
The acclaimed Tijuana-born author and unofficial poet laureate of the Mexican-American border was in town for the Summer Words literary conference, staying in a luxury hotel near the base of Aspen Mountain. Early in his visit, he greeted a group of maids with a friendly, “Buenas dias, como estan,” and over the course of his stay chatted frequently with the largely Spanish-speaking staff.
Eventually he got a call from a hotel manager, who requested Urrea and his family take the service elevator to the basement.
“I thought, ‘This is really mysterious,’” Urrea recalled in a recent phone interview. “Like, ‘This is some weird James Bond stuff going on.’”
Below the hotel, he found that all the employees he’d met had made the Urreas a feast in gratitude for the simple kindness he offered to the Latino maids, gardeners and cooks who are most often ignored by guests.
“They had gone home and they had cooked food from their respective countries and they’d set it out on long tables for us and they had recordings of music,” he said. “All because I had said ‘hello’ in Spanish. It was so beautiful. It was one of the most insanely touching moments of my life. I’ve never forgotten it. I think about it all the time.”
Urrea is back in the valley this week to give the keynote at English in Action’s annual benefit Wednesday and to give a bilingual public talk at the Third Street Center in Carbondale on Thursday.
He is the author of the Pulitzer-nominated narrative nonfiction book “The Devil’s Highway,” an account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, and of the sweeping two-novel epic “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” and “The Queen of America” and, most recently, of the short story collection “The Water Museum,” among other books.
In his work and in his life, Urrea — the son of a Mexican father and an American mother; a “toilet scrubber” turned Harvard writing teacher turned best-selling author — attempts to bridge America’s cultural divide. Hooking up with English in Action, the nonprofit that connects Spanish and English speakers in the valley, is a natural fit for the author.
As a writer, telling a good story remains his primary job, Urrea said. But his rare position of writing about the border, with intimate knowledge of the experience on both sides of it, has also called him to action — to speak for the Mexican immigrants often derided in the U.S. to both white and brown people.
“I come from a dirt alley in Tijuana,” he said. “I felt like destiny was calling me. I’m often in the strange position of representing people who are under constant assault and derision and living in the shadows and secretly keeping so many things running for us so that we can go about our days.”
Urrea’s books have become popular “Big Read” selections in recent years. In 2008 he gave a Big Read talk and reading on Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima” in Aspen. His 2009 novel “Into the Beautiful North” was recently the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read choice nationally, which sent him to communities across the U.S.
“I joke with people that I’m the pope of Chicanos,” he said with a laugh. “They send me to all these schools with kids who’ve never read a book and never met an author. I just want to tell people that you matter, your story matters, you’re not bad just because you were born.”
After working the border beat in fiction, journalism and memoir for two decades, Urrea was not surprised by the unvarnished anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican nativism of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Nor was he surprised by the support it has received.
“It’s easy theater on the backs of people who are defenseless,” he said. “I have experience with this all the time. It’s fascinating to me.”
On one visit here, for example, he said he made a joke on Aspen Public Radio about the superiority of tacos over hot dogs as a junk food. Hate calls and hate mail followed.
But, Urrea said, he is hopeful for a less divided future in the U.S.
“The American dream, despite all the rhetoric, continues to work,” he said. “People find their ways into the culture, find ways to coexist and participate. If you’d ask many of these people who are derided and terrorized right now, you’d find they’re quite patriotic.”
After his events here, Urrea is staying in Woody Creek for a while to write.
Just last week, he finished a new novel titled “A House of Broken Angels.” It was inspired by the final days of his brother, Juan, who died two years ago. Dying of cancer and realizing his 75th birthday would be his last, Juan chose to throw a going-away party of sorts.
“He threw himself a last birthday party on Earth, unleashing a ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ of Mexicans that allowed him to make last amends, to receive endless praise, and he just sat there in his wheelchair and absorbed it with great glee,” Urrea said.
Urrea was reluctant to write about the experience until he told the story to the novelist Jim Harrison, who urged him: “God hands you a book, you better write it.’”
The novel that emerged since, Urrea said, is an immigrant’s story of America that the author calls “the best thing I’ve ever done” and hopes to publish in the spring.
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