Blond-haired and blue-eyed, Luis Alberto Urrea is Mexican. And he's American. Either way, he's a Renaissance man of letters, juggling disciplines with an compassionate and down-to-earth concern for piecing together the puzzle of human experience.
He sometimes introduces himself at readings by saying, "I know I look like Bubba." But once he begins to read, it becomes clear that he's anything but Bubba.
Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and a Manhattan society girl who chose a different kind of life, Urrea survived poverty and a succession of illnesses as a child to become a published writer, poet and teacher.
"It's the most absurd story," he says. "I grew up in the dirt streets of Tijuana, dying of all kinds of diseases--tuberculosis, fevers, all that--and it somehow turned into this charmed life. I don't know exactly how."
It was Urrea's extended experience some years ago as a relief worker among garbage-dump shanty-dwellers of the borderlands that provided material for Across the Wire and By the Lake of Sleeping Children, a pair of scorchingly sad and beautiful memoirs of life alongside some of Mexico's most disenfranchised and forgotten citizens. In spite of its eventual success, Wire was rejected 32 times before Anchor took a chance on the manuscript.
The problem, Urrea says, is that he "had a hard time figuring out how to tell the border story without it turning into my own story."
Of his cross-cultural roots, he says: "They may be the hidden engine that drives all my work. As I work my way down to tell my own family story, it's an experience of reintegration for me."
In Nobody's Son, due for release around August and the final installment in what may end up being a border trilogy, Urrea finally gives in to the compulsion to directly tell his own story. He calls it the most beautiful book in the trilogy, or maybe the closest to his heart, and hopes people pick up a universal message from his personal explorations into issues of destitution, duality and spirituality.
"Everyone who came to this country had some kind of experience," he says. "In the book, I write also about slang, language, word origins--where did English come from, anyway? Who are we, anyway?"
Urrea finds more than one way to ask that question: Another project, Wandering Time, is more of a writer's journal, the first in a series of books that meditate on creativity and nature. Inspired by a productive period he spent in Boulder and the Rockies, completing graduate studies and hiking in the woods, Wandering Time is a favorite project, "a kind of portable writing workshop you can take with you anywhere.
"I wanted it to be physically compact with a low price, so anyone can buy it," he says, speculating that "someone can come home from work, get in her bubble bath and end up near Devil's Thumb, writing poems."
Urrea expects that book to come out next February.
And in the wake of a recently released poetry collection, Ghost Sickness, dominated by a delirious epic of the same name chosen by editor Adrienne Rich for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 1996, Urrea is already into another, more joyful cycle of poetry:
"I think of Ghost Sickness as my last Gothic book. I had some last unclean spirits to exorcise. My new poetry book is different--it has more songs of praise."
It's also a conscious effort on his part to get away from the hype-driven image he feels was thrust on him after the border books came out.
"Writing went from being a calling to being a job," he laments. "Business ruined things. It became like making sausages in a sausage factory.
"I was surprised to be considered the shock troops of Chicano literature. It seemed that whenever I was asked to contribute to an anthology, they'd ask, 'Can you give us something shocking?' But it was always my intention only to get across the sense of worth and beauty hidden in such horrible lives."
That search for worldly beauty took a magical turn during a sojourn fifteen years ago in Tucson. There Urrea found a whole Indian branch of his family he hadn't known about and began researching the life of Teresita Urrea, a turn-of-the-century medicine woman known as the Saint of Cabora. Also called the Queen of the Yaquis, Teresita was both a leader of the silent poor and an accused witch whose followers were massacred.
Embedding himself in Teresita's world hasn't been easy, especially for the American half of Urrea's soul.
"I don't want to sound like a new-age bimbo, but it opened up a whole world of the sacred I had not experienced before. My Western mind," he says, "couldn't get around the medicine magic stuff."
He credits Native American writer Linda Hogan for being the first to help him over that barrier:
"Hogan said, 'The Western mind is a fever. It will pass.' She understood on a level I couldn't."
It's been a fascinating immersion for Urrea, who says he's had to learn about a myriad of eclectic subjects, including Mexican history, Yaqui history, herbalism, midwifery and women's issues. But he doesn't want to make too much of his new knowledge and gives all the credit to the curanderos and Indians who've been his teachers.
"I want the book to be an honor to her," he says of Teresita. "I don't want to betray people who've already been betrayed."
Now in his early forties, Urrea teaches at the University of Southwest Louisiana in Lafayette, where he lives next door to author Ernest Gaines and enjoys the region's cultural gumbo.
"The French-Cajun culture," he says, "is similar to mine--they're Catholic, they play accordions and they eat hot chiles."
Urrea is raising money to start a small nonprofit press named Santa Teresa after the ancestor he says "gave voice to the voiceless." And he's still working on Teresita's story, weaving a difficult tale that's destined to be both historical and personal in nature.
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"It's my big one, my life's work," he says. "After this, I can retire and deliver pizzas."
Not if there's another story to tell.
Luis Urrea reads poems from Ghost Sickness. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, January 29, Tattered Cover Book Store, 2955 East 1st Avenue, free, 322-7727.