Luis Alberto Urrea: Evil Companion and a man of the people

Luis Alberto Urrea really is the story he writes in so many ways: A reporter, poet and novelist, he's covered the illegal immigrant story from the front lines, where he once worked as a relief worker, and found pieces of himself in the fictionalized retelling of the history of his great-aunt Teresita, a Yaqui curandera known as the Saint of Cabora. Sandwiched between his two Teresita books, The Hummingbird's Daughter and the recently released Queen of America, the novel Into the Beautiful North riffed on a more modern story of illegal border-crossings. And Urrea himself is a complete package: The most down-to-earth of men, he considers himself a voice for the people, yet not without a sense of humor.

He's also the most perfect of choices to serve as this year's twentieth-anniversary Evil Companions Literary Award-winner, an honor he'll accept tomorrow night at the Oxford Hotel in a reading and ceremony that benefits the Denver Public Library Friends Foundation. Tickets are $60 to $70; visit the DPLFF website for reservations. And in the meantime, we had the good fortune to chat with the easy-going Urrea by phone recently about what it means to be named an Evil Companion and other states of living on the planet.

In spite of the many awards heaped upon him throughout his writing career, Urrea's been in the news lately for a completely inexplicable reason: As part of a controversial ban of Mexican-American studies in the Tucson Unified School District, five of his books were also banned from the curriculum, alongside a diverse list of works with ethnic themes that ranges from Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima to Shakespeare's The Tempest. Understandably, Urrea's not happy about the ban, but he's not taking it personally, either. It's almost so alien to him, he says, that it feels like an "Andy Kaufman prank."

"It's not about the book -- it's about Mexican people and indigenous people, too," he muses. "They don't want this stuff in brown hands. If Mexican-American Studies students read Edward Abbey, he'd be banned, too. It has to do with empowerment. One of their arguments is that Mexican-American studies engaged in mythology, that the curriculum was not about North America. It just proves that Arizona is batshit crazy. You can't just go through the map and vanish half of the West.

"It vindicated the worst features of my thinking. I was upset on a personal level, but I have to say it did get me more book sales. I'm doing just fine, thank you very much. But I cannot abide that students are being denied books by Sherman [Alexie], Rudolfo, even Shakespeare -- that notorious wetback. I just wish they would trade five classics and re-allow at least books like Bless Me, Ultima and The Tempest. I cannot stand to see kids pushed around. All you can do is scream in rage or laugh about it. But I'm not going to cry."

In keeping with such grassroots opinions, Urrea works often on a person-to-person level with his readers and colleagues, even making himself available for Skype sessions with book clubs and classes. It's no accident that he even boasts a Hummingbird's Daughter club in New Delhi.

"I had the coolest Skype a couple of weeks ago," he explains. "It was a tough Chicano class, and one guy asked me, 'Do you look down on us, being from the gang world?" And I said, 'No, I love you.' I come from a dirt street in Tijuana. I worked as a relief worker on the border, and I saw my relatives, my father, struggle. Of all the writers they know, I'm the only one who got his start in a Tijuana garbage dump. There was no hand to pull me out of the swamp. So I could tell this homie, this cholo, that I love him, when he was expecting the opposite. This is something you maybe can't do in person, but you can say it on Skype." It's the kind of discussion he's compelled to have, by whatever means.

"My dad used to say, 'I hate being Mexican.' He said, 'We talk to authorities with our hat in our hands.' But I didn't know we were underdogs. I looked at my family and to me, they were magic. I'm just thankful for getting the gift of English so I can tell stories that the people here don't know. If there are negative feelings, I can fight."

And what does he think about his Evil Companion Honor? "It's so cool, I can't even believe it," Urrea replies. "I've arrived -- I can retire now. And the company's really good!"

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