What it Means to Witness

Luis Alberto Urrea ’77 and the stories that bridge borders.

The story of Luis Alberto Urrea could fill 16 books. And it has—he’s written them. They’re not all about him, of course, but where he’s been, what he’s seen, the harsh realities of those living in no-man’s-land.

Urrea has seen lives no one else has and his books have brought them into a greater consciousness and conversation. Those lives aren’t his own, but they are as close as it gets, as his books give them life beyond the page.

But this story isn’t about those books. Nor is it about the awards they’ve earned, the accolades and literary acclaim. Any search of Urrea’s name can yield all that. This is the story of Urrea before. The story of a UC San Diego student. One who didn’t have much. Who never really did.

Urrea was born into severe poverty in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1955. His father, once an assistant to the vice president of Mexico, had fallen from favor, and his mother was American, a Staten Island native who spoke little Spanish. They lived on a dirt street in a house full of relatives until Urrea caught tuberculosis, whereupon the family moved to San Diego’s Logan Heights neighborhood. It was here in the barrio that a young Urrea recovered, but grew up somewhat as a misfit: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid who wasn’t Mexican enough for the Mexicans, or American enough for the Americans. He was a child of the border, even at home. “I was torn between the Americanness my mom wanted for me and the Mexicanness my father wanted,” he often says. “They were wrestling for cultural influence over me.”

After his parents divorced, Urrea moved to the suburbs of Clairemont. He became interested in drama and often escaped by writing poetry and lyrics for local bands. “I was the guy in high school with the notebook,” says Urrea. “Others had drum sets and guitars. I became the writer guy because we were crushingly poor—from a broken home, no money, no car.”

No intention to attend college, either, but his mother, a blue-blood New Yorker, had other plans.

“It was beyond my comprehension back then, but my mother pushed me hard,” says Urrea. “In spite of our rough beginnings, and diminished place in American culture, my mother was fierce in her classism. She looked around San Diego and said, ‘The University of California, that’s the school’—I’ll never forget it.”

UC San Diego was only a few miles from his home, but they were worlds apart. Urrea started college utterly overwhelmed, struggling to find his place and admittedly bombing his first quarter. He used what money he needed for textbooks and sent any extra to his mother. “I was the first in my family to go to college. I felt so much responsibility suddenly on me,” he says. He could feel his family, his nieces, nephews and half-siblings, all looking to him. “I had no reason to believe that I had a bright, shiny future ahead,” but still, his family eagerly watched with great expectation.

Urrea experimented with acting for a bit, and continued writing poetry before finally settling into a role with his college literary magazine and forming a bond with its advisor, literature professor Lowry Pei. “His nickname was ‘Mad Dog,’” Urrea remembers. “He wore love beads, had a big drum in his office; we had some wild people teaching here back then.” Along with professors like Donald Wesling and the greater literature department, Urrea found his place on campus as a writer, as well as an illustrator for various college publications. And even for a student who had very little, Urrea got along well enough for the first three years, until a family tragedy would leave him with even less.

Details of the episode are scant, but during the winter of Urrea’s senior year, his father drove to El Rosario, Sinaloa, Mexico, to withdraw $1,000 from a bank as a graduation present for his son. At some point during the drive home, however, his father ran afoul of Mexican federales and Sonoran police, and was beaten so badly he died from his injuries. A family friend called Urrea to come to Mexico to retrieve his father’s body. But the police expected to be paid. He had no choice. Urrea bought his father’s body with the same money that was sought for his graduation.

He returned to San Diego unable to speak, struck by the ruthlessness of the police and the devastating loss. But he could write. Though struggling through his final two quarters, he was encouraged by Pei to write about his experience—if only as a means of getting it out.

The resulting short story, “Father Returns from the Mountain,” and the feedback it garnered in class would become an unforgettable lesson in many ways. Urrea remembers meeting with Dr. Wesling: “He called me into his office and said, ‘You’re trying to wound me, you’re trying to hurt me. You’re shrieking at me, and the more you shriek, the less I will care about what happened to your father.’ And I remember thinking, this is the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me. But of course, he was quite wise.” Wesling added, “This is a terrible event, but you need to control it if you’re going to write about it, so that as a reader, I can feel what I need to feel.”

Urrea was wounded by the criticism, yet understood it. “I was writing because I knew I would die if I didn’t,” he says, recalling the many reworkings of the story. But he didn’t return it to the English department—not for credit at least. Pei had become a friend by then, and submitted the story as Urrea’s audition for a coveted space in a visiting writer’s workshop. It worked—and Urrea would finish his college career having been taught by one of his longtime idols, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who would become one his first literary champions.

“We writers are the raw nerve of the universe,” Urrea recalls Le Guin saying in class. “Our job is to go out and feel things for people, then to come back and tell them how it feels to be alive. Because they are numb. Because we have forgotten.” She was already a legend to him, this tiny woman with the signature bobbed hair, captivating Urrea with offhand wisdom in and out of the classroom, and especially one night when Pei brought him to her apartment. It was the night she brought up Urrea’s story about his father, the one that got him admitted into her class. She explained that she was editing an anthology, and she wanted to buy it. “That was when she started to train me to be a professional writer,” Urrea says. “She discovered me. She workshopped the crap out of me, and she would continue to guide me for years.”

After Luis Alberto Urrea ’77 took a writing workshop with visiting author Ursula Le Guin (right), the two formed a lifelong friendship and mentorship. Read Urrea’s essay following Le Guin’s death in 2018 at tritonmag.com/leguin

A major publication while still in school was unheard-of success for a young writer, but circumstances had still left Urrea a different person upon graduation. The death of his father had sent his family into financial destruction; he graduated only to work the graveyard shift at a local 7/11. He was free falling before his new life could even take shape.

Urrea taught Chicano Studies classes at San Diego’s Mesa College, but ultimately found a greater direction and sense of purpose while translating for a missionary group that served those living in abject poverty over the border in Mexico. Urrea calls the experience “a strange spiritual awakening”—this was his father’s country, after all, the place where he was born, where he would visit family, but what he saw was a world unknown. He lived among those who subsisted on what they found in the Tijuana garbage dumps. People sleeping in boxes, picking trash, eating dead dogs, selling their bodies and sleeping in hand-dug tunnels under ruined buildings. “It was a world of witness,” he says. “There was love and horror and violence. I was with the poorest of the poor, had their stink on me, their tears on me, and I just realized that nobody cared. There’s this whole world of people who just have no hope and no voice.”

As a translator, he was the voice between two worlds, a bridge between unspeakable affliction and humanitarian outreach. And yet, he again found no way to communicate this when he came home to San Diego. It was a half-hour drive between two vastly different lands—one where he fed malnourished babies, picked lice off children, watched people die. “Then you come home to your mom, your friends and your girlfriend. I found myself unable to talk about it,” says Urrea.

But again, he could write. Urrea kept a journal throughout it all, and also penned a border column for the San Diego Reader newspaper, a job he would refer to as being “a nightmare correspondent.” But when the nightmares he witnessed began to settle in on him, and he realized he’d seen so much within a span of 50 miles yet never anything outside of it, he knew he had to get away. He reached out to Pei, who was by then at Harvard, and asked him for a job—as a janitor, anything—just something that could lend a new perspective. Pei responded, ultimately inviting Urrea to join him at Harvard, but in a very unexpected role: a teacher in expository writing.

After so many years of hopelessness and strangeness, it didn’t seem possible: a child of the border teaching at an elite East Coast university. Once again, Urrea struggled to fit in. He realized if he was going to teach writing, he would have to publish or he’d lose his job. He might have left Tijuana behind, but what he had seen haunted him. He’s written several times about one memory in particular:

One day I was leaning on the missionary van, writing in my journal. The day was particularly ripe with beauty and horror. It was hot. And a man working the trash came over to me and said, “What are you doing?”
“Writing,” I said. “See?” I showed him the notebook.
He couldn’t read, but he squinted and looked at the words.
“What are you writing about?” he asked.
“This,” I said, gesturing at the dump.
He turned and looked.
“This?” he said, astounded.
“Yes. It’s a journal, you see. Like a diary.”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “You’re writing about us.”
“Yes, I am. I write down what I see, what I hear, what you do.”
“You’re writing about me,” he said.
I nodded.
Emotions washed over his face, and some of them looked like anger. I prepared myself to get scolded. I didn’t know if he’d throw a punch or walk away.
“Will people read it?” he asked.
“Someday.”
He nodded, a fierce scowl on his face.
“Good,” he said. “Good! You write it down. Write it all down. Because I live in the garbage, and I’ll die in the garbage, and I’ll be buried in the garbage. And nobody will ever know that I lived. So tell them about me. Tell them I was here.”

Urrea did.

Writings from those times would eventually become Urrea’s first book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border. Yet the becoming of that book would take upwards of 10 years and countless rejection letters, including one that left an indelible mark on Urrea, when an editor told him flat-out: “No one cares about starving Mexicans.”

Such attitudes only spurred him further, and his subsequent work continued to revisit issues of the border, though Urrea would prefer to say he’s more interested in bridges. It’s a fitting description of his books—bridges toward a greater understanding, that span genres of fiction, poetry, biographical essay and investigative journalism. He has explored the savagery of coyotes who deal in human trafficking, the desperation of men lost to the Arizona desert; he’s ridden with the U.S. Border Patrol and talked with those who’ve made the crossing, telling the stories of those who lived despite it all and those who didn’t.

“It’s interesting to me that so many people must die a hideous death because of an arbitrary line,” says Urrea. “I have seen a lot of unnecessary suffering and pain. I still do. And I honestly don’t understand what it is in me that makes me feel that I need to tear my soul apart to write a book. Why can’t I just have fun writing a book and throw it off? I think because I’ve seen so much and I’ve been through a lot of things, I feel a real need to bear witness and to do battle.”

And today, with the borderlands being the site of battles like never before, Urrea’s latest statement has interestingly taken shape in an intimately personal novel, The House of Broken Angels, a work of fiction inspired by Urrea’s very real loss of his brother. It is the story of family, of what binds us together beyond borders or languages, a story that so many readers are relating to, regardless of who they are or where they come from.

“I’ll be in book signing lines that are so moving,” he says. “I had a woman come up to me one night, and she pointed to the book and said, ‘Page 163—that was my mother and me,’ and she started crying and left.”

We’re more alike than we think, it seems. We may live in different worlds, but bridges like these can bring us into another’s life, and there we can see that we’re really not so different. “It’s the power of stories,” says Urrea. “You can make something that connects with people and brings them understanding. It’s sacred work. I take it seriously.”