Luis Alberto Urrea Spins True Tales

The House of Broken Angels author visited NoCo for Fort Collins Reads

by Katherine Valdez

Luis Alberto Urrea attempted to write The House of Broken Angels – inspired by true events and family members – more than once.

The first manuscript he submitted was 90 pages. His editor rejected it. The second manuscript was 120 pages. His editor said, “This is not a book.”

Finally, Urrea steeled himself to write the novel that would go on to become a national bestseller and land on the 100 Notable Books list by The New York Times Book Review.

Urrea finally admitted to himself the reason he wasn’t writing the book he was meant to write. “I didn’t want to cry,” the author told hundreds of fans during Fort Collins Reads on Nov. 3 at the Hilton Fort Collins.

But cry he did, in re-imagining the true story of his eldest brother Juan, who attends his own wake/birthday party a week after his mother’s funeral. So did readers. They laughed, too. “I thought it was a tragedy but everyone tells me, ‘It’s so damn funny.’ ”

Family Tree

  • Urrea pointed out that he looks like an Irishman but was born in Tijuana to a blonde, blue-eyed Mexican father and American mother.
  • His grandmother’s name was Guadalupe Murray, from El Rosario Sinaloa. His grandfather was Basque. Urrea means “man of gold.”
  • Urrea’s mother was a blue blood from Virginia who liked to imagine she was in Vogue magazine, smoking a cigarette and saying, “Oh, dahling…”
  • She had been a World War II hero who was badly injured in the Battle of the Bulge who later became a jewelry buyer in San Diego at the upscale store I. Magnin.
  • His parents met when his mother was one of several beautiful women recruited from the store to dance with Mexican generals at an embassy event. His father was part of the presidential entourage. They danced and fell in love. “My mother never learned Spanish,” Urrea said, “so it was good he learned English.”

Tortillas: Sustenance and Prayer

  • Tortillas are a food that has been made for 15,000 years.
  • Some kids in California believe the worst word is “brown,” Urrea said. He tells them, how many women have made tortillas? 100 million?
  • He tells those young people, “Did you know every single time they did this, it was a prayer for your future?”

Immigration Patterns and the Environment

  • Urrea said people all over the world are coming to Tijuana.
  • Ethiopia planted three million trees as part of a reforestation campaign, Urrea said, and Mexico City is planting four million trees.
  • “I say: Google immigration patterns to the U.S….Look up Ben Franklin talking about Germans. One of these days, there’s going to be a president really pissed off at Norwegians…it’s just a pattern. It’s culture shock. You either crumble or stand up and show your integrity.”

Memorable Quotes from the Novel

  • The protagonist, based on Urrea’s brother Juan, is Big Angel. One of his stepsons is Yndio, a “non-cisgenered, non heteronormative cultural liberation warrior.”
  • “He didn’t like chile, really, but his father had taught him a man ate chile until he broke out in a sweat…Old Don Antonio had sneezed every time he ate it…but he went back for more. Suffering had been his religion.”
  • “Families came apart and regrouped,” she thought. “Like water. In this desert, families were the water.”

During the event introduction and audience questions and answers, two different people recited the now-famous quote from the novel:

“Somehow the silliest details of their days were, to him, sacred. And he believed that if only the dominant culture could see these small moments, they would see their own human lives reflected in the other.”

And yet…

One audience member said, “Please explain the Spanish phrases we couldn’t find in the dictionary.” Urrea laughed and replied, “Mexicans – we’re very proud of our bad language…the more florid and rococo our language is, the better.”

He said his colleague, the author Junot Díaz, framed it this way. “I’ve been told, ‘You know, the Mexicans in your books speak too much Spanish.’”

Urrea put his own spin on this issue, alluding to The Lord of The Rings. “Americans will read a 400-page book in Elvish” but they’ll complain about having to read “one paragraph in Spanish.” He explained that he tries to make the meaning of the Spanish word or phrase clear, immediately before and after.

Then he laughed at the prospect of readers not understanding every single Spanish word.

“It’s OK to be a little uneasy because it will make us think of ‘the other’ a little more.”

Katherine Valdez is an award-winning essayist and microfiction author whose latest work appears in Rise: An Anthology of Change edited by Northern Colorado Writers. Visit her at http://www.KatherineValdez.com

This post is a companion piece to the Nov. 19 blog post at http://www.DiverseFortCollins.com

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