Writer Explores Exodus Of Mexicans To The U.S.

The massive movement of immigrants to the U.S. has emptied entire Mexican villages of their able-bodied men. That reality is the starting point for Into the Beautiful North, the latest novel by Luis Alberto Urrea. Urrea has made a career documenting life along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the lives of the people who cross it.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, more companies are marketing toward Latinos. But first, we turn to a fictionalized account of immigration from Mexico. The massive migration north in recent years has emptied entire Mexican villages of their able-bodied men. That's the starting point for "Into the Beautiful North," the latest novel by Luis Alberto Urrea, a writer who's made a career documenting life along the U.S.-Mexico border and the lives of the people who cross it.

Urrea was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 for his non-fiction book, "The Devil's Highway," and he joins me now from Denver, Colorado. Welcome.

Mr. LUIS ALBERTO URREA (Author, "Into the Beautiful North"): Hi, how are you?

LUDDEN: Good. Your book is set in this imagined village on Mexico's western cost, Tres Camarones, three shrimps.

Mr. URREA: Three shrimp, yeah.

LUDDEN: A group of young women there are inspired when they see "The Magnificent Seven," and it prompts them to action and adventure. I'm wondering what inspired you to tell this tale.

Mr. URREA: My family comes from a little town down there called Rosario Sinaloa, and this town is the template for Tres Camarones. My uncle owned the movie theater. We'd go to these movies all the time, you know.

LUDDEN: Did you see "The Magnificent Seven"?

Mr. URREA: You know what I did see? I saw "The War Wagon" with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, but it was dubbed into German. And it had Japanese subtitles and then this little strip with some Spanish words, and I've never forgotten that weird image. It was so magical and funky.

LUDDEN: Well, that must have been a very strange image you were getting there through their translation of America. I mean, you were born in Tijuana, to a Mexican father and an American mother.

Mr. URREA: Right.

LUDDEN: So I'm curious. What was your image of the two countries as you were growing up?

Mr. URREA: It was really interesting to me because I, you know, born there and spent my first probably four or five years in Tijuana, and then we came to San Diego, and I didn't really comprehend a border. In those days, the Tijuana border, you actually had to drive through the muddy riverbed and through this really bizarre, surreal slum-land to get into Tijuana, but it didn't occur to me that they were different countries.

It was just on one side of the river, grandma lived, and on the other side of the river, we lived. And it wasn't until I moved away from the direct border region, up into a white, working-class suburb, that I started to understand that there was this divide and that the people to the north of it didn't have a very high opinion of Tijuana. I thought Tijuana was pretty cool, you know, until I found out it wasn't. Everybody told me it wasn't. I thought, well that's interesting.

LUDDEN: In the middle of the book, there's this really wrenching scene that takes place in Tijuana. And I just want to read a bit of it and ask you about this. Some characters have just been deported from the U.S. back into Mexico, and you write:

Tijuana street toughs with nothing better to do entertain themselves by jeering at deportees as they came back to Mexico tired and dirty and downtrodden. Old hands among the returnees knew the border game and faded away and vanished among the tough guys and headed back to the fences. But the fresh meat, the crying ones, the hunched and scuttling guilty-looking ones, they were the source of sport and derision.

Did you really see a scene like that?

Mr. URREA: Oh yeah. One of the points I try to make in the book is for most of the population of Tijuana, they have nothing to do with this thing, and they have their own lives. But there's a certain substratum of society that often preys on these folks. And the people coming back, they can tell, a lot of the kind of low-level criminals or tough guys in the street or, you know, cholos with nothing better to do or sometimes just low-level coyotes who want to get a quick buck and try to hustle those folks, they kind of shadow those people. If you know where to look, you can see all the stuff that's in the book, yeah.

LUDDEN: Well, the main character in your book is named Nayeli, and you write elsewhere that you heard that in Tijuana's garbage dump, you heard that name for the first time. And I gather you have quite a history with the garbage dump in Tijuana?

Mr. URREA: I do, yeah. I used to work with a relief group that took care of the people in the dump. We took them food and water and medicine and built homes and took them to church services, whatever was needed. And Nayeli is actually the daughter of a woman that I first met when she was six years old. So I've had a really long experience with the Tijuana garbage dump, oddly enough.

And so the scenes in the dump are as close as I can get to the real experience of it. You know, there's a scene in the book where the character Atomico(ph) is sort of proudly remembering his little paper shack that's...

LUDDEN: He's grown up in the dump.

Mr. URREA: Yeah. Yeah. And he's thinking about how fine and deluxe his paper shack was. And I realized when I was writing it that I actually was planning my own paper shack. Because I realized, you know, if something horrible happened in my life, those people who live in the dump would take me in.

LUDDEN: Did the dump kind of, your work in the dump kind of serve to inform your work?

Mr. URREA: Absolutely. I, you know, as a young writer you have those dreams of you know being some sort of super star. You know, think, wow, I'll be Stephen King or somebody. And you know, working there gave me a whole different perspective and I realized that it was really important to try to take a position of witness in what you write, that there are people who are voiceless not by choice. But they're fascinating, good people with hopes and dreams and feelings and families just like everyone else, who by an odd twist of historically fate or karma, if you want to call it karma, whatever that is, were born in a situation that was completely hopeless. And you sometimes start thinking as you know them if they had been given hope what might this story have been?

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Luis Urrea about his latest book, "Into the Beautiful North." You have written both fiction and nonfiction. More nonfiction, I think than novels.

Mr. URREA: Right.

LUDDEN: And I was struck, I've read a bit of both and I was really struck by the very different tone. I mean your last work of nonfiction, "The Devil's Highway," is about a border crossing gone bad. I mean it's deadly serious.

Mr. URREA: Yes.

LUDDEN: And your fiction also touches on very serious topics and tragedies, but you have this whimsical, light and irreverent tone. How do you account for that?

Mr. URREA: You know, people are funny. And even in "The Devil's Highway," I mean when you hang out with the border patrol agents you realize that they're a laugh riot. And some of the things they think are funny you may not think are funny. I think a lot of times people try to guilt you into feeling humanity and make you feel bad and awful. But I realized that we are united almost instantaneously by laughter and it equalizes us in a lot of ways. And also as an author, because a lot of writing I think is in a sense manipulation, there's a shameless factor to it in that you think, well, if you have warmed up or soften up the reader with some humor, when it's time for something truly terrible to happen it is even more impactful. And the other stuff, especially in "Into the Beautiful North" I thought, you know, I've worked on such heavy, massive or impactful projects for so long I wanted to write a book that made me laugh, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: So I wanted to sit there and have a cup of coffee and chuckle and think, wow, these people are really interesting, you know, they're really fun.

LUDDEN: The main character in the book, the young woman Nayeli...

Mr. URREA: Yes.

LUDDEN: ... is searching for her father. He's gone to Kenkehe(ph)? Is that how you say it?

Mr. URREA: Kankakee, Illinois.

LUDDEN: Kankakee, Illinois. Not far from...

Mr. URREA: Yes.

LUDDEN: ... where you're now teaching at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Mr. URREA: Right.

LUDDEN: And I see in your notes you, it's a real place.

Mr. URREA: Yes it is. Kankakee rocks, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: You know, Kankakee is a little town about, I don't know, 50-some miles south of Chicago that underwent a great fiscal collapse. The neighboring towns apparently call it the ghetto in the meadow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: And it came to my attention, sort of peripherally when David Letterman, as a one of his endless jokes sent them a gazebo on a giant truck to improve the city.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: And they swallowed their pride and accepted the gazebo, you know, and put it up. And they called me and invited me to come do a reading at the library. So you know, my wife and I drove down there and I thought, Kankakee, Illinois. So I'm thinking the library is going to be a little brick building, five retired ladies with chocolate chip cookies, and it's going to be a sweet little event. And we walked in and they had 325 people waiting inside.

LUDDEN: Oh my.

Mr. URREA: Yeah. And the mayor was there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: And he gave me the key to city. And I thought, wow, it really pays to come do a reading in Kankakee.

LUDDEN: You're not laughing at Kankakee anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: No. And they had a really amazing approach to things like undocumented immigration and so forth, in which they were integrating people into this town to help the town come back to life. And they had found out where the undocumented were coming from and they went to that town in Mexico, in Guanajuato, and forged a relationship. The mayor actually took detectives, police officers, city council. They flew down there to meet that city council and they're working together on both sides of the border to make both towns survive.

LUDDEN: I want to ask you about something, a quote I've seen from you.

Mr. URREA: Okay.

LUDDEN: You said growing up as you did with Mexican and American parents, back and forth across the border, growing up divided in half by a barbed wire fence has made see...

Mr. URREA: Yeah.

LUDDEN: ...a border everywhere I turn.

Mr. URREA: Oh, absolutely everywhere. All you had to do was watch the last election to see that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URREA: You know, everywhere I speak you can see the border. There's a border between black and white. There's a border between gay and straight, as we see in California right now. We are all separated by endless complex series of fences. And you know, I think that part of our job as authors is not to build fences but to build bridges. I like bridges more than fences. And often when I do these readings I end it by telling the audience that my strongest belief in all of this is that there is no them, there is only us. And unless we start to understand that there is us, we are the people who live on this planet and we have to share it, that we're going to have a lot of useless heartbreak.

LUDDEN: Author, Luis Alberto Urrea, his latest novel is "Into the Beautiful North," and he joined us Denver. Thank you so much.

Mr. URREA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And to learn more about Luis Urrea's book, "Into the Beautiful North," go to the TELL ME MORE page at NPR.org. There you'll find an excerpt of the novel.

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Excerpt: 'Into The Beautiful North'

By Luis Alberto Urrea

'Into The Beautiful North' - Cover
Little, Brown and Company

Sur

Chapter One

The bandidos came to the village at the worst possible time. Of course, everyone in Mexico would agree that there is no particularly good time for bad men to come to town. But Tres Camarones was unguarded on that late summer's day when so many things had already changed. And everything that remained was about to change forever.

Nobody in the village liked change. It had taken great civic upheaval to bring electricity to Tres Camarones, for example. Until 1936, ice came in big trucks, and fathers took their sons to observe it when it slid down the ramps in great clear blocks. It took the visionary mayor, Garcí a- García the First, to see the potential in electrical power, and he had lobbied for two years to have the wires strung from far Villaunión. Still, there were holdouts a good decade after Tres Camarones had begun to glow with yellow light. Such stalwarts relied on candles, kerosene lamps, and small bonfires in the street. These blazes, though festive, blocked the scant traffic and the trucks bearing beer and sides of beef, and Garcí a- García had to resort to the apocalyptic stratagem of banning street fires entirely. Denounced as an Antichrist, he was promptly defeated in the next election. Later, he was reelected: even if his policies had been too modernizing for some, the residents of Tres Camarones realized that a new mayor meant change, and change was the last thing they wanted. Progress might be inevitable, but there was no reason they should knuckle under without a fight.

True, the occasional hurricane devastated the low-lying forest and semitropical jungles and reformed the beaches. Often, parts of the town were washed away or carried out to sea. But the interior clock of evolution in Tres Camarones was set only to these cataclysms of nature.

And then, the peso dropped in value. Suddenly there was no work. All the shrimp were shipped north, tortillas became too expensive to eat, and people started to go hungry. We told you change was bad, the old-timers croaked.

Nobody had heard of the term immigration. Migration, to them, was when the tuna and the whales cruised up the coast, or when Guacamaya parrots flew up from the south. Traditionalists voted to revoke electricity, but it was far too late for that. No woman in town would give up her refrigerator, her electric fan, or her electric iron. So the men started to go to el norte. Nobody knew what to say. Nobody knew what to do. The modern era had somehow passed Tres Camarones by, but this new storm had found a way to siphon its men away, out of their beds and into the next century, into a land far away.

The bandidos came with the sunrise, rolling down the same eastern road that had once brought the ice trucks. There were two of them. They had to drive south from Mazatlán, which was at least an hour and forty minutes away, then creak off the highway and take the cutoff toward the coast. Explosions of parrots, butterflies, and hummingbirds parted before them. They didn't notice.

One of them was an agent of the Policía Estatal, the dreaded Sinaloa State Police. He earned $150 a month as a cop. The drug cartel in the north of the state paid him $2,500 a month as an advisory fee. He got a $15,000 bonus each Christmas.

The other was a bottom- level narco who, nevertheless, was the state cop's boss. What he needed to really get ahead in his game was a territory to call his own, but the cartel had the state sewn up, and there was no room for him in Baja California, Sonora, or Chihuahua. He had hit the drug gangster's glass ceiling and it irked him, because he looked so damned good. The boys called him Scarface. He liked that. In spite of the awful heat and soggy air of the coastal swamplands, he wore a white sport jacket and regarded the world through mirrored sunglasses, sucking on a cinnamon toothpick.

Neither of the two bandidos enjoyed this bucolic trip to the bottomlands. But the one in the jacket had gotten a cell phone call from Culiacán that there were gringo surfos camping on the beach who were in need of some bud. He shook his head as he looked out at the stupid mango trees: all this trouble for marijuana. "It's a job," Scarface said. The cop snorted.

Scarface wore his irritating chrome .45 automatic in a shoulder rig. It made his armpit and ribs into a swamp of perspiration. It was against the law for a Mexican to carry an automatic weapon, though he didn't even think about it. His partner wore a uniform and had a heavy Bulldog .44 in a Sam Browne holster — the narco could smell its leather and was irritated by its squeaking as the car bumped along the bad road.

The holster squeak was the closest they could get to a theme song. There was nothing on the radio out here except the crappy Mexican music on AM.

"Me gusta Kanye West," the narco said, snapping off the radio.

The state cop said, "Diddy es mejor."

"¡Diddy!" cried Scarface.

They argued for a few moments.

Soon, they reverted to silence. The cop turned up the AC. His gun belt squealed.

"Dios mío," Scarface sighed. "I hate the country."

The men kept their windows rolled up, but they could still smell the ripe effluent of mud and clams and pigsties and spawning fish in green water. They wrinkled their noses. "What is that?" the cop asked. "Boiling mangos?" They shook their heads, greatly offended. The other one pointed.

"Outhouses!" he scoffed.

They couldn't believe it! These towns were so backward, Emiliano Zapata and a bunch of revolutionaries could ride through at any moment and fit right in. The bandidos, a generation removed from outhouses, sneered at the skinny dogs and the absurd starving roosters that panicked as the car rolled over oyster shells and brushed aside sugarcane and morning glory vines. The rubes down here had apparently never heard of blacktop. It was all dirt roads and cobblestones. No tourists.

They were slightly pleased, yet jealous, when they noted one of the small houses had a satellite dish.

As in most neighborhoods of most tropical Mexican villages, the walls of the homes in town went right to the edge of the street. Walls were wavery and one block long, and several doors could be found in each. Each door denoted another address. The windows had big iron railings and wooden shutters. Bougainvillea cascaded from several rooflines. Trumpet flowers. Lantana. The bandidos knew that the back of each house was a courtyard with a tree and an open kitchen and some chickens and an iguana or two. Laundry. On the street side, the walls were great splashes of color. One address might be white, and the next might be pale blue and the next vivid red with a purple door. Sometimes, two primary colors were divided by a bright green drainpipe or a vibrating line where the colors clashed and the human eye began to rattle in its socket.

The big police LTD rolled down the streets like a jaguar sniffing for its prey. The two visitors came out of the narrow alleys into the open space of the town plazuela, a tawdry gazebo and a bunch of trees with their trunks whitewashed. On the other side of the square, they spied a restaurant: taqueria e internet "la mano caida."

"The Fallen Hand Taco Shop? What kind of name is that?" the cop asked.

"It's an Internet café, too," the narco reminded him.

"Jesus Christ."

"Let's get out of here quick," his partner said. "I want to catch the beisbol game in Mazatlán tonight." He spit out his toothpick.

They creaked to a halt and could hear the music blasting out of the Fallen Hand before they even opened the car's doors.

Copyright 2009. Little, Brown and Company publishers. All rights reserved.

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