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Spotlight: Big Read Roswell keynote event

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Submitted Photo by Joe Mazza Award-winning author Luis Alberto Urrea’s book “Into the Beautiful North” to be discussed during Zoom event.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Christina Stock

Vision Editor

Big Read Roswell’s keynote speaker, award-winning author Luis Alberto Urrea — whose book “Into the Beautiful North” has been chosen by the Big Read Roswell committee, which included the support of local businesses and organizations such as Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, Friends of the Library, Roswell Independent School District and Roswell Public Library. The community reading project itself was made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read Grant. A highlight of the Big Read Roswell events that kicked off Jan. 23 will be a live question-and-answer session with the author on Zoom after the presentation on March 13 at 6 p.m.

In a phone interview, Urrea voiced his disappointment on not being able to visit Roswell in person due to the pandemic. This would not be Urrea’s first visit, having visited in 2009, the year “Into the Beautiful North,” was published. “I love Roswell,” he said. “I lived on tour for years. Your teenage rockstar dreams — if it was just typing. My wife and I were doing events in Texas and I had an event in Marfa, so we drove from San Antonio and finally got to see Roswell. I visited the museum and liked it a lot. I am in Albuquerque often, Las Cruces, Santa Fe.”

Urrea is a prolific and acclaimed author, merging two worlds and cultures into his stories that are often based on real people, his own experience having been born in Tijuana, Mexico to a Mexican father and American mother. While many consider him a “border writer,” he says that he is more interested in bridges.” So far, more than 100 cities and colleges have chosen the 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist’s books for a community read, including Roswell.

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Some of the other awards Urrea received are the Christopher Award, 1999 American Book Award and in 2000, he was voted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame.

Asked where Urrea finds his inspiration, he said, “It is partially a lifetime of experience, I guess. I was born in Mexico, my mother was American, raised in the U.S. I spent most of my life back and forth across the border. For several years after I graduated college, I worked in Mexico with the Relief Organization, helping the poor. It’s a lot of life experience and I had written several border/immigration books, most of them are pretty serious. The most serious one was called ‘The Devil’s Highway’ — a nonfiction book. That was a really wrenching experience, a terrible crime investigation and also a report on the daily life of the border control agents who went down there to rescue these guys who were lost.

“It was followed by a historical novel that I’ve been working on for 25 years. So, as a writer, I was kind of exhausted and I wanted to stay true to that theme I was writing about, but I wanted to have a good time. I wanted to write an almost legend kind of story, a Josef Campbell ‘Hero’s Journey’ kind of a story, but mostly I wanted to have a good time as a writer. I didn’t know if I would publish it or not, it was sort of therapy,” Urrea said and chuckled.

Fortunately for readers, Urrea’s editor liked the story as well. “That’s how the book was born and it was also meant to be an homage to people I know. So a lot of the characters are based on actual people from my life,” Urrea said.

Working with the poor in Mexico had been a calling, Urrea said. His stories show the tragedies, tender moments and his love for the people he encountered throughout his life, no matter from which walk of life they came from. “My Mexican life, we weren’t really poor, but not rich either,” he said. “I come from a neighborhood in Tijuana, called Colonia Independencia, and it was a dirt street, a very crowded house with all kinds of interesting characters, and then the neighborhood was devastated by a tuberculosis outbreak.”

At the age of 3, Urrea became infected with tuberculosis. To save him, the family moved back to his mother’s home country. “We lived in the Barrio in Southeast San Diego,” Urrea said. “I guess I had a lot of personal experience of people in dire straights and I suspect that my parents were using all of their force to stay out of dire straights for a while.

“I was the first in the family who went to college and while I was in college, my father died at the hands of Mexican police in Mexico. It was in my senior year in college, and I was thrown hard by this terrible event and one of the key things that was a life-changing event was the Mexican police made me buy my father’s corpse.”

This horrific experience changed Urrea, while it might have hardened others, it made Urrea search for meaning. He said that he had always been writing, but he wanted to do more. “There was somebody I respected who was a minister, who had worked for 30 years for the poor. So I said, I’ll just go and do something to give back to the world. It might have been a rescue mission for myself, which I didn’t recognize, who knows? But when I got there, I was the only one who was fluent in Spanish. I automatically became the translator for this group, so I was the ears and the mouthpiece for hundreds and hundreds of people. It was transformative. I think it changed the trajectory of my life,” Urrea said. Before, Urrea said he had dreamed of being rich and famous.

“I think fate and destiny had a hand in it. I ended up going from years there, to a teaching position at Harvard Expository Writing Program. I’d never been anywhere. I thought Boston was south of New York City, that’s how little I knew. I was kind of provincial,” he said and laughed.

Big Read Roswell has been offering Urrea’s book, “Into the Beautiful North,” for free in English and Spanish. When Urrea learned about the Spanish version being so popular, he said, “It makes me so happy. The request for a Spanish edition came while I was touring. And my cousin, Enrique Hubbard Urrea, is a Mexican ambassador. He is an author, too, he is retired and the publisher gave him a truckload of money to translate.”

With Urrea being on book tour, he had no time to translate the book himself. He chuckled and said that everybody thought that the Spanish version had been the first one. “When it came out, a lot of Spanish readers came up to me and said, ‘You know, your Spanish original is so much better than the English translation,’” Urrea said.

Asked what Urrea would talk about during the Zoom presentation, he said, “I think I’ll talk about the characters in my book, for example, the town Tres Camarones is actually my family’s hometown, which is a town called El Rosario, in Sinaloa. I used to spend summers and Christmases there. If you like Castilla Marquez, that’s our magical village where things happen. In fact, it has been acknowledged by the Mexican government as Magical Town of Rosario, that’s what it’s called now. The movie theater in the book was actually my uncle’s movie theater.”

Urrea says his memories put into the fictitious story is detracted through a strange prism. “But the character Tacho, the gay hero, Nayeli’s best friend is a real guy in that town and his real name is Tacho. He is a larger than life character and I asked my cousin, ‘Have you shown Tacho the book?’ ‘Yes, we took him the Spanish edition.’ I was worried because putting somebody in a book is an audacious move and I was afraid. I asked, ‘Was he offended?’ My cousin said, ‘No, he is insufferable, he carries the book around and shows people, (saying) ‘I told you I was special.’ So that was a happy ending, I was relieved,” Urrea said.

Urrea’s success was growing with every book he wrote, but unfortunately, he encountered an unexpected hurdle or rather blockade. “This book (‘Into the Beautiful North’) has been picked up by one of the major cable streaming networks, and I won’t name them. It was a very exciting thing for me because the character of Nayeli is based on a real person who was one of the people I have known from the old work days in a Tijuana garbage dump. I made her a hero in the hopes that, when it was sold for film, they would agree to give a percentage of money to her, and it would change their family’s life. So this network bought it and they gave me an initial amount of money and we sent her a percentage of the money. Then when the really — and I try to be politically sensitive here — when the very anti-Mexican rhetoric heated up in the U.S., this network dropped all Latino projects — everything, including my book. It was the weirdest thing. It was corporate cowardice at its worst. So it was in limbo ever since. In the new atmosphere, people are getting interested again, so I am hoping that we can get it back going. That would be very nice,” Urrea said.

Asked about his future projects, Urrea said that he is working on a World War II story that is based on his American mother who was a veteran, having served in the Red Cross on the European front. To research, Urrea visited Europe including Germany. “It is a little intimidating,” Urrea said. “I never have written a book that made my publishing company a little crazy. They put an impossible deadline on me that I couldn’t meet, so they’ve extended it a little bit (2022). It’s a very epic story and I want to get it right, I don’t want to put stupidity in it. My mother left behind archives and photographs, and the only person left alive, she just died. She had been with my mother on all these adventures and lived near. She died at 101. We spent six years being coached by her and she shared her memories. It should be quite a thing.”

One of the scenes Urrea will feature in the upcoming book is the women driving their trucks into battle to bring coffee and doughnuts to the soldiers. Another is when they are told to visit a nearby prison camp. They thought it was a POW camp, it was instead the Nazi concentration camp in Buchenwald. “Imagine the doughnut-ladies liberating Buchenwald, how strange. That was really some of the stuff my mom talked about, not a lot, but how strange it was to be there and how she felt ashamed that she was taking photographs and then later she said, ‘I was ashamed that I didn’t take more.’ You can’t win. It was too much for her,” Urrea said.

So far, Urrea wrote 13 books, including “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” “The House of Broken Angels,” “Queen of America,” “Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border,” “By the Lake of Sleeping Children” and “Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life,” to name a few.

His books are available in print and as eBooks.

For more information and to register for Urrea’s Zoom presentation, visit bigreadroswell.com or like their Facebook page @bigread2021.