Professional writing has come full circle for renowned poet and novelist Luis Alberto Urrea.
Born to an American mother and a Mexican father, Urrea developed a deep understanding of border culture, having spent his formative years in Tijuana and San Diego.
He has been prolific in putting pen to paper to portray that border culture – to the tune of more than a dozen books.
And he seems to have some truly supportive fans. They went online last week to pray for Urrea's eldest brother Juan, who lost an ongoing battle with cancer.
It's that close connection with his readers that kept Urrea from cancelling his new speaking tour, which started last week at San Antonio's Palo Alto College. It was organized by Gemini Ink.
"I had no choice," Urrea told around 100 people. "There was no way I was going to miss this and talking to you."
Rather than read from his works as originally slated, Urrea recalled tales from his youth and his writing career. As a young child in Tijuana, Urrea's family was poor. His loved ones included funky characters, including a cantankerous diabetic aunt who smoked and possessed "a wicked tongue."
They all made for intrigue in Urrea's young life.
"These were some of the most interesting, funny, wild people I had ever known," he said.
His Irish-American mother turned Urrea to books. She clung to her literary roots while his father hung on to his Mexican influence.
"She started me on (Charles) Dickens, then Mark Twain, then Rudyard Kipling," Urrea recalled. "She wanted me to read a lot. She didn't learn Spanish. The kitchen was New York and the living room was Tijuana."
Writing about his real-life experiences came naturally to him.
"I wasn't athletic or a scholar. I couldn't even dance," he recalled.
Urrea spent the rest of his youth with family in San Diego. His writing took off in middle school. As a young adult, publishers took notice.
One of his best-known works, The Devil's Highway, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, painfully detailed the story of 14 undocumented immigrants who died in Arizona's unforgiving Sonoran desert in May 2001.
"My publisher approached me (about The Devil's Highway) but I tried not to write it. I had already written three non-fiction border books. I didn't want to be known as 'border boy,'" Urrea told the Current following his talk. "But my publisher said 'no, you'll want to write it.'"
This spring will see the release of three new books from Urrea, including The Tijuana Book of the Dead, a collection of poems responding to the abolition of Mexican-American studies in Arizona.
"It's a festival of F-bombs, but I put in some haikus," Urrea said.
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