All Luis Alberto Urrea wanted to do was write a short tribute to his late sibling. But President Trump got in his way.
When his half-brother Juan died in 2016, Urrea was determined to write something brief inspired by their relationship, though epics are more familiar territory for him: His novels “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” “Into the Beautiful North,” and “Queen of America” are all sweeping historical tales about the Mexican and Mexican American experience.
“I thought I would write a little tiny novella-sized piece about it, modeled on Truman Capote, his books about Christmas and Thanksgiving,” he says. “They’re tiny, beautiful gems. I remember sending it off to [publisher] Little, Brown, and Little, Brown responded with, essentially, ‘This isn’t the book.’ I said, ‘Yes it is.’ And they said, ‘No, it’s not.’” The publisher wanted more.
Thinking about what that “more” might involve, Urrea considered Trump’s political rise, which launched in 2015 with rhetoric demonizing Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists.
“As the build-the-wall movement grew in ferocity, my focus grew,” he says.
So he’s wound up with another epic, though of a different sort. His fifth novel, “The House of Broken Angels,” is a family saga that takes place over the course of one weekend as its hero, patriarch Miguel (a.k.a. Big Angel), hosts a wake for his late mother at his San Diego home. The next day, the gathering of friends and family then becomes both a birthday party for Big Angel and his private farewell — he’s dying of cancer. Miguel is the hub from which many spokes radiate, including siblings, half-siblings, children and grandchildren with a variety of American experiences — soldiers, victims of gang violence, academics, Dreamers, a singer in a black-metal band called Satanic Hispanic and a “non-cisgendered, non-heteronormative cultural liberation warrior.”
The overall mood of the novel is tender and mournful, which befits the circumstances that have brought everybody together. Big Angel keeps a notebook in which he unabashedly catalogs things he’s grateful for: marriage, books, cilantro, wildflowers after rain, hot showers, tortillas (“corn not flour!”). And it’s also celebratory in the way that wakes often are, opportunities for people to share their funniest stories about the loved ones they’ve lost. But the breadth of characters in the novel, Urrea says, was also the product of a furious determination to highlight the diversity of the Mexican American community at a time when alt-right rhetoric has been reducing it a malevolent threat.
“I thought [the story] was a very personal experience,” he says. “But the more I thought about it, and the harsher the tone got in the country, the more I thought, yeah, I think it’s time to represent.”
He’s done that his entire career, in various ways. Urrea, 62, was born in Tijuana, the son of an American mother and Mexican father. And since the early ’90s, the U.S.-Mexico border has been at the heart of his writing: “The Devil’s Highway,” his 2004 book about the fate of a group of Mexican men who crossed into Arizona, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, and his novels stick close to the borderlands of Mexico, California and Arizona. It’s an unshakable part of his identity, a point echoed in “Broken Angels”: When Big Angel’s half-brother Gabriel (a.k.a. Little Angel) says, “We’re pretty much Americans now, right?” Big Angel snaps back, “Must be nice, Carnal, to choose who you are.”
Urrea’s memories of moving into a predominantly white San Diego neighborhood in fifth grade and hearing casual slurs about himself and his hometown of Tijuana helped him write the novel’s few overtly Trumpish characters. As two relatives pick up Big Angel’s birthday cake at Target, a white woman breezes by and says, “You’ll be out of this country on your ass very soon.” Urrea says, “L.A. knows this, I think, but a lot of the rest of the country hasn’t yet figured out that Mexicans are human beings.”
To that point, Urrea framed the book not around the notion of a singular Mexican American identity, but around the idea that the Mexican American diaspora contains too many multitudes to neatly summarize. Big Angel jokingly calls Little Angel “the Assimilator” for his job in academia, where his Mexican heritage is more professed upon than experienced. But Urrea notes that Big Angel is pretty assimilated himself: “He’s a Republican, he’s working in the IT department at the gas company, he’s always on time.”
That punctuality earns Big Angel yet another nickname — the German — and in time the narrative is awash in nicknames, the better to signal how every character contains multiple identities. Sometimes the different names serve code-switching purposes in mainstream American culture, but those identities shift even within the family. The mass of names and relationships flummoxes even insiders in the novel. (“Endless drama,” Little Angel thinks. “Family. It was all too complicated.”) But Urrea reveled in creating an environment where the reader wasn’t permitted to slot characters into simple roles.
To that end, he also declined to include a family tree in the book. “I tried to be as generous as possible to give people enough markers that you could get to know somebody,” he says. “But I thought also, thinking politically, ‘Here’s a bunch of people you don’t know. Make a little effort.’”
There are enough characters populating the novel to inspire a wealth of sequels. (And eagle-eyed readers will note that “Broken Angels” is a kind of sequel in itself, with connections to the 19th century Mexican characters in “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.”) Urrea says he’d rather not revisit them, however. “I don’t know if I can take it,” he says. “I’ve never suffered so much, emotionally…. This was really painful, and part of the pain was hoping that I didn’t misrepresent my family.”
There’s a larger community he’s thinking about too. In recent years he’s traveled the country to discuss his 2009 novel, “Into the Beautiful North,” with communities as part of the NEA’s Big Read program, and he’s struck by the number of teens who are drawn to its 19-year-old border-crossing heroine. “It’s become a de facto YA book, which I never intended,” he says. “My job part of the year every year is talking to hundreds of Latinx kids who are afraid, embarrassed, hiding in terror that they’re going to be insulted, assaulted or thrown out with their parents. I politicized my response [in “Broken Angels”] because I see those kids suffering on a daily basis.”
Luis Alberto Urrea appears at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at 12:30 p.m. April 22 on the panel “Fiction: The Family Thread” with Lisa See (“The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane”) and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (“A Kind of Freedom”), moderated by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett.
Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix.