Column: Novelist Luis Alberto Urrea on the joy behind the ugliness of the ‘border planet’


It’s funny — and not funny ha-ha — how millions of people, from the White House chief resident on down, have recently and suddenly discovered “the border,” the boundary land of Mexico and the United States, when it’s been there all along, before countries, before maps, as a singular place with a character of its own. “The border planet” is what Luis Alberto Urrea has called it.

The master of both fiction and nonfiction was born in Tijuana; he’s a U.S. citizen by virtue of his New York City mother, and a Mexican courtesy of his Basque Mexican father, whose lineage dates to the 16th century conquest. If the border had its own flag, Urrea would be wearing the T-shirt. The border is the standout character in Urrea’s work, from “The Devil’s Highway” to his new novel, “The House of Broken Angels.” The man who has been spending much of his life making the border make sense to himself now tries to help the rest of us to do the same.

What do people get wrong about what the border actually is?

I say this a lot, but the myth that's perpetuated constantly is this seething pit of terror, danger, hatred, invasion, suspicion. But for people like us — my family and everyone I've ever known — it's also an imaginary line between two imaginary regions where there's fraternity, interaction, ancient friendship, or at least neighborliness.

Immigration — whatever that is, certainly from Mexico — wasn't a concern, until the 20th century. So it's a complicated place.

And believe me, I'm not Pollyanna. I've had a lot of horrible border things happening, including the death of my dad, including one of my nephews being burned to death by narcos. I know all the bad stuff.

But there's also the other side. When I was a little boy coming out of Tijuana, everybody I ever loved or respected or looked up to or even feared — they were all in Mexico.

I joke with people that if you move from T.J. to the [San Diego] barrio, you're moving into Diet Mexico, like Mexico Lite. I didn’t find out this hideous separation business until later, when we moved up to a nice little working-class suburb in northern San Diego.

Unfortunately, lately the first thing that comes to my mind is narco and terror and all that stuff. And it's on the upswing in Tijuana, no question. But then I get my wits about me and think, no, wait a minute, it's about Grandma’s house and fresh tortillas. It’s about all of my relatives. It's about Spanish, which I love. It's about joy, about all these other things as well.

And that wins out for me.

The border, for much of its length, has its own ecology, its own biology.

It’s its own world, and it's a very complex and beautiful natural world. We've brought the ugliness to it — and I don't just mean we Americans; we both, we humans.

If you were to see the Rio Grande for what it really was — or the Rio Bravo, as Mexicans call it — it's one of the great Western rivers. For much of its past it's a great Western American river full of beavers, believe it or not! It’s got deer and it’s got eagles and it's gorgeous. The Sonoran Desert is a very complex and beautiful ecosystem.

Culturally it's interesting, because for a very long time I think Mexico itself rejected the borderlands and I think the United States rejected the borderlands.

So we made a very long, snakelike nation of our own, coast to coast.

A border nation.

Mexico City was uncomfortable with the border because you know that famous old saying, “Poor Mexico — so far from God, so close to the United States.” And proximity to the U.S. for some reason made people deeper in the heart of Mexico look down on the border dwellers, like they weren't really Mexican. We all know what a lot of Americans think about the border.

So it's sort of developed its own kind of culture. And what's happening now, which is very interesting to me particularly, in my hometown of Tijuana is what I want to call a renaissance of arts, but I don’t know that there was ever a “-ssaince” for there to be a renaissance!

You can make a new art of a land there, and there was a burst of new literature embracing that polyglot kind of feeling, and a burst of certainly graphic arts and painting and rock music and dance music.

Suddenly Tijuana had art galleries everywhere, and then all of a sudden — oh no! — fancy coffee shops and wine bars and then microbreweries! That's so amazing for me to watch, and so exciting.

And I think the response to the border wall is very interesting, because of course on the Mexican side, [the wall] became a kind of open-air art gallery. On the U.S. side it looks like East Berlin, and on the Mexican side it's covered with paintings and sculptures and color, which, if you take the East Berlin model a few steps further, you think, who's on the free side and who's on the Soviet side? The side with the trucks and the dogs and the helicopters and the barbed wire, or the side where the party is? Hm! That’s disturbing!

I think the border wall is a prison wall and it's being built to keep our brains trapped. I don't think it has anything to do with Mexicans at all.

You grew up there and near there. What were the forces that changed Tijuana in, what was it, the ’70s and ’80s?

I think the waves of migration or immigration certainly had a hand in transforming the city. It was a smallish town and then suddenly had a million people in it. Boom.

People were frantic, at different times, when economic crises hit Mexico, and for example the peso dropped from 12 or 25 to a dollar to 1,200 to a dollar.

People came north, and a lot of them were indigenous people, a lot of them were really poor people, and they were attracted by not necessarily the border either but attracted by proximity to the border.

And the relationships between our government and the Mexican government, but certainly unquestionably, the world of cartels had a big effect as well. The proximity to Southern California is kind of mind-boggling. If you go out to Otay Mesa, the dedicated [border point of entry] truck route, it's incredibly busy, and there is a nonstop river of long-haul trucks coming up out of Mexico and Central America, and who knows what’s in those trucks?

The image that you're hearing about — the five guys on donkeys bringing 200,000 pounds of cocaine — it’s not possible. They’re passing through those dedicated truck routes and they're very sophisticated.

I wish Octavio Paz were still here and could write “The Labyrinth of Solitude Volume Two,” and see what he thought about it! It’s pretty scary to me, and tragic, though.

People always ask me — they call me “Louis” — “’Scuse me, Louis — what can we do to fix the drug problem?” I say, “Well, stop taking drugs, man!” The drug problem is not a hideous Mexican invasion of the United States. It’s Americans needing to be high.

I think it started changing a little bit during those years in the ’70s into the very early ’80s for me.

One of my uncles was the chief of motorcycle police. I was sitting in a shoeshine booth getting a shoeshine in Tijuana, and this uniformed arm came around the corner and grabbed me by the wrist and muttered a curse. And I thought, oh my God, I'm going to die right now.

It was my uncle. Tijuana cop humor, you know. And he pulls me out. He said, “Let's go on patrol.”

And he took me on patrol and it blew my mind, because I realized I had seen people at the worst possible life they could lead. To go with my uncle and see what he sees, to talk to him at length about what they were seeing — that’s when I realized something strange was going on.

He wasn’t a cuddly, sweet man in any way, but he was really disturbed: a Salvadoran man who had come seeking asylum — sounds familiar, right? — and he was caught by some Mexican nationalists. And they cut his tongue out.

And my uncle was trying to deal with how he felt about this. He was insane with rage that these guys would do this to an immigrant.

So then fast-forward to now and the caravans. The nationalists, the Tijuana Trumpies, had hats made that said “Make Tijuana Great Again”! When I first saw them, I burst out laughing because I thought, that's like a “Saturday Night Live” skit!

They’re right-wing nationalist Mexicans. They don't want Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans coming to their town, and they're embarrassed by the poor.

Part of what's so complex about all this is that there's a huge population of deported U.S. veterans living in Mexico, people who were undocumented, who served our country, went to war, ended up deported.

They can never come home until they die. And then they can be brought home and buried with full honors. But they can't come back if they're alive. Really weird.

So when the “Make Tijuana Great Again” warriors attacked these [caravan] people, who were in a little soccer stadium — there were 1,800 people, I believe, with one toilet — part of the group that protected them were the deported veterans. They went and stood, and with their bodies, protected these helpless people.

That's pretty complicated. Think about it. It’s got so many levels of political amazement to me I can't even parse it.

What keeps your faith in a place that's been so caricatured and demonized?

I don't know. I have given up on politics. What happens is, I get zillions of young Latino kids coming to see me, and part of my job is to give them a little hope.

So one of the things you can tell people is to learn history. Look up Ben Franklin talking about German immigrants — it all sounds so familiar: “They don't speak our language. They don't have our religion. They're coming to get free jobs. They’re coming to take an education and the benefits. They have disease.”

Look at how we greeted Italian people, look at how we greeted Jewish people, look at how we greeted Germans, look how we greeted Irish.

Because kids like to laugh, you want to cheer them up. So I go to the absurdities. I say, “When you get to be my age, you're going to have a president who's really pissed off at Norwegians. They’re gonna forget all about you and they're gonna build a wall on the East Coast to stop those Vikings from coming.

“You just stick to your guns and get your education and be good people. And don't be ashamed. Because they're ashamed and they're afraid and they're embarrassed.”

The border itself, that Mexican border, is a metaphor for all the separations between us as human beings. The border is everywhere, everywhere. There are so many barriers and borders between us. People are separated from each other. And I think we miss each other, but we've made it so toxic, it's almost impossible to talk to each other, not just as world citizens but as Americans.

Where does your new novel, “The House of Broken Angels,” fit into your evolved thinking?

Well, it’s a post-immigration book. It's about a family who's been in the United States — it's based on my family. Some of my cousins are Yaquis and some of my cousins are Apaches, so let's say they've been here a really long time. And the Mexican family's been here a really long time. The white part of the family has been here not that long.

Just in terms of the family in the novel, they've been here, let's say, 70 years, as citizens, voting, paying taxes.

Yet they find themselves sometimes being told to go back to Mexico, or build a wall, “you’re bad hombres, rapists, murderers.” And that’s a shock to them as it has been to my own family. I thought that was an interesting story.

What do you make of this new genre of border writing?

Don't even get me started, man! Everybody's writing this border stuff right now. I call it a “My Day at the Zoo”: “There’s a child detention center! I’m going to go walk around it a few times and then write a blistering book about it!”

I don't want to write about people suffering to get rich or famous. I committed a long time ago — it sounds so precious but it's true — that I wanted to bear witness. I wanted to be a literature witness.

So I don't want to write anything unless I feel it. I try to talk about real things, even if they don't like them. Like “The Devil's Highway” — I didn't want to be Mr. Border Patrol champion, but then I thought, wait a minute. I'm really prejudiced. I'm going to write a work of witness but refuse to witness the Border Patrol agents? That's really creepy.

You have to watch yourself. Talk about borders — you have to be your own border guard; watch out and make sure you're not violating the rules of your own belief.

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