October 4, 2016
By Jonathan DeLeon
Luis Alberto Urrea, hailed by NPR as a “literary badass and master storyteller with a rock ‘n’ roll heart”, visited Dominican on Wednesday, Sept. 28. The 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist, author and member of the Latino Literary Hall of Fame delivered a speech discussing his newest novel Into the Beautiful North to a packed Martin Recital Hall.
Luis Alberto Urrea was born in Tijuana, Mexico to a Mexican father and American mother. His last name Urrea actually means “golden man” in Basque and golden he was on Wednesday evening.
Urrea has established quite the list of credentials throughout his career. He has taught at Harvard University as well as Louisiana-Lafayette and is currently a creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He graduated with a degree in writing from the University of California at San Diego and pursued his graduate degree at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Urrea now writes most of his literary work from his own home. He even shared what a hard day’s work looks like for him describing it saying, “I get a cup of coffee, I’m in my shorts barefoot, I put on some really loud music and I sit at my desk drinking coffee.”
Urrea began his speech by discussing how his family and friends have largely contributed to the plot of his books and the success that they have brought.
Urrea revealed that his newest text, Into the Beautiful North, consists of characters based on real people that played a significant role in his life growing up.
The most impactful character in the novel is the main character Nayeli. Urrea spent a good portion of his speech sharing the backstory of the person the main character of this text was inspired by.
Nayeli was the daughter of a garbage picker whose mother worked in the same garbage dump as Urrea and his family. Urrea described Nayeli as “an incredibly happy, smiley kid.”
Urrea went on to explicitly discuss a near tragic experience that lead to his desire to write a novel based off of Nayeli.
One evening years later, both Nayeli and her mother met with Urrea and his family back at the garbage dump to show Urrea’s son the conditions that he grew up in. An American WBEZ reporter heard wind of this trip and got invited to go along with them to record their trip for the radio show This American Life. After they visited the garbage dump, the group went to get dinner at a seafood restaurant. After her first bit of food, they quickly realized that Nayeli was allergic to seafood. Nayeli had an allergic reaction and eventually passed out while Urrea and the others rushed her to an emergency clinic. However, the doctor didn’t want to admit her because she was an “india”, or a native.
The quick-thinking reporter pulled out his mic and starting questioning the doctor, which led him to quickly change his mind and get Nayeli the treatment she needed. After that incident, Urrea made a promise to Nayeli. He vowed that one day, “I am going to get famous and when I get famous, I’m going to write a book about you [Nayeli] and I’m going to make you the hero.”
Years later, that vow is now a complete reality and has even become a best-selling novel. Even better, Urrea sold the book to the TNT Network and the book is going to be a television series in 2017.
“Everything I write about involves the soul and God,” Urrea said. He even once told his kids that he would want to die while typing. His writing has transcended the ideas of immigration and shows his compassion, humor and complexity skill not easily demonstrated through literature.
“I am more interested in bridges, not borders,” Urrea said. He left the audience with a new understanding of immigration, border control and identity.