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Mexicans Don’t Have an Illegal Immigration Hormone

A Conversation with Luis Alberto Urrea

New America Media, Audio, Q&A by Sandip Roy Posted: Sep 26, 2009

"Into the Beautiful North" is an immigration story with a difference. Nayeli leaves her village in Mexico and crosses the border illegally into the United States. But she’s not coming here for work as a house cleaner or in a poultry factory. All the men have left her home town one by one in search of jobs, and Nayeli is looking for a modern day Magnificent Seven to protect her town. Author Luis Alberto Urrea discussed his new novel with Sandip Roy, NAM editor and host of New America Now radio. Here are some excerpts.

Was there a moment when it struck you, “Gosh what is happening to these towns where all the men have disappeared up North?”

That’s one of the stories that caught my attention quite a bit, that many of these towns have been emptied of men. The interesting piece in that was that women, who in some of these villages have never had power, are stepping in. I call it a wave of folk feminism because these are women, who in the absence of patriarchy, step in and are now filling power. You have women mayors, and so forth, and it’s leading to a feminization of some of the more rural parts of Mexico, which I think is really exciting. It’s a real change of paradigm.

But now a majority of immigrants are actually women and they’re not coming to make money to send home, but to make a home. To reunify families in fact, which is also what Nayeli is trying to do. Isn’t that changing the face of immigration?

Immigration is changing so rapidly. The paradigm shifts about every couple of months now. For example, now you’re seeing a steep drop off in the numbers of people coming North. Along with women numbers that had spiked, there was a great spike in children, too. I think now you’re seeing the numbers drop. It’s kind of ironic because the Border Patrol, for example, is expanding with its Homeland Security status now. In my book "Devil’s Highway," the Border Patrol station I wrote about had 32 agents. Now they have 350 agents. The government had to build a whole new complex to house the agents. But people are afraid now with the narco wars to venture a journey back. So we’re in a moment almost of held breath where there’s a whole population, I think, considering returning home but it’s unsafe.

How mixed was your family and your neighborhood in San Diego growing up?

It was very mixed. I’m the Irish-looking Mexican guy. My mom was American. My dad was Mexican. But I grew up in a neighborhood that had been a lower working-lass white and maybe a Portuguese fisherman enclave that had then started switching to Filipino and Chicano, which was in the process of turning into African-American. And so I grew up in the middle of ethnic crisis: a lot of street violence, a lot of anger, and all that sort of thing. So it was a tense upbringing for me. I wasn’t in any way brought up in any kind of utopian vision of humanity.

How was it different from your experience of Sinaloa, where you father was from?

My father tried very hard, I think, to find his way in the American system but he couldn’t get his footing. He spent his entire life as a kind of custodian in bowling alleys, which I think broke his heart on a certain level. But on another level, I think he felt like it made him the most learned and cultured man at the bowling alley. But in his heart of hearts, he always wanted to return to his home town in Sinaloa.

Sinaloa itself is on the west coast. It’s the epicenter of much of the drug mania happening. My family is from the south of that state near the border of Nayarit. And the people in that town, when "One Hundred Years of Solitude" was published, they insisted it was about them. A little, small place with maybe 10,000 people at the maximum. But it’s full of strange miracles and ghosts and occurrences and wildness. My uncle had the only newspaper, the only radio station and the only movie theater. It was incredible. He hated rock and roll music. So he would give me all the 45s that came. So I had this library in Mexico of Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan. They couldn’t believe it. And Credence Clearwater Revival came. They used to call John Fogerty ‘El Enojado,’ ‘The Angry Man’ because he shouted. It became more of a story than an actual place.

You read your description of the town and wonder about the sense of loss from people who have to leave this town and go work in a poultry farm in the U.S.

I think Americans have a skewed vision of all this. People seem to think that Mexicans at some age, maybe 13 years old, start pumping illegal immigration hormone and then know what to do, like geese migrating. It’s simply not true. Probably the most telling line for me in the book is when someone says, “Your husband should never have left. He should’ve stayed here.” And the wife says, “You cannot eat beauty.”

It’s an attempt to earn enough money to live. One of the people in the Tijuana garbage dump said to me once, “You know, at least here you have garbage.” That’s all. She had come from Michoacan to Tijuana just to pick garbage. She didn’t want to cross the border. She wanted to be where there was good trash. I spent many years working with the garbage pickers, and interestingly enough, on this book tour, I got a call on my phone and one of the women that I’ve known her whole life in the Tijuana dump, now has a cell phone and now she’s calling me and texting me from the dump. And I think “My god the world is changing so fast.”

Now that you’re on tour with this book, what kind of conversations around immigration has this book sparked for you? The conversation seems stuck in a rut on both sides.

I think it’s a war of rhetoric. The conversation for me has been really exciting, because the rhetoric drops and we start talking about characters. Rudy Anaya used to always say that the personal is political, and I think that’s true. For example in Phoenix, I had my supervisory agent from the border patrol show up. Afterwards he came up and put his arm around me and said, “I love you.” I thought, wow, this is unexpected. This is not something that would normally happen in my day-to-day existence. But I also get people sending me emails that say I’m a traitor. I’ve had people tell me that I should be executed.

For what?

For writing about what I write about. That I’m somehow a traitor to the United States, which I think is really odd because I feel rather patriotic. Certainly this book is mostly a love song to the United States, just how miraculous and blessed a place this is physically. It’s my Jack Kerouac book. I’m out there like a Beat checking out the highway. They just happen to be undocumented people. They’re on a mission to save their country. I hope you realize that people love Mexico as much as we love the United States.

Why did you want to begin the book in a small town in Mexico and end in Kankakee, an equally small town in Illinois, where Nayeli’s father has gone?

Well, it was so elegant, wasn’t it? To talk about a small town in Mexico having hard times and a small town in the United States having hard times, and what might unite them rather than separate them. All the stuff about Kankakee is very close to the reality of the town. The mayor saw that there were Mexicans in town where they had never had Mexicans, found out what region they were from, took the city council, police chief and librarians, and flew to that city to have a meeting with the Mexican city council and asked them “why they were coming.” They decided to be sister cities. While working on either side of this morass of immigration at the border, they started coming up with solutions. Kankakee, Illinois figured out how to give them classes towards citizenship. They gave them classes on how to do mortgages. They bilingualized their library. They got a Mexican-American detective who speaks Spanish and English. Instead of saying “get out of here,” they said, “our town is dying, we need your help to save it. You help us save our town, we will help you.” Mayor Greene is a forward-thinking guy who is a life-long Republican. But he saw these hard working people coming and decided, “Let’s think outside the box and find a way to save the city.”

Looking at the reality of the current debate over immigration, are you hopeful that some kind of immigration reform can come out of all this?

I am hopeful, though some of the border writers ask me what planet I come from. But you know, most of the people who write about the border are “He-Men,” “Sons of Edward Abbey” men who go down there and drink tequila and write about how exciting their adventures were. I’m from Tijuana. There’s a great song by Nortec Collective called “Tijuana Makes Me Happy.” People can’t believe it. “What do you mean Tijuana makes you happy?” So yeah, I feel hope. It’s not all death. It’s not all narco war. It’s not all paranoia. It’s also brotherhood. It’s also trade, and it’s also culture back and forth. It’s cross-pollination. People in the garbage dump have cell phones. There’s a little internet café at the Tijuana garbage dump. Kids from the dump can look up my website and see what I’m doing, where I’m at, what pictures I put up. You’re never going to stop the change that’s afoot in the world. It’s never going to stop.

Transcribed by Andrew Berry

To hear the full version of the interview with Luis Alberto Urrea, Click here.

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