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Six Kinds of Sky

City Talk Chicago

A Sunday drive in a '49 Ford. Father and mother in the front seat, the boy in the back with his toy soldiers. All of them waging war. Mother hurls a grenade: "You f - - - - - - Mexican!" Father lobs one back: "You American b - - - - !" The boy takes the shrapnel like a man.

Now that little boy is a man. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, author Luis Alberto Urrea - winner of the 1999 American Book Award, member of the Latino Hall of Fame and writer in residence at the University of Illinois at Chicago - has lodged that shrapnel into nine critically acclaimed books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

In The Fever of Being, a collection of poems, he recalls the invisible border that stood between his parents: "They never touched. Not a hand, not a brush of thigh, not a fingernail clacked over their bowl of Fritos as they watched the nightly Vietnam report."

Borders of all kinds crisscross Urrea's life and career. His latest book, a short-story collection titled Six Kinds of Sky, was released in the spring to sterling reviews.

But Urrea is best known, perhaps, for his "border trilogy," a nonfiction series offering a painfully honest portrayal of the lives of Tijuana's orphans, garbage pickers and dump dwellers. The first, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, was a New York Times notable book. The second, By the Lake of Sleeping Children, exposes the gruesome realities of life in a Tijuana landfill, where the destitute pick through garbage for scraps of food, sleep in Maytag appliance boxes and breathe an overwhelming stench that might make Hell, by comparison, smell like the perfume department at Marshall Field's. The third book, Nobody's Son, documents Urrea's struggle to come to terms with his own conflicted identity.

"Here I'd been writing about the border," he says, "but I'd been studiously avoiding my own story."
Urrea was born in 1955 in a small, poorly equipped clinic above a drugstore in Tijuana. "The Mexicans wheeled my mother, belly-up, belly aimed at a fingernail moon, into a room upstairs five miles from the racetrack on the escape route east of Tijuana," he writes in The Fever of Being. "And there, set scalpels afire. They cut me out with smoking knives."

When he moved three years later to San Diego with his parents, he had tuberculosis and was banned from most homes in the neighborhood. Long after the disease had run its course, many would continue to ostracize Urrea for a different reason, one he could never be rid of even if he'd wanted to. He was different. He was Mexican. Or was he? Throughout his life and career, Urrea has been rejected by Mexicans because he has blond hair, blue eyes and American citizenship. He has been rejected by Americans and pigeonholed by well-meaning literary critics because his name "sounds funny." He has been called Latino, Chicano, Hispanic, gringo, white boy, wetback, greaser and pepper-belly.

His mother insisted he was 100 percent American and spoke only English to him. His father insisted he was 100 percent Mexican and demanded that he speak Spanish, which his mother couldn't comprehend.

"She never pronounced my name correctly once in my entire life," Urrea writes in By the Lake of Sleeping Children. "To her, I was Lewis. If, as some have suggested lately, I am some sort of a 'voice of the border,' it is because the border runs down the middle of me. I have a barbed-wire fence neatly bisecting my heart."

In the San Diego ghetto where Urrea grew up, boys were expected to fight, but he had no penchant for pugilism. To avoid getting his nose bloodied, he stayed indoors and buried it in books. He soon began typing his own poems and stories on an old typewriter.

"Unfortunately, my mom had heard that typewriters needed to be oiled and decided to help me out," he recalls. "She used cooking oil and destroyed it. But the first things I ever typed, she sewed together into a book. So I say I was first published in my kitchen at the age of 13."

Urrea resolved in his teens to become a famous writer, but years would pass before he would hold his first "real" published work. After completing his undergraduate degree in 1977, Urrea went to work from 1978 to 1982 as a translator for a group of missionaries serving Tijuana's dump dwellers. His experiences there could never be neatly sewn up, yet he felt compelled to write about them. One day, as he was scribbling in his journal, a man emerged from the dump heap with what seemed like a mandate from God. "Write it all down," the man said, "because I was born in trash, I have lived my life in the trash, and I will die and be buried in the trash. And no one will ever know that I ever existed. You tell them that I was here."

Although fiction and poetry were his forte, Urrea crossed yet another border from these familiar genres into first-person reportage to create his indelible and unprecedented account of life in the borderland. But once he had completed Across the Wire, nobody wanted to listen. Every major publisher refused the manuscript. "I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it, and it was rejected over and over and over again," he says. "I'd been told by one editor that nobody cares about starving Mexicans."

He was teaching to pay the bills, but Urrea couldn't rest until he had paid his debt to the dump dwellers. "I was like, 'Somebody's going to care. I'm going to make them care,' " he says.

It took nine years before somebody did. Anchor Books, a division of Doubleday, finally published Across the Wire in 1993. A decade later it seems that people can't get enough of Urrea, who lives in Naperville with his wife, Cindy, and their three children. His writers' workshops at UIC are filled to nearly twice their capacity.

National Public Radio has selected "Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses" from Six Kinds of Sky for inclusion in a future broadcast of Selected Shorts, featuring renowned actors' readings of new and classic short fiction. To mark the 10th anniversary of Across the Wire, Urrea returned to Tijuana in June with a production crew to tape a "Where Are They Now?" documentary, which he intends to offer to NPR. And as part of a six-figure, two-book deal with Little, Brown and Company, he is working on a nonfiction book titled The Devil's Highway, to be published in February 2004, and a novel titled The Hummingbird's Daughter, to follow in 2005. The former is a nonfiction account of a disastrous attempt by 28 Mexicans to sneak into the United States through the deadly southern Arizona desert. Fourteen of them died.

Urrea thought he had written his final chapter about the border. "I have three border-related books already," he says. "I'm seen as 'Mr. Border Boy.' I wanted to move on." But the region generates stories as rapidly as Tijuana accumulates trash.

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