Pulitzer finalist coming to Tri-Cities

Luis Alberto Urrea would be the first to admit growing up the child of an American mother and a Mexican father on the dirt streets of Tijuana that becoming a Pulitzer Prize finalist author sounds unreal.

It is something that can only happen in America, said Urrea, who is visiting the Tri-Cities this week to speak to students and the public Thursday.

Urrea's personal story and his ability as a compelling speaker is why Mid-Columbia Libraries partnered with Washington State University Tri-Cities' GEAR UP program to bring Urrea to the Tri-Cities.

Mid-Columbia Libraries staff heard Urrea, an acclaimed author who is in the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, speak at a library conference several years ago. He has good stories to tell, including his own, said Kate Holloway, the library system's communications coordinator.

The Devil's Highway, Urrea's 2004 nonfiction book about a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Holloway said the book has parts that seem like they shouldn't be real.

"It grabs you right from the start," she said.

When he worked on the book, Urrea said a Border Patrol agent told him that he only cared if Urrea spoke the truth, not how Urrea felt about them. "Everybody just wants a fair shake," he said.

Americans want to talk about ethnicity and race, but are uncomfortable with the topics and don't know how to do it, Urrea said.

So, sometimes he starts a talk by saying, "I'm here to answer your most burning literary question -- why do I look Irish?"

Urrea can do that because he has blue eyes and dirty blond hair and doesn't look how someone of Mexican heritage is expected to.

Urrea said he has discovered that the opportunity to know two cultures has broadened his perspective.

It's an internal battle for those who are multicultural, he said.

Urrea said it wasn't until he and his mom moved to a white working class suburb when he was in fifth grade that he ran up against prejudice, and was called racist names like "greaser" and "wet back."

"I was totally stunned," he said. "I didn't know that people didn't like Mexicans."

Until the end of high school, Urrea said he became Louis rather than Luis, and was "just a California white boy."

Then, in 1982, Urrea said he was hired to teach writing at Harvard, and he really embraced both of his parents' cultures.

Both of Urrea's parents encouraged him to become the first in his family to graduate with a college degree.

Urrea said he was lucky because he discovered he loved writing. He used to write love poems for the girls he dated, which, he pointed out, was both cheap and romantic.

And he stuck with it, through the failures and struggles, to the point where some of his 13 books may be turned into movies. Mexican director Luis Mandoki has optioned Urrea's book The Hummingbird's Daughter for a film staring Antonio Banderas. The book tells the story of Teresa Urrea, sometimes called the Saint of Cabora or the Mexican Joan of Arc.

"It's like a Frank Capra movie," Urrea said. "I can't quite understand what's going on, but I'm really thankful."

In addition to writing, Urrea teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He said he tells his students: "My being your professor is the revenge of the C student."

And Urrea said he has been able to speak to every sort of group, from Border Patrol agents to those with a gamut of political views. All seem respectful and curious, he said. "America is still a family. We've just forgotten how to talk to each other," he said.

Urrea said through his books and speaking engagements, he has had people support the mission group he used to work with in Tijuana and Humane Borders, an Arizona nonprofit that provides emergency water stations on routes that migrants use through U.S. border.

And sometimes he said he has been able to help younger writers.

Reading one or more of Urrea's novels isn't required to enjoy his presentation, Holloway said. In person, he's humorous, although his work deals with serious themes and is thought provoking.

About 600 copies of three of Urrea's books, The Devil's Highway, The Hummingbird's Daughter and Into the Beautiful North were offered for free by the Friends of Mid-Columbia Libraries. Holloway said copies are still available at many branches.

The library system's copies of his books have been popular too, and Spanish language copies of Into the Beautiful North and The Hummingbird's Daughter are also available.

w Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com