January 18, 2022 | Paul E. Richardson
These were the words of a dirty, illiterate garbage picker, covered in black coal dust, who spoke to Luis Alberto Urrea one day at a café in Mexico. Urrea told Bill Moyers in a 2012 interview that this was his “Damascus moment,” when the man, after he discovered that Urrea was writing a book, insisted that his story be remembered, told. At the time, Urrea was working as an aid worker to the poor in Mexico, and the experience crystalized for him the importance of telling the stories of these forgotten souls.
His pastor at the time said to him, “Nobody who has access to this world writes books. You do. And you should give witness to these people.”
And so, Urrea has made his literary career – which now includes 17 books, numerous awards – writing about places and peoples that few people see or understand, but that form an essential part of our country’s fabric and culture.
Born in Tijuana, Mexico to a Mexican father and an Anglo mother, Urrea’s work is heavily inspired by his cross-cultural upbringing. The highly acclaimed work of this “master storyteller with a rock and roll heart” (NPR) is also a unique amalgam of fiction and nonfiction. Meticulously researched histories are fleshed out into powerful human stories of love, loss and triumph. As Sandra Dijkstra wrote, reviewing one of his works for Publishers Weekly, "His brilliant prose is saturated with the cadences and insights of Latin-American magical realism and tempered by his exacting reporter's eye and extensive historical investigation."
Urreas’s newest book, Queen of America (November 2021), is the unforgettable story of a young woman coming of age and finding her place in a new world. Beginning where his bestselling The Hummingbird's Daughter left off, Queen of America finds young Teresita Urrea, beloved healer and "Saint of Cabora," with her father in 1892 Arizona. But, besieged by pilgrims in desperate need of her healing powers, and pursued by assassins, she has no choice but to flee the borderlands and embark on an extraordinary journey into the heart of turn-of-the-century America. Teresita's passage will take her to New York, San Francisco, and St. Louis, where she will encounter European royalty, Cuban poets, beauty queens, anxious immigrants and grand tycoons – and, among them, a man who will force Teresita to finally ask herself the ultimate question: is a saint allowed to fall in love?
Urrea, an author and passionate humanist, will present an Authors & Ideas talk on March 10 about life in a dual culture.
“I am more interested in bridges, not borders,” Urrea says.