by Mark Wagstaff
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Mark Wagstaff, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Luis Alberto Urrea about his book The House of Broken Angels (Little, Brown) which was among the final five selections in the category of fiction for the 2018 NBCC Awards.
Mark Wagstaff: Significant themes in the book are informed by events in your own family, including the death of your eldest brother Juan. You said previously that writing about your brother’s death was ‘a cry against ugly disrespect’. Did you conceive of the book as a form of resistance against disrespect?
Luis Alberto Urrea: I set out to tell a universal story about a family. Not a Mexican story or an American story, but our human story. I see that as a radical act.
A lot in the book stems from my father, a man of high standing in Mexico who could only find work as a bowling alley janitor in the US. There’s nothing wrong with doing that work, but the collapse of my father’s self-worth haunted the family. The ‘entrance exam’ into the US is a brutal Social Darwinist test. Part of that sacrifice was to give me an American life.
To give an idea of the impact of that sacrifice, my father didn’t like that I visited him at work. I think he was embarrassed for me to see him cleaning bathrooms and so on. Part of the book’s origin is in a particular incident when I had gone to see my dad and I witnessed the manager of the bowling alley behave in the most condescending way toward my father. He completely belittled my father, he made some remark about what a good worker he was and patted his head like a dog. What made it worse was that I knew the manager, we’d been in high school together. He had no idea of the man my father was.
My big brother Juan had that same drive to show people that the family was worth something, starting with graduating from college. To see me become a published writer meant everything to Juan.
For the record, the scene at the party where Big Angel confronts the gangbanger who tries to kill Lalo serves to honor my father. It was a quinceañera party. Some fool pulled a pistol on the family and my dad gave him such a tongue-lashing that the guy turned tail and ran. It was where my father regained his authority, this man who had been demeaned by some bowling alley manager. That’s why Big Angel knows he cannot lose. At that point he has already become a legend.
MW: About that role of family patriarch. The male characters in the book seem to inhabit iterations of masculinity that, for the older generation, are traditional, but for the family’s younger men are more ambiguous and circumstantial. Were you looking to place the current watershed of masculinity in the Mexican-American family context?
LAU: The ‘broken angels’ in the story are the men. They have been handed a rulebook of masculinity, but they don’t know what’s wanted of them. Big Angel is haunted by his father’s ghost and by memories of his grandfather Don Segundo, who readers will recognize as the cowboy from The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
That background of part-noble, part-toxic masculinity produced the Big Angel generation. And now their sons and grandsons wrestle with changing conceptions of masculinity. There’s Ookie the deranged neighborhood boy who has a remarkable talent. Dave who is remaking what it means to be a Jesuit Most of all there’s Yndio, the prodigal son whose way of being a man is unacceptable to the family. Yndio was inspired by my nephew, who left town to follow New York metal band Cycle Sluts from Hell. He saw the world but it cost him his family. He died of AIDS and there was still family tension at his funeral.
MW: Big Angel’s own code of masculinity stops him from accepting help, from claiming welfare. Yet he has considerable tenderness to balance that hard outlook.
LAU: My mother was a New Yorker, something of a socialite. After she married my father there were certainly hard times financially. Yet my parents always kept to that creed that ‘one does not accept handouts’. It’s a matter of pride. Though if the neighbors accepted welfare, like those cans of government peanut butter, it was okay for us to accept those things as gifts from neighbors. It wasn’t a handout if it came from neighbors.
Big Angel is tender with a somewhat mystical slant, and that reflects my brother who was a mystic and believed in astral projection. Big Angel needs signs and symbols to show who he really is and that reaches its ultimate point in his relationship with Ookie, where he helps this confused young man to recreate the whole of San Diego in Lego. For Big Angel, that tenderness is part of the legacy that should define him for the future. It’s as much a part of his legend as facing down the gangster.
MW: There’s a particular moment when Lalo, who has served with distinction in the US army, is taken by his son to get revenge on the gangster who killed Braulio and Guillermo. Yet Lalo can’t kill the gangster. There’s a question about whether the macho response is to pull the trigger or to show restraint. There’s also a strong indication that Lalo has been cheated by the US.
LAU: Aiming a gun at the gangster is the moment when Lalo realizes who he is. He is somebody’s son, he is somebody’s brother, he’s not a gangster. Lalo is part of the conscience of the book. He served the US then when the US was done with him, he was made a criminal and deported.
I wrote a piece a while back about undocumented kids who joined the US military, went to war, came back with problems and were criminalized and deported. Though, and this is the sweet part, as they were not dishonorably discharged, when they die they can be buried in the US. The deported vets would stand at the border fence, saluting in silent protest. Refugees have been defended by Uncle Sam’s deported warriors.
MW: The de la Cruz family is established on both sides of the physical border. One of the current debates around identity concerns respectability politics, the idea of being ‘not enough’ to identify with a given community. Does the book reflect your personal feelings about what it means to be ‘Mexican enough’ or ‘American enough’?
LAU: One can’t escape those issues. My father waged war on the notion of ‘Mexican time’, he always arrived early for appointments and he always left events early, he always wanted it to seem that he had a plan.
My brother Juan pushed himself hard to succeed in impressive jobs. He ran the computer center at the Magic Mountain Ski Area in Valencia, California. He took me to see it – this was back in the day when computers were huge and used reels of magnetic tape. Those old computers made a lot of noise, a lot of clicks and whirrs, and because my brother was a mystic he told me I should ‘listen and hear the ghosts speaking’. That was his description of these machines processing data, the ‘ghosts speaking’. It created a strong sensation, like seeing faces in clouds.
The dynamic of ‘how much are you’ has been part of our lives forever. Are you Mexican and mystical or are you American and practical? Being from the border, I see that as a false dichotomy. I wasn’t sure ‘how much’ of whatever I was supposed to be until I chose writing, that’s the place where I belong.
There’s an endless negotiation demanded by the culture that one’s in. I came from Tijuana to the US because I was dying from tuberculosis. Crossing the border meant going from Mexico to a kind of ‘Mexico lite’, a barrio where everyone spoke Spanish. Though my mother got us into a white neighborhood north of San Diego, I went through high school speaking with a Mexican accent. I hadn’t seen green lawns until I joined the Boy Scouts. How American is that, to join the Boy Scouts? My scout buddies cornered me in the bathroom and called me a ‘greaser wetback’.
People don’t say that now. Instead I get threatening messages, death threats, especially after The Devil’s Highway was published. People telling me I’m a traitor and threatening to kill my children, to stop the contagion. I started answering those messages. I corrected the spelling and grammar and graded them on content and originality. I sent them back with ‘teacher comments’. They stopped after a while.
These are the things which fuel my writing. Art is a pre-emptive strike against all the threats.
MW: What’s your view on how Mexico reacts to border issues? Are there deeper divisions?
LAU: Mexicans are like anyone else, they are just as terrified of ‘the other’. The Mexican middle and upper classes dislike being faced with people in need. Especially people from other countries. It’s a place of complex responses. One can go to Mexico City and have the gender on one’s birth certificate changed. Same-sex marriage has been legal for some time. But right wing groups attack Guatemalan and Honduran refugees and accuse them of bringing the country down.
Colorism is prevalent throughout Latin America, the privileging of lighter skin tones. My parents had old-fashioned views about black people. Where families straddle the border, different generations attach different labels to themselves: Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano which some still see as an insult.
We have created this baffling landscape of barriers. Yet ultimately all of us are stuck on this same rock. There is no ‘them’ there is only ‘us’.
MW: The family matriarch, whose funeral dominates the first part of the book, is called Mamá América. That reminds us that ‘America’ is not an English word and that it means more than the United States. How do we keep sight of our shared humanity when even simple terms are contested?
LAU: ‘America’ is an incredible amount of land, an astonishing number of cultures, languages and people. America is Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle. It’s much more than the fact of lines on the ground. We don’t live in a place, we live in our story of that place. That’s part of what drove me to write The House of Broken Angels. It’s a family story. The story of our home town, of a landscape and people. But it’s not about political identity. Politics is a false religion.
There’s a long history of sisterhood and brotherhood across that artificial border. I have cousins who are Apache and Yaqui. Those people lived for many centuries in what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. That border means nothing to indigenous people. The people are the fact. The border is an imaginary line. When Mexico was beaten in 1848 and sold its northern lands for $15m, the border moved arbitrarily and native people, who had been citizens under Mexican law, lost those rights as the US government refused to recognize them. No surprise that my cousins say, ‘We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us’.
Countries are imaginary. They are lines drawn on maps, often for obscure, pragmatic or mendacious reasons. Those imaginary distinctions play into the stories we tell about ourselves – it’s a Mexican story, an American story. But overarching all of that is the human story.
My books are not about one border, but the endless series of barriers running between us. Those borders between each other that we create everywhere. It’s the job of the writer to draw attention to that. To write notes and throw them over the fence. That’s the task of the writer. To celebrate our common humanity across whatever borders we construct.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark work of nonficiton The Devil's Highway, Luis Alberto Urrea is also the bestselling author of the novels The Hummingbird's Daughter, Into the Beautiful North, and Queen of America, as well as the story collection The Water Museum, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist. He has won the Lannan Literary Award, an Edgar Award, and a 2017 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, among many other honors. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother, he lives outside of Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Mark Wagstaff has published short stories in journals and anthologies in the US and UK. In 2012 Mark's story 'Burn Lines' won The New Guard Machigonne Fiction Contest. In 2013 his story 'Some Secret Space' won the William Van Wert Fiction Award. His second short story collection, also called Burn Lines, was published in 2014 by InkTears. Mark won the 39th Annual 3-Day Novel Contest with Attack of the Lonely Hearts, published by Anvil Press. Currently Mark is studying on the MFA program at The New School in New York.