Last winter, at a talk in Aspen, Colorado, author Luis Alberto Urrea described his childhood in a rough San Diego neighborhood near the border, where his family moved from Tijuana during a tuberculosis outbreak.
Born to a Mexican father and an American mother, the blue-eyed, blond child spoke Spanish before he spoke English and spent his early years buffeted by the cultural tensions between his parents.
Urrea’s mother yearned for him to be “Louis Woodward,” the idealized offspring of her own East Coast origins. His father, who wanted his son to be more Mexican, affectionately called him cabrón (in English, “dude,” or a more friendly rendition of “dumbass”). “I was raised twice, and this was very hard, but I thank God for it,” Urrea said.
That complicated family dynamic is the inspiration for his latest novel, The House of Broken Angels, a multigenerational saga about a Mexican-American family, much like his own, in San Diego. It is also a border story, a genre for which he is well-known: Ever since the success of his 2004 nonfiction book, The Devil’s Highway, which recounted the struggle for survival among 26 men who crossed the border in 2001, Urrea has been called the “literary conscience of the border.”
But his latest book is less about the physical border than it is about the familial relationships that both challenge and transcend it—the small moments that, as one of his characters puts it, allow each of us to see our own human lives “reflected in the other.”
Drawing on the final days of Urrea’s older half-brother, Juan, who died in 2016, the narrative revolves around Big Angel, the patriarch of the sprawling De la Cruz clan, a raucous cast of characters who encapsulate a variety of American experiences—veterans, academics, undocumented immigrants, a singer in a black-metal band called Satanic Hispanic and a “non-cisgendered, non-heteronormative cultural liberation warrior.”
Sick with cancer, Big Angel decides to throw a final fiesta for his 71st birthday with all his friends and relatives—and not even his mother’s sudden death will stop him. The party is scheduled for the day after her funeral, and in the lead-up to it, we glimpse the melodrama of daily life amid vivid flashbacks of the past. Like the De la Cruz family, Urrea’s writing is exuberant, unruly and sometimes profane, filled with splashes of Spanglish and sensual imagery, from Big Angel’s San Diego bedroom to his memories of La Paz: “the creeping smell of the desert going wet.”
The writing is political, too, as the author describes the often-arbitrary cruelty of the border that has shaped the characters’ lives. Technically, Big Angel and his wife, Perla, are undocumented, having entered the U.S. as teenagers. Urrea, however, does not dwell on legal status, focusing instead on the ever-changing politics of America’s immigration laws, which have alternately embraced Mexicans for their labor and expelled them as soon as they were no longer needed.
In Big Angel, we see another side of the story, too: the tale of those immigrants who manage to ascend to the middle and working classes. After years of working multiple jobs, Big Angel is able to buy a home in San Diego. He finally lands a position running computers for a gas and electric company, even though he never liked computers. “A Mexican doing what these rich Americanos couldn’t do was the point.”
Other family members have not been so lucky. A stepson, Braulio, was killed in a gang shooting. Big Angel’s own son, Lalo, struggles with drug addiction and his undocumented status, which even his U.S. military service in Iraq cannot resolve.
In the De la Cruz family, these tragedies live next to the frequent bouts of absurdity that Urrea evokes—a reminder, he says, “that people are funny. Especially in dire circumstances.”
Recounting a memory from his own childhood, fictionalized in a chapter of the book, Urrea describes how his “gangster granny” almost became a border smuggler—of a green parrot. Had one bird not awoken from its tequila-induced slumber at the very moment that grandmother and grandsons were about to drive across the border, she might have succeeded. Instead, the parrot erupted from her dress in a burst of green feathers, while the elderly woman calmly rolled down her passenger window. At that moment, Urrea writes, “two Mexican boys, a Mexican grandma, and a U.S. federal agent watched as one as the bird entered the U.S. illegally.”
The author’s humor does not diminish the daily horrors on America’s border; it merely reveals the awfulness more clearly. In Aspen, Urrea explained his choice: “Laughter is the virus that infects humanity. And if we laugh together, how can we walk away and say that person is an animal?”
At a time when the language of borders is more chilling than ever before, with mass deportations and children kept in cages, Urrea hopes more of us will consider this question.
This piece originally appeared in High Country News. Sarah Tory writes from Carbondale, Colo.
The House of Broken Angels
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Company
336 pages, $27