"We're people who feel and breathe and die and suffer and hope for salvation and yearn for love.
We're not just a newspaper headline." --Benjamin Alire Saenz
The Latino (Chicano) stand-up comic and film maker, Rick Najera, has a new book out called ALMOST WHITE. (Look up "Latinologues." Or "Najera in America.") Famoso! That poor bastard could be my cousin. Or my half-brother. Bubba-lookin Beaner, border roots, San Diego raised, warring high schools. (Go Clairemont Chiefs! To hell with the Najera Nabobs!) We both married women better than ourselves! Rick--are you sure we're NOT cousins?
I call lots of folks homies, but he is actually my homeboy. So much so that we've been kidding around about launching a "Funny, You Don't Look Mexican" two man show. Except he has all the Hollywood and CBS connections. I'd draw librarians and jr high kids, and pinche Rick will be partying with Cheech and Danny Trejo. It's OK, Rick--seriously. I'm old and in the way. Just find me a sunny spot to nap my last days away in comfort, kicking my feet as I chase rabbits in my dreams.
It wasn't always fun being ethnic. On either side of the border. I remember walking into a bar in Culiacan with my cousins--including a future Mexican ambassador-- and a Mexican man at the bar (I was too naive to realize he was probably a narco) said, "Pinche gringo puto" and started to pull out a gun. My cousins lifted me by the arms and carried me backwards until we were outside and hustling down the street. Dang it. Was it something I said? Oh, no--it was something I looked like. I was left to ponder forever whether he wanted to shoot me for being white, or for being (in his eyes) a "faggot." In my mind, I was neither--I was from Tijuana and was there to enthusiastically romance every woman he had ever known.
My mother hated Black people. My father looked down on Filipinos. She mocked Mexicans. He pitied Americans. They both hated liberals and hippies. My father, too, was convinced I was some kind of gay boy--and he also thought I was a sexual libertine who was trying to seduce a female cousin. I was not Mexican enough for him. I was too Mexican for my mom. I was nobody to my school districts.
Imagine my shock in college, no less, when I discovered the top-secret: there were people writing books and music with names like mine! Yeah, I had grown up with Cervantes ("Donkey Hoatie" my teachers called it.) And I had Pedro Infante (my dad's boyhood friend) and Agustin Lara (my dad's adult friend), and was delivered when Santana showed up. (My Mexican cousins mocked him for "going gringo.") But, but, but: Horacio Quiroga? Juan Rulfo? Borges? Cortazar? Alfonsina Storni? Sor Juana?
No, wait: Neruda? Gabriela Mistral? Carlos Fuentes? Ricardo Guiraldes? Alejo Carpentier? Mariano Azuela? Octavio Paz? Cernuda? Jimenez? Machado? Lorca?
It was an avalanche: Garcia Marquez? Marti? Enrique Anderson Imbert? Vargas Llosa? QUE???
Music: Joan Manuel Serrat, Facundo Cabral, Atahualpa Yupanqui, Jose Luis Perales, Lolita, Alberto Cortez. Well, you get the picture. I felt like there was a secret only everyone in the world knew about.
My family certainly did not embrace "Chicano" as a recognizable human designation. (Horros! "Chicano means 'chicanery'" a relative explained. Pachucos! Hubcap thieves!) So, you know, after college, I was undone again by this further phenom. Brothers and sisters I had seen but did not know. (It's all right, I tell myself--my father had other children that I saw and sometimes visited but did not really know until Luis Octavio hung out with me and brought Los Hermanos Righteous songs and Latin American folk songs with him.)
Alurista, Rudy Anaya, Gloria Anzaldua, Jimmy Baca, Juan Bruce-Novoa, Burciaga, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Denise Chavez, Lucha Corpi, Angela de Hoyos, Lalo Delgado, Miguel Mendez, Jose Montoya, John Rechy, Alberto Rios, Tomas Rivera, Richard Rodriguez, Ricardo Sanchez, raul r salinas, Alma Luz Villanueva, Tino Villanueva.... (I have been lucky to have Ben Saenz walking this same timeline with me. A Brother of the Road.
Revelation. Reintegration. Redirection.
So. La Chicanada. When I was starting my writing life, the Xikano movimiento didn't always have room for me. I was born in TJ, not here, so by ruling def in those days, I was not a Chicano. I was not, by the way, a Mexican by Mexican standards because, again by ruling def, I was born in TJ. Not "real Mexico." So I was a pocho. In the US, I was often reminded (sometimes by my own mom) that my name was simply too ethnic. I have mentioned elsewhere that one of the million rejections of ACROSS THE WIRE my first book, echoed in more polite ways by many NYC editors, was "Nobody cares about starving Mexicans." Point taken. I was also told quite reasonably that my name was too weird. Nobody could pronounce it, and nobody would pick up a book by some guy named Urea, Urine, Diarrhea, Unreal.
And my looks would confound the public--whoever that is. Early interviewers often said, "You don't look like a Mexican." I liked to reply, "Which Mexican don't I look like?" (Now I can show them a picture of Najera. "Here's a picture of my uncle Pepe," I'll say.)
Now, back in the 80s and 90s, NYC really wanted that brown dollar. They still do, but can't figure out how to get it. They told me they felt that the "Hispanic" (whose panic? Not mine) authors with a chance for mega-success had half'n'half-sounding names. They had names that sounded partially English. Sandra Cisneros, I was told. Denise Chavez. Ana Castillo. Gary Soto. They sounded less alien somehow. Ray Gonzalez. Could I be a Louis? (My mom wanted me to be known as Luis Woodward.)
Moving to Boston during this era gave me access to the gorgeous other Latina/o arts I had missed. Ruben Blades! Johnny Venutra! Jose Luis Guerra! And my other homie, Martin Espada and his brilliant father Frank (RIP). Piri Thomas and Galeano and Soto Velez, and Julia Alvarez and Cabrera Infante and Roque Dalton and Nuyorican Poets and Cardenal and....
This was as my book was being rejected for a total of ten years. So I was desperate, but truculent. I had me some simmering class/ethnic rage cooking back then. As well as a fire to serve the downtrodden. I was going to tell the stories of the Tijuana dompes till it killed me. It nearly did. But that's how I went from simple Luis Urrea to Luis ALBERTO Urrea. Hahaha! What an idiot. I thought: I'll show them. I'll become MORE Mexican. See how they like THAT!
They didn't, much. Until they did. Lately, I have been dismayed to learn that European publishers aren't really interested in my works because they are "too American." At some literature festivals, I only exist as another name on a Latino panel. At others, I don't make the specialized list of Latino authors -- even though I am a headliner. As FB peeps like to write when baffled, SMH.
Man without a flag.
My flag says: STORY.
But, you know, here's my tip for you fellow ethnicks--and perhaps Rick Najera might tell you the same thing--prevail.
That's it. You and me? We're Popeye, baby. We am what we yam and it's all what we yam. Ourselves.
That's why I wrote NOBODY'S SON. Like I said there: If I am nobody's son, I am free to be everybody's brother. We citizens of the nation of Story don't have to worry about what our parents think, what editors and critics think, what men with guns or Border Patrol agents or even our priests think. We don't have to suffer the slings and arrows of ethnick burden, sexual critique, size or age or beauty or color or awkwardness or bust size or body type or unwanted hair to be painlessly removed by the newest cyber device. Poor old John Lennon. He said, "Just give me some truth."
Students who have listened to me give speeches these last blessed ten years know the rule well. URREA's Writing Rule # 1: Wear the bastards down. Even if, sometimes, the one building the border fence in front of you is yourself. Prevail. Keep walking. Bear witness. Sometimes, it is the true work to witness yourself. Keep talking. Walk across the desert. Whisper through the hole in the fence.
Beloved: a fence laid on its side is a bridge.
Now, I'm an old-timer. I am trying to use my years to reach out my hand to everyone. I am worn out by borders, by critics, by fears and doubts. I am tired of being tired. I am angry at anger. I am open for miracles--God knows, I've sucked up my share. Even the bad times that wounded me. The wounds make the broken ground for the seeds to take root in later. If you get there. I am tired of funerals--especially for the living.
God--life--loves the broken places. And we are all broken.
Prevail, I tell you.
Recently, I was walking in Times Square. No, back in TJ and Logan Heights and Clairemont, I did not ever dream I'd be walking in Times Square. Anyway, I tripped over the curb. I fell, but was caught in a strong pair of arms. I was righted and found myself in the embrace of a large Black man.
"I'm your hero," he said. Then, "What's your name, brother?"
I said, "Luis."
"Luis!" he cried. "You don't look like no Luis, MY NIGGA!"
His friends laughed and patted me on the back.
Viva la Raza--Humana.
Book club members have been some of my most enthusiastic and careful readers. I’m thrilled to share my work with you, answer your questions and tell you some of the stories behind the stories. This is our spot, just for us. Here, we can chat: If I’m nearby, I’ll come and visit your club. Otherwise, we can Skype, talk over the phone or email. Sometimes, I’ll send surprises or hold contests.
Keynote speaker at benefit for English in Action. Details here.
Happy to be back in beloved Carbondale. This is a community benefit with a suggested donation at the door. Details here.
Friday night reading and Saturday workshop at one of the West's most beautiful colleges. Details here.
Beloit WI is going Into the Beautiful North! Details here.