Life story told by author

Crystal Valdez, Reporter


Bakersfield College welcomed Luis Alberto Urrea as the Cerro Author for 2015. Urrea is the author of novels such as “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” “Into the Beautiful North,” and “The Devil’s Highway.”

He gave presentations that focused on his journey to success as he pointed out people and events that took place in his life that served as his inspiration to become a writer.

Urrea’s visit spanned two days. On Oct. 20, he gave one presentation in the Fireside Room at 2 p.m. and another at the Simonsen Indoor Theater at 7 p.m. He gave his last presentation on Oct. 21 at 10 a.m., again in the Fireside Room.

Urrea began his presentation by sharing his family history with the audience. He said, “The question I get asked a lot is, ‘How come you look Irish?’”

He went on to answer this frequent question.

Urrea was born in Tijuana. His father came from a town in Sinaloa, Mexico called Rosario in which there was a lot of English, Scottish, and Irish influence; his mother was from New York.

Urrea’s family migrated to San Diego when he was 3 years old in an attempt to save his life after he grew deathly ill.

He then went on to discuss events and people from his childhood, which inspired him to become a writer.

Urrea talked about his fascination with the manner in which his Tia Flaca manipulated his actions through her stories.

“She didn’t like me going out on the street unless I was running errands, but I would go anyway.” He continued, “One day, I was shooting marbles with my little homies, and all of a sudden they ran away…she rolled up, stepped out of her Chevy, had blood all over her legs, tired from work, smelling like tuna, smoking a cigarette. She just said, ‘you know, I’m done with you. Do what you want, I don’t care.’ And she walked away, turned back and said something that stuck with me to this day.”

According to Urrea, his Tia Flaca said, “Pero mijito, there’s one thing I wanna tell you first. You know how around Tijuana, there are hills everywhere. You know what’s in those hills, mijo? Marijuana farms. You know how we grow marijuana? Every day the narcos come out of the hills in trucks. And they drive around Tijuana looking for little blond boys playing in the street, and they take them at gunpoint, and they take them up there to grow marijuana as slaves, cabrón! But you stay out here if you want to.”

After sharing this experience with his aunt, Urrea said, “The people I loved were so interesting, and I wanted to write about them.”

He went on to talk about his adolescence in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, a place with severe racial strife.

Urrea mentioned that in order to avoid any racial warfare, he would stay home and read, which contributed greatly to his skills as a writer.

According to Urrea, his home was divided into two countries, and his parents were unhappy. His mother never learned Spanish and referred to him as Louis. His father spoke mostly Spanish, and referred to him as Luís.

“It turned out to be a blessing because it made me think twice. Two languages at once,” he said.

Due to troubles with street violence, Urrea said his family moved to the suburbs of Claremont, in which racial slurs such as “wetback” and “taco vendor” were introduced to his ears. Despite setbacks, his family pushed him to go to college.

Urrea then spoke to the audience specifically about his father.

“My father was fighting the struggle. He came from a beautiful life in Mexico, or at least a successful one, and here he was a custodian for a bowling alley.”

Urrea talked about how his father always wanted him to do something more practical, but was still proud of his first child to go to college.

His father drove 27 hours to Sinaloa for Urrea’s graduation gift: $1000.

“He drove 27 hours there and was willing to drive 27 hours back. He was stopped in Yuma, AZ. Crooked cops got ahold of my dad, and they killed him. It took him eight hours to die. His injuries were such that he bled and he wet himself. The cops didn’t wanna reach in his pockets for the money, since it was wet with urine,” he said.

Urrea said the cops told him they “owned” his father, and asked him to pay bail. He used $750 of his graduation gift to buy his father, and the rest to bury him.

“That gave me a bad view of the border,” he stated.

Urrea said he had a difficult time coping with his father’s death. In one of his writing classes, he wrote a piece about it. After his teacher read it, it was sent to publication.

He credited his success to his father. He said, “The story about my father’s death was my first sale. My father sacrificed himself to hand me this life. It’s incredible. That’s always on my mind, trying to honor that. I would give it all up if I could, but I can’t.”

Urrea then gave a piece of advice to the audience members at his presentation. Urrea admitted to having a difficult time with money, so he applied to work as a custodian at Harvard.

According to Urrea, the Harvard faculty member he spoke to knew who he was, and offered him a job as a writing professor instead. Urrea then told the audience:

“You’re gonna forget who you are, you’re gonna forget what your dream is because life is rough. You get kicked around, you get tired. You gotta get back up, you gotta survive. There are people who don’t forget. Your professors are often those people.”

Urrea was hired in 1982 as a professor at Harvard.

He said, “I always thought I was trapped at the border and wouldn’t do anything. I never thought people from Rampa Independencia [street in Tijuana] would publish books.”

After his presentation, Urrea answered audience questions about his novels and about writing.

When asked for a piece of advice he would give aspiring writers, Urrea said, “My number one rule for writing is: Wear the bastards down. Do not be discouraged. Do not be dissuaded… If you believe, if you are telling the truth, you have to keep going.”

Urrea talked about how his book “Across the Wire” was rejected for 10 years, over 100 times. He said he was told that the only way Hispanics could sell books is if they had one English name. That’s when he added Alberto.

He then shared his second most important rule, which was, “Read, read, read. You got to feed that reactor in your heart.”

When asked if he feels he made his parents proud, Urrea said yes. He mentioned the last gift his mother gave to him before he left San Diego.

“She gave me stamps, all wrapped nicely in wrapping paper. She said, ‘Here. So you could send in one more story, or one more poem.’”