tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS November 6, 2011 8:30am-9:00am PST
>> hinojosa: he was born on the u.s./mexico border and crossing borders has been the overarching theme of his writing and of his life-- poet, novelist, and best-selling author, luis alberto urrea. i'm maria hinojosa, this is one on one. luis alberto urrea, welcome to the program. a lot to people know you because you're a best-selling author. you wrote across the wire. you wrote the amazing book the devil's highway-- extraordinary. your newest book, into the beautiful north, which we'll get to in a minute. but a lot of people also know you because you're the mexicano who breaks all theolds. >> ah, yeah. >> hinojosa: you are not the mexicano who looks like all the
other mexicanos that they think they know. >> yeah, yeah. i... in louisiana, somebody told me i was a "bubba-looking mexican." >> hinojosa: bubba? >> yeah, "the bubba-looking mexican." >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) and you can... you even got that southern training twang there. you can... >> well, you know, it's having lived in the south, i guess. i'm fascinated by it. >> hinojosa: i mean, you really are like 100%, and even in your home when you were raised, you were 100% mexicano. your dad didn't even want you to ca yourself a chicano. >> oh, no. >> hinojosa: and you mom was 10 american. >> right. >> hinojosa: she wore white gloves, and you had to say... how did you have... you had to speak in perfect english to her. >> she liked to be addressed as "mother dear." she was a league victorian, you know, and she always... i always say she was the only lady in the barrio with a little veil and a little string of pearls and white gloves, and she would do her hands like this when she talked. >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) >> and she'd say, "call me 'mother dear.'" you couldn't say, "yeah," you had to say "yes;" preferable, "yes, mother dear." >> hinojosa: but you're also 100% mexicano. >> ah, sí, yes! and that way, i'm 200%!
( laughing ) but you know, i mean, if... people always asked me, "why the border?" and i say, "if you had grown up in my house, we had the border going right down the middle of the house," you know? >> hinojosa: was it... was it weird for you? i mean, when you were growing up, were you always conflicted, or were you just like, "this is the way it is for me"? >> it was what... you know, it was... it was the world. i didn't... i thought all families were like our family, and growing up partially in tijuana, partially in southeast san diego-- you know, in logan heights; barrio, spanish speaking. i had my tijuana accent, you know? i didn't know there was any difference between the two countries. i thought tijuana was where grandma lived, you know? you go to buy tortillas in a tortillaria and you see grandma's house. >> hinojosa: but you were also crossing that border every day. so you understood... >> often, yeah, often. it was just an interesting journey. i didn't know until fifth grade when we left that little womb of mexicaness and moved to a white
working-class suburb. i didn't know first of all that there was anything wrong with tijuana, and i didn't know that there was anything wrong with me. it was the first time i heard i s a "greaser." >> hinojosa: really? >> oh, yeah. >> hinojosa: so they... how did they know that you were... mexican to call you a greaser, because you... >> well, i had a tijuana accent. i lost that fast! >> hinojosa: oh, so you were speaking english like... >> i... ( speaking in tijuana accent ) i speak it like you speak, you know, in the barrio. >> hinojosa: you were talking english like that? >> ( speaking in tijuana accent ) sure, i had an accent from tijuana. >> hinojosa: which is kind of like borderly... >> it's a little bit... well, i mean, i wasn't in any way a vato, you know? i... in fact, i thought that word was "gato." >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) >> because our neighborhood was half chicano and half bck, and black guys wercalling ch other"cat" back then, so when i heard "vato," i thought, "well, mexicans call each other cat, too." son gatos, right? but i did have my accent and i was luis, and it took a few years for the folks in that neighborhood to not recognize the luis and they decided i french or something.
they called me "louie," you know? louie. but yeah, i was called "greaser," "wetback," "taco bender." i thought, you know, wow. i mean, "beaner" was the nicest of those things, and i had never heard such things in my life. it was... >> hinojosa: well, did that mediately kind of make you start wanting to separate from your mexicaness? a little bit of self-hate... >> no. >> hinojosa: because a lot of people have that self-hatred. >> i know. >> hinojosa: "i'm going to deny it; i can pass, i can fit in. let me just put the fact that i'm mexican and speak spanish back here, because it's a lot easier to not deal with that." >> there's so many things to hate yourself about. ( laughing ) you know, why add that? >> hinojosa: what a philosopher! i mean, you know? ( laughing ) >> no, i mean, just... i just think there's so many opportunities in this life to attack yourself, and you know, it was a... it was matter of utter, absolute pride for my father. now, you know, it's a big laugh getter on tour when i talk about my father's mexican pride, but it was so profound that my
father took credit for every invention being mexican. "oh yeah, mijo, you know color tv? mexicano invented it, the gringos stole it." >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) >> like, really? "washer/dryer? mexicano invented that, gringos stole it." everything, you know? sputnik the russians stole from the mexicans, you know? he loved it. and the story i often tell, which usually gets a big laugh at his expen but it's a true story is he went to tijuana one day and he knew i was a big reader and going to school and so forth, and he brought home spanish translations of the odyssey and the iliad. and he put them on the table and he said to me, "mijo, study them in the original spanish." >> hinojosa: oh, my god. >> i'm telling you, that's a true chauvinist. even greek was originally spanish. >> hinojosa: so your first book, into the wire, actually you had written that book and you got rejected for ten years? >> ten years, yeah. >> hinojosa: when i read that, i just was like, "wow, you got rejected by publishers for ten years and you kept it as a manuscript, trying to sell it."
>> yeah. >> hinojosa: and it becomes a best-seller; it gets a great, great review in the new york times. it's about the border. you write some other books along the way. you write an amazing memoire that also is nominated for an american book award? >> got the american book award. >> hinojosa: got the american book award. but a lot of people, again, know you as the writer who brought to forth this story of the yuma 14? >> yes, right. >> hinojosa: just so people can remember, that was the really horrific story of how many pele w got stuckn a... well, you tell. tell the story. >> it was may, 2001, and it was a group of men from veracruz who were recruited by coyotes, by smugglers, to come to the united states allegedly to work picking oranges in florida. >> hinojosa: which is another thing that people don't realize-- that there's a lot of active recruitment of mexican workers... >> oh, yeah. >> hinojosa: ...to come. it's not like suddenly they just wake up and say, "i'm going to..." there are people recruiting. >> oh, well, you know that and i know that, but lou dobbs might not know that. i mean, i always tell people on tour, "you know, being mexican
does not mean you have an illegal immigration gland in your body." at 13 years old, your body doesn't start pumping hormones that tell you how to cross the border-- it's just not a fact. and people never stop to think that, you know, in the united states, people in iowa city don't really understand the border. well, people in guadalajara don't really understand the border, either. it's an alien zone in both directions, and the coyotes recruit. and so they went and recruited these men; they brought them to sonoyta, sonora. the actual trained coyote vanish-- nobody knows at happened to him-- so a trainee coyote, 19 year old kid, tried to walk them in and they got lost. there were... we know there were 26; there might have been more. some of them vanished and have never been heard from again-- the group that tried to walk back home. the 14 of them, you know, died out there in the desert. >> hinojosa: i remember when i
was reading the book, i actually, i had to stop halfway through. could not finish working... reading the book. and later i ended up being on the arizona/mexico border and actually witnessing... seeing some of the photographs that are taken... >> oh, yeah. >> hinojosa: ...of the... the morgue photographs. it's really graphic stuff, but it's the kind of stuff that reminds you what happens on that... on the border. people die horrific deaths... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...from thirst. if they got in a car, 15 minutes away they could be at a 7-11 getting... >> oh, absolutely. there are people who die in sight of that 7-11. you know, one point in the book i talk about a couple of people who died on a mountain where they could see in their sightline a 7-11, and they could... they died, you know, in sight of slurpees and ice cold cokes and things, but they died. the death can get you so quickly there. but yeah, it's... i wish i could've stopped while i was
working on that book, because it was so overwhelmingly sad and overwhelmingly disturbing. but you know, one of the weird blessings of that event was that it had so upset everybody involved in the story-- including the u.s. border patrol-- that so many people who would not have normally given me access or information opened up to me. they wanted the story told, and so i got this incredible amount of story, of kind of secret data, videos, all kinds of stuff that i wouldn't have gotten before. >> hinojosa: and you actually, on the discussion of immigration, you point fingers at mexico. >> oh, yeah. >> hinojosa: you point real fingers at mexico, saying, "nice of you to let all of your citizens just like, you know, meet their death at that border," and you point a lot of fingers at the united states. >> well, you know, one of the
greatest points in the book was made by one of the mexican consoles who accompanied the bodies of the dead back to mexico. once those men had died, then mexico made this huge show of their being folk heroes and noble, suffering paisanos, and they spent $68,000 to fly the corpses home. and this mexican console said to me, "if they had only invested $68,000 in the village, they wouldn't have died," you know, there would have been hope instead of this photo op for a lot of money. i mean, you know, a jet airliner just for the coffins and things like that. so yeah, you know, but people often... what we were talking earlier, about my home, you know, that question of the border running down the middle of my apartment, i have always been interested in that border. not the mexican border-- the human border, right? i mean, isn't that what writers write about? so in a way, you know, you're told your whole life, "don't tell people you're from tijuana; it's kind of shameful."
>> hinojosa: and you know, i used to live in tijuana. >> i know you did. >> hinojosa: i love tijuana! >> you're my home girl. >> hinojosa: love tijuana. >> yeah, i do too. i think tijuana's an amazing city, and... >> hinojosa: but it's that border city. >> oh, yeah, oh, yeah. >> hinojosa: anything can happen "on the border." >> yeah, remember when we were younger, so long ago, there was that book called poso el mundo by ovid demaris-- you know, everything about tijuana was dirty. and sure, there's been a real sinful element to tijuana all the time, but that's only because it's in proximity to san dieg it... it fed a lot of the, you know, the darker impulses, i think, of the northern city. but tijuana is an area of great cultural, spiritual, and intellectual ferment and tumult, and if you know the city... see, one of my... one of the things i hate about border writing, and perhaps you do too... >> hinojosa: and you don't... you do not call yourself a border writer. >> no, no, i don't think so. >> hinojosa: but one of the things you hate about border writing is... >> well, or border reporting. i'm sure you feel something of
this. i call it "my day at the zoo" writing, where some sort of manly man goes down and observes the crazy, little brown people a week or two and then writes a book about crazy, brown things crazy, brown people do. and there's very little sensitivity or affection or knowledge or wisdom about the culture that we are making a lot of bucks writing about. you understand? and so... like, if you know tijuana, if you love tijuana, if you see things like the literary renaissance happening in baja, california, or the musical and arts like the nortec collective and this incredible world of music-- and nortec has a radio hit, "tijuana makes me happy." how can you not be happy when you hear the song, you know? so there's a lot of joy. and one of the things that drives me crazy about the border itself is that i think it is seen and promoted in this country as this terrible, filthy scar that is dividing two
countries at odds with each other. but you could just as easily see it as an imaginary line that unites two countries as neighbors. and there's a lot of brotherhood and commerce and interchange of idea and culture and affection that you've forgotten. >> hinojosa: and one of the things that you decided to do with your most recent book, into the beautiful north... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...because you're a very serious writer. >> ( laughing ) >> hinojosa: you're a serious guy, you know? you take on some really tough issues. >> ( laughing ) but i try to make them funny. >> hinojosa: okay, it's true. but into the beautiful north is about this group of girls-- young mexican girls, and again, one of the reasons why i love the book so much is because young mexican girls right now are seen as kind of powerless... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...the victims of... you have young latina girls in this country feeling powerless, and that's a whole other part of the story, but these girls decide to kind of
become superheroes, and they decide to cross into the united states to bring back seven amazing men, like in the seven samurais, right? >> right, yeah. >> hinojosa: but these characters... talk a little bit about these characters-- of young women in mexico-- and also the void that we're seeing now because so many men... >> right. >> hinojosa: ...are leaving mexico and coming to the north. what's that doing? because that's essentially what you're book is about, in essence, in terms of the characters. >> right. yeah, i may have errored in making the book too funny, because some of the critics haven't seen that it's probably my most serious book, but it's really funny. >> hinojosa: right. >> but you know, the issues at play are really profound, and i'm talking about a massive transformation of mexico that's going on almost underground and people don't realize it. and part of what was the inspiration was the reporting coming from these towns in mexico that don't have men, or men of a certain age. there are little boys and older men, but the working age men,
the powerbase, have come north. >> hinojosa: but because these towns have a little bit of money, you have the internet so you have computers that are set up, so you have these young women... >> oh, yeah. >> hinojosa: ...and young men who are basically like, in a small town in america... >> they are. >> hinojosa: ...in the united states. >> they're ithe rld. >> hinojosa: they're just a small town in mexico, but they're all consuming... it's fascinating. >> they're in the world, you know? >> hinojosa: they're like, one of them is a goth girl... >> yeah, right! >> hinojosa: ...this goth in a mexican small town. >> yeah, i... la vampe... vampira. and you know what's really odd is i didn't know i have a niece who really, apparently, does consider herself the only goth in culeca, and so they all think, "oh," you know, "it must be about her." i didn't know she was there. but you know, what's going on in those villages then is sort of a groundswell of what i call "folk feminism." towns that have been patriarchal forever suddenly don't have ruling males.
they're out, and so women are taking power. so that was part of the paradigm that fascinated me. but the other thing is this internationalist experience that people are having, which is really cool. and that is directly from my friends at the tijuana garbage dump-- talking back about across the wire. some person-- a little, you know, tortillaria there on the side-- added a laptop, and then added another one, and because the garbage dump workers are illiterate doesn't mean that their chilen are. because those people work-- it's the american dream in spanish, in tijuana! they have no intention of crossing the border-- they're mexicanos. so they come to the garbage dump to work, they put their children in school, the third generation has gone from book learning to computer learning. somebody puts in an internet cafe at the tijuana garbage dump. the girls-- nayeli, who's the hero of the book, is based on a real girl named nayeli. >> hinojosa: really? >> yeah, who at 19, she's mexicana, turascan, indigenous
young woman; through school, learned to use a computer. goes to the internet cafe in the tacoria, tortillaria, and she looks up my web site to see what i'm doing. >> hinojosa: oh, my god! >> they watch you tube, you know? i was able to take her to a conference, a boarder journalism conference at the camino real hotel in tijuana. she'd never been in that hotel, and... she and her mom, and they paid them $300 to speak, and they were like, "wait a minute-- you can earn $300 for just talking?" and i said, "yeah, and i'm going to give you my fee, too," and they were not thrilled-- they were appalled that they could earn $600 for just talking to some camerones, you know? some... but they went in and nayeli, having never done any of this stuff, i took her to her suite and the first thing she did was turn on the bathtub. she was like, "yeah, el banjo," you know, so it's really nice. the second thing she did was say to me, "luis, how do i get mtv?" she already knew about mtv.
she hadn't seen it, but she knew it was out there and wanted to watch it. so she uses the internet. this summer on book tour, walking down the street in seattle, my cell phone rang. i was like, "what the heck?" i answered it and this voice says, ( speaking in spanish). it was one of the garbage dump women. >> hinojosa: calling you from a cell phone... >> from a cell phone... >> hinojosa: ...that she has... >> from the dumpe, because they can buy, you know, throw away pre-paid telephones. >> hinojosa: well, this is something that people might not know, which is that after you wrote across the wire, you spent... you developed a relationship with the pepenadores-- is what they're called in mexico. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: the people who basically sift through the garbage. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: and you now have an active relationship with them, on your web site you're doing updates about the pepenadores. >> oh, yeah, i've always... you know, i always... i always tell people, "you know, i'm probably the only writer you'll meet out on book tour who got his start washing the feet of garbage pickers in the tijuana garbage dump." and i try to do my writing career as though i were still
working there. >> hinojosa: in honor of them-- i think you said that. >> well, yeah, i mean, you know, you asked why... why try to get a book published for ten years. i, you know... i wanted to be stephen king, all right? i wanted to, you know, have a fleet of cadillacs and a private plane and some groupies-- that would've been nice-- but i was there and i was seeing this... this secret life five minutes from san diego, and if you stood at the hillside where the garbage dump was... you remember the old dumpe; it's moved since, but the old dumpe was just central south tijuana... >> hinojosa: mm-hmm. >> ...and it looked like a volcano when they burned the trash, remember? you had that big column smoke. >> hinojosa: and you'd see little moving... >> yeah! if you stand on the hill where they burned all the dead animals that they collected in tijuana-- horses, cows, goats, dogs-- they would pile them up and burn them, that's what that smoke was. you could look from that hillside straight to the coronado bridge. and i though, "if americans want to understand illegal
immigration, all they have to do is stand on this hill and that will answer every question you ever had." >> hinojosa: so where... where do you see things now? not so much as an author, but as a man who is raising his family in middle america... >> hmm. >> hinojosa: ...in naperville, illinois. >> naperville! >> hinojosa: which is a... is a... you know, near chicago, a changing part of the united states as well. but when you look at the landscape and you see so much anger on the question of immigration, what goes on in your heart as you're watching this play out in our country? >> well, it's sorrow and anger and suffering, but also, you know, i'm on the road three times a month, every month. i've been on the road now certainly since devil's highway, so i'd say since 2004 i've never stopped touring. i feel like a one-man blues band. i should get a bus, you know, and go from bar to bar. so i'll tell you that the rage and the anger and the all that
nativist propaganda is manufactured. i talk to tens of thousands of people. >> hinojosa: manufactured by... >> people aren't as angry as first of all, the propagandists would have you believe. people are concerned, people are baffled, people are open, however, and curious. and i've talked to every imaginable group about this and every kind of person-- people from every side. you know, i get the... i get the added blessing that the border patrol gives me thumbs up, so conservatives will listen to me because they figure, "wow, he must've done something right because the border patrol likes the guy," you know, they support me; they teach my books. so that's been a good... that's been... again, things you don't expect to be blessings end up being blessings, but i have to say that less than 90... i'd say 96.5% of the people i talk to are interested, positive, empathetic, curious. a very small percentage are angry and, you know, full of rage about this, and that
doesn't seem to jibe with the endless propaganda you hear on talk radio or on certain tv shows. also, i think that the information that america is fed is inaccurate and sort of... i always tell people, "you know, you get inflammation, but you don't get information." nobody talks about how immigration numbers are down by... in double digits... >> hinojosa: the actual numbers are down. >> the actual numbers are down. >> hinojosa: even though the numbers of deaths are actually... >> they don't... the numbers of deaths are fairly steady, but because the numbers of actual crossers go down, you know, percentage wise, the death... because the land hasn't become less harsh, but the numbers have dropped. you know, when... wellton station that i wrote about in this book had 32 agents. it was the... probably the busiest region. you know, crossings in that area, yuma area, about 24% down, yet the border patrol station i
wrote about has 300 agents now. >> hinojosa: so they're all just kind of like, "hmm." let me get to another border that you talk about... >> okay. >> hinojosa: ...in your work. >> all right. >> hinojosa: and we're all about crossi borders here. >> yes, we are. >> hinojosa: you very graphically kind of open up mexican xenophobia as well. >> oh. >> hinojosa: when you are talking in this small town in this book in the beautiful north... into the beautiful north, you're talking about how people within this small mexican village are talking about the undocumented immigrants... >> right. >> hinojosa: ...that are coming from honduras, from guatemala, from el salvador, and they're looking at them and saying-- these are mexicans now-- talking about the illegal aliens... >> ( laughing ) yeah. >> hinojosa: ...coming from guatemala, and using horrible language... >> sure. >> hinojosa: ...about people who look just like them. >> but it's a global phenomenon, and i think borders are mutating and collapsing and shifting around the globe, and you know, that came directly from being in mexico and hearing talk radio in
guadalajara. it was ( speaking in spanish), looking for silver and trinkets, and on talk radio this guy was saying, "you know those damned guatemalans coming into our country, they're getting our jobs, they're getting health care, they're getting a good education, they're not part of our culture," and he said, "we should put up a wall on the border. and i thought... >> hinojosa: "where am i?" >> where... wait a minute, you know? that could be on am radio on the united states. and i thought it was funny. you know, when you do enough... as you well know, you do enough of this stuff, you develop kind of a dark sense of humor; kind of a cynical view, and i thought it was really funny. but when it came time to write the book, i realized that there were a lot of factors like that at play, and i wanted to try to... you know, part of your job, i think, is... is pastoral. it's almost like being a minister in that you want... you know, i'm interested in the human soul. people always say, "oh, you're a political writer." i'm political agnostic at best. i don't trust that system.
but i am interested in what happens in our heart and soul, so i thought, "okay," you know, "there's all this stuff going on in mexico and people probably don't think about, and there's these young women who have all this potential and drive but have no way to get at opportunity, and there's a young gay man." and i thought, "wouldn't it be subversive to write a novel for the american popular reader that would have them rooting for people that they wouldn't normally root for?" >> hinojosa: oh, that's so sweet that they're actually rooting. we've got like 30 seconds left... >> oy! >> hinojosa: but i just want to... i want you to say... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: we should be looking for your work upcoming on the big screen? what are we looking at? >> oh, the hummingbird's daughter is being filmed by luis mandoki with... i was busy, so they hired antonio banderas, you know. >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) >> banderas is in. >> hinojosa: and into the beautiful north? >> we're hoping. into the beautiful north is making the circuit... >> hinojosa: so luis alberto urrea on the big screen. >> ( laughing ) well, my books. >> hinojosa: we'll all be watching out for you. >> thank you.