Monday, June 1, 2009

Into the Beautiful North

One of my favorite writers, Luis Alberto Urrea, has a new novel out called Into the Beautiful North. Urrea is a writer with an interesting past. He was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother but now lives in the United States and teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

From 1978 to 1982, Urrea worked for a Protestant aid group ministering in his hometown. That encounter with grinding poverty became the basis of his non-fiction memoir, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border . Says Urrea: "Poverty is personal: it smells and it shocks and it invades your space."

It has also informed the writer's ongoing engagement in the problems of the immigrant community and the poor along both sides of the frontera. And it gave him the background for novels like Into the Beautiful North. The dialogue is authentic and often amusing. The novel tells the story of Nayeli, a young woman who works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the US to find work. She realizes that he isn't the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village--they've all gone north. While watching "The Magnificent Seven," Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men--her own "Siete Magníficos"--to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over.

Urrea does not shy away from delivering a political message with his fiction. In the following brief scene, Tía Irma is dismayed at the price of beans in the local market and argues with the vendor:
"We are Mexicans," Irma informed the fruit seller -- needlessly, he felt. "Mexicans eat corn and beans. Did you notice? The Aztec culture gave corn to the world, you little man. We invented it! Mexicans grow beans. How is it, then, that Mexicans cannot afford to buy and eat the corn and beans they grow?"

Hw would have kicked her out of his stall, but he had manners -- his mother would have been deeply offended if he had tossed out this old battle-ax.

He smiled falsely.

"Look here," he said, pointing to the burlap sacks full of 100 pounds each of pinto beans. "These beans come from California."


He actually flinched away from her.

La Osa [Tía Irma's nickname] took her reading glasses out of her voluminous black purse, and the girls crowded around her. They read the fine print. California, all right. Right there on the bag.

"¡Chinga'o!" she said.

"These beans are grown here in Sinaloa," he said proudly. "The best frijoles in the world! Right near Culiacán. Then they're sold to the United States. Then they sell them back to us." He shrugged at the mysterious ways of the world. "It gets expensive."

Tía Irma took a long time to replace the glasses in the purse.

"That," she finally proclaimed, "is the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to me."

He smiled, hoping she would not strike him with that purse.

"NAFTA," he said.
La novela está también disponible en español bajo el título Rumbo al Hermoso Norte.

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