Luis Alberto Urrea declares that his latest book, The House of Broken Angels, “will be timely in a way I never imagined.” The laydown date set by Little, Brown for Urrea’s eighth novel is March 6—the day after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program is scheduled for repeal. “That’s an unfortunate marketing tool,” adds Urrea, a creative writing professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The House of Broken Angels is about the extended de la Cruz family in San Diego, Calif. Some of them are immigrants from Tijuana, Mexico, and some are undocumented, including some “Dreamers.” Most of the characters live in a fictional working-class neighborhood in the borderlands, reminiscent of the south San Diego barrio where Urrea spent much of his childhood.
The story shifts among times and places in Mexico and California and revolves around the clan’s patriarch, Big Angel, who is dying of cancer and wants to throw a huge party to bid his loved ones farewell. After the arrival of his half-brother, Little Angel, now a college professor and poet living in Seattle, the brothers tell their stories and reminisce about their larger-than-life Mexican father, as well as about Big Angel’s Mexican mother and Little Angel’s Anglo mother.
Urrea describes The House of Broken Angels as a “story of Americans” that fills a gap in the canon of immigrant literature, and he points out that the de la Cruz family is “an American family—just one that speaks Spanish and happens to worship the Virgin of Guadalupe.” When he first read The Godfather in his teens, he was enthralled by the portrayal of the Italian-American Mafia that was also a tale about la familia. It inspired Urrea, who is now 62, and he says that he has “always wanted to write a family epic of my own.”
Urrea laughs as he remembers that, when he met Jim Harrison at the 2015 Tucson Festival of Books and told the late author he wanted to write about his unconventional family, Harrison called it an idea “handed to [him] by God” and told him he “had better write a novel.”
The House of Broken Angels is very personal to Urrea: the narrative was inspired by the last days of his older half-brother Juan, who died in 2016. He notes that the personal also is political. “You can’t have a name like mine and not be political,” he says. “It’s automatically politicized me. No matter what I do I can’t help but be radical.”
Urrea’s family’s story, too, connects him to a larger political context. He is the son of a Mexican father “who looked like Errol Flynn” and a “New York socialite” mother; he was born in Tijuana, and the family moved to San Diego after he contracted tuberculosis as a young child. “I was dying,” he explains. “They moved to the U.S. to keep me alive, and settled in Barrio Logan.”
Urrea says that he has feels anger over the bigotry against Mexicans he has encountered all of his life, even though he “looks Irish.” He adds, “I don’t like being angry all the time; it’s not good for me. I have to have serenity, or else go to war.”
Disclosing that he is “outraged beyond belief” about the Trump administration’s stance against immigrants, Urrea says that he wanted to “boil it down to a different dynamic” in House of Broken Angels. “It’s in the background. It’s this dark shadow that’s around the edges all the time.”
Urrea notes that he wanted to explore “the discomfort that Mexican-Americans feel constantly, this cultural violence we feel all the time.” Hence, although the characters in House of Broken Angels deal with the kind of bigotry that Mexican-Americans experience in real life, “there is no terror, there are no tears” when characters see a man holding up a sign demanding that the U.S. build a wall or are confronted by a woman in Target wishing they’d be deported. Rather, the characters are “bemused,” he says. “Oh, there’s one of those people again.”
Urrea’s family also had much to do with his path to writing. Explaining that his father had deserted the Mexican army after being ordered to assassinate an enemy of the state and that his mother suffered from PTSD after working for the Red Cross in World War II, he laughs and says, “How could I not be a writer with parents like that?”
In San Diego, when Urrea was growing up, his father drove a bakery delivery truck and his mother worked in a department store. “We didn’t have any money,” he says, describing his mother taking him on “a couple of buses” on Saturdays to the public library downtown. “I maxed out my library card every week by checking out seven books.”
Urrea says that his “entire world consisted of a miserable Catholic school and the porch of my home,” where he read. He describes himself as a voracious reader then, especially of science fiction. He initially didn’t enjoy poetry, he recalls, but he loved music. His appreciation for poetry was awakened in junior high when a teacher introduced him to Stephen Crane. “I felt the world pivot,” he says; that sensation was amplified when he discovered the poetry collections of such favorite musicians as Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, as well as John Lennon’s short stories.
“I just started writing,” Urrea says. “I tried to create poems and short stories in the mold of my heroes. It was a fever. I just had to do it.”
Urrea’s mother gave him her typewriter and also sewed together about 40 typewritten pages of his early creative efforts into a book. She also, through “force of will,” motivated him to apply for grants to attend the University of California, San Diego, where he majored in writing.
It was while studying at UCSD that Urrea discovered contemporary Latino writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda. “I felt like I was taken to another world; it was like graduating from Ray Bradbury,” he says, describing his literary influences to this day as “everybody I read” and claiming that he can best measure his “growth as an artist” by the books he’s reading at any given time.
Sadly, it was his father’s murder—in Mexico, where he’d traveled to raise funds to help pay for Urrea’s college tuition—that led to Urrea’s being published for the first time, in 1980. Unable to process his grief, he wrote an essay about having to pay the Mexican police $750 to retrieve his father’s body for burial. His professor showed the essay to Ursula K. Le Guin, who was leading a writing workshop at UCSD at the time, and she invited him into it.
“Suddenly, I was with Ursula Le Guin, learning to write for real,” Urrea says. “It was transformative.” Le Guin subsequently included the essay in an anthology she was editing.
“Up until that point, I didn’t think somebody like me—a blue-collar kid from Tijuana and the barrio—could get into real books,” Urrea adds. “I thought I’d probably just print my own books.”
But that was only the beginning: after graduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Urrea held a series of jobs while he wrote the first of his four nonfiction books: Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (1993). The first of three poetry collections, Fever of Being, was released in 1994, as was his first novel, In Search of Snow. Urrea has also written two collections of short stories and two memoirs.
Though Urrea’s works have received critical acclaim and a number of prestigious awards, he says that he has never before received so much prepub buzz as he has for The House of Broken Angels. “It seems to be striking a nerve,” he says. “I wasn’t really trying to be subversive, but I was trying to be subversive at the same time. I’m always trying to, using literature, subvert people’s responses.”