Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North is an affecting and poignant story about a young Mexican girl’s journey to the United States to find her father. At points hilarious, tragic and inspiring, the novel illustrates the ways in which the United States and Mexico are similar, different and irrevocably sewn together.
Urrea will appear at the Atlanta History Center to discuss his book on September 17 as part of the Big Read program, hosted by the Atlanta History Center (AHC) in partnership with the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System. The Big Read, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, seeks to connect communities through shared reading experiences and conversation. The book was chosen, says Kate Whitman, vice president of AHC’s public programs, because “it is relevant to the Atlanta community, but it also provides a new perspective on an issue we’re all talking about.”
Urrea’s novel has sparked conversation since its publication in 2009. Multilayered and astute, the novel probes the issues behind the “border wars.” Yet Urrea is quick to point out that it is not a political novel. Born in Mexico but raised in the United States, Urrea’s personal experiences and impressions of both countries suffuse the story. As he tells ArtsATL, this book is a “love song to the United States and to Mexico.”
ArtsATL: In light of the recent news about children attempting to cross the border without parents, your choice to write a migration tale about three girls traveling alone seems almost prophetic. What prompted you to make three teenage girls main characters?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Honestly, after doing The Devil’s Highway, which was so dark, I wanted to write a novel that would make me laugh. I didn’t even know if I was going to publish it. I got the idea from a picture I saw in a report I was reading about men in Mexico going to U.S. There were towns in Mexico where there weren’t any men left. I was struck by a picture of some girls at their prom. They were all dressed up and dancing with each other because there were no boys at the dance. They had all gone north. It was a weird, iconic image that did feel prophetic, but it was also tragic and funny. It struck me as I looked at it that eventually some of these girls would go north to get some of their men back.
ArtsATL: The details in the novel, particularly of life in the town Tres Camerones and the journey into the United States, are so vibrant. What was your research process?
Urrea: Many of the scenes — and a few of the characters, like Aunt Irma, who is based on my own Aunt Irma — come from what I know. I used to work with Baptist missionaries in the same dump that appears in the novel. The little blue house that the girls stay in is based on a real house in that dump, and I know the family that lives there.
Tres Camerones is actually the town of Rosario, where my family is from. The cinema where Nayeli sees The Magnificent Seven and comes up with the idea to go north is based on my uncle’s cinema. I spent many afternoons there.
I was born in Tijuana but raised in San Diego, so the illustrations of those cities and the way in between are things that I know. The road trip the girls take from California to Illinois is the same trip my family often takes. We live in Chicago now, but we go back to San Diego. Kankakee, Illinois, is the last place on earth I thought I’d write about, but I was asked to do a reading there, and I found out a lot about its people, who are so friendly. They have a great library. Many of the places and landscapes in the novel are personal to me.
Urrea: People think I’m a political writer, but I’m a religious writer. It’s all about our soul’s journey through life’s tribulations. The Mexican border is a vivid metaphor for all the things that separate us as human beings, and it’s something I know really well. I was raised there, and have worked behind the scenes in the secret Mexico that outsiders don’t see. I got tired of reading books by people who represented Mexico as a kind of zoo. They didn’t know Mexico. I wanted to write honestly about what I know of these things. Part of being a writer is being a witness — to the things that are true and the things that make you uncomfortable.
ArtsATL: As people gather to discuss this novel for the Big Read, what message do you hope your novel will impart to them?
Urrea: I wrote this so people could understand the landscape and the problems a little better. I wrote it as sort of a “pop” novel, a humorous, relatable story that would make these issues easier to talk about. I think we forget because everything is so difficult now, that we’re all Americans. We’re a family. It’s been amazing to find out that no matter what the group, people want to talk about this issue. I’ve sat in kitchens, and churches, and huge lecture halls, and people want to talk.
People are interested, concerned, and they are trying to find out what they believe. Most Americans, in spite of what some might think, do not hate immigrants or Mexicans. For me, if I can shed some light on something and ease a little tension, then there’s hope that solutions can be reached.