The author of many books, Luis Alberto Urrea is one of the most prolific and important chroniclers of immigration and border culture of our time. "I write the funniest tragedies in town," he observed in a 2012 interview with the San Diego Public Library, describing his accounts of survival on the margins at the border.
A shape-shifter when it comes to literary form, Urrea has said that he allows the story he desires to tell to determine the form and genre of the work. He has authored books of poetry, short stories, novels, and works of nonfiction and memoir.
Although his novels and nonfiction are bestsellers, Urrea often acknowledges that his favorite form is poetry: he enjoys creating hybrid forms that are highly noncommercial.
In 1994 his first published book of poetry, The Fever of Being, won the Colorado Book Award in poetry and the Western States Book Award in poetry. He was also included in The 1996 Best American Poetry collection.
Urrea has acknowledged many influences and artistic mentors, ranging from novelist-poet Malcolm Lowry to rock-and-roll musicians to haiku masters. His original and arguably most enduring influences are the indigenous storytellers of the border region, including relatives who entranced him with stories when he was a small boy growing up in Mexico.
Urrea’s best-selling novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter (2005) and its sequel Queen of America (2011) grew out of his fascination with a family folk tale about his great-aunt Teresita Urrea, a legendary nineteenth-century healer who in the 1930s was widely venerated as the "Saint of Cabora" for her mysterious healing gifts. Urrea spent 20 years researching the book, traveling hundreds of miles to conduct exhaustive research. At one point in the process he studied with Southwestern medicine men and women to better understand the life of this distant, mysterious relative.
In his nonfiction books, particularly in the "border trilogy" published in the 1990s, Urrea employs a highly personal investigative approach. The first in the series, Across the Wire (1993), is an arresting account of his experiences as a relief worker among the extremely poor and disenfranchised of Tijuana. It was named a New York Times notable book of the year. He continued his investigation of border life in By the Lake of Sleeping Children (1996) and in the autobiographical Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life, which won an American Book Award in 1999.
Intending to turn his attention to subjects other than the border, Urrea was unexpectedly drawn back to the subject by a tragic event in 2001, when a group of 26 Mexican men attempting to cross the border into Arizona lost their way. Only 12 survived. Urrea’s detailed account of the experience, The Devil’s Highway (2004), is one of his best-known works. The book was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize.
Urrea creates a portrait of the border rarely seen by most Americans, whose access to the whole is often limited by the shrill polemics of immigration politics and the stripped-down stereotypes of headline news. His ability to inject humanity and complexity into the difficult subjects of immigration, border politics, and economic struggle is one of his greatest achievements.
"Growing up divided in half by a barbed wire fence has made me see a border everywhere I turn. There is a militarized border fence between male and female, between gay and straight, between left and right, between black and white, between brown and white, between brown and black. You get the idea. I don’t like fences. I do like bridges. So I’m not really a border writer. I’m a bridge builder."
—Luis Alberto Urrea from a WaterBridge Review interview