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Author Luis Urrea talks about the amazing story of his distant aunt, Teresa Urrea, who became a famous faith healer in California after being driven out of Mexico.

January 9, 2012 1:13 p.m.

Guest: Luis Urrea, author of "Queen of America."

Related Story: Teresa Urrea's Amazing Adventure


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm mar maneuver. Author Luis Urrea writes novels that confront borders, the Mexican American border, the that separate men and women, rich and poor. The practical and the mystical. And he began receive confronting a border between the town of his birth, Tijuana, and where he grew up right here in San Diego. His book, into the beautiful north has been selected as one of the one book, one San Diego winners for 2012. But he's already out with a new novel. Queen of America. Welcome back to KPBS.

URREA: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the last time we talked, you were just out with your book, into the beautiful north. Could you remind us of you're heroine in that book and why she goes north?

URREA: Yeah, it's a young woman, and she's in a small village down in Sinaloa Mexico, and the events were inspired by reporting from the regions. But she's in a town where they realize one day all the men have gone. They have gone north. And the town is full of children and women. And some narcos come to the town to try to take it over. And she sees a showing of the magnificent seven in the movie theatre and decides we can do what they did, we can go to the United States and get seven fighters to bring them back. And the Americans won't be mad at us for sneaking in because we're actually taking people away instead of bringing people.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, over the last several month we've been reporting statistics that immigration into the US is significantly down, and that's because of -- mainly because of the poor US economy. I've often wondered what Nayeli and the people of the village of tres camarones might be doing now. Have you thought about that?

URREA: You know, I actually do think about that because indeed, the numbers have dropped. Of and some people are starting to actually head back, which is interesting. But also, it was accidentally timelier than I thought it would be because of the upsurge of the narco war. And I think part of the reason that some of the immigration slowed down is because it's just so incredibly dangerous along the border lands that it stops people. But I look, and I'm watching the Mexican economy, and they're expecting five to six hundred thousand jobs this year to be added to the roles, which they're not is not enough to fuel a big comeback. But their economy is stronger than it was. So barring the narcos, I'm not sure. I think they would probably take charge of their town and try to make it work.

CAVANAUGH: Try to make it work, yeah.

URREA: Part of the fascination for me of all that story was the idea of women warriors. And I think that Nayeli's journey north teaches her, in some ways, that she didn't need to come find men to battle those guys. She's a warrior herself. But she has to go on one of those classic Joseph Campbell-type journeys to find out her own warrior within, so she comes back a sort of Mad Max character, I think. Maybe Mad Maxine.

CAVANAUGH: Well, talk about gifted and extraordinary women, the heroine of your latest work. It's based on one of your ancestors, Terasita Urrea. Tell us about her.

URREA: She was known as the Saint of Cabora. And Americans -- and I think Mestizos too often called her the queen of the Yaquis, are the Yaqui people didn't have a queen of any sort, but she was a faith healer. She was actually a medicine woman and a mid-wife. And in her middle teens had a near death experience, after which, according to all testimonies, she developed this incredible ability to heal, and just began this incredible up-welling of indigenous unrest and revolution right before the actual Mexican revolution. And the first book was about those early years of her training and her transformation. And then at 19, the Mexican government sent her north, of course.

CAVANAUGH: Well, why was she such a threat to the Mexican government? We're talking about the late 19th century here.

URREA: Yeah. Well, it was a really tumultuous time in that there was a lot of tribal uproar along the border. And Mexico, the Diaz regime was at the time taking land away from the Yaqui people, and the Mayo people, their cousins. And selling it to foreign investors, and ranchers and so forth. And the people were being actually shipped to Yucatan, essentially, as slaves. So Mexico was trying to match, I think, the United States in our surge into modernity and industrialization, and all that stuff, but they were doing it at the cost of the tribes. And so she was seen as a really incendiary character. Because she was inspiring a real passion for rights and for protecting your land that she felt God had given to the tribes. They couldn't be taken away by man. And at that time, endless warfare. The United States at that time, we were seeing the ghost dance religion. So they were all, I think, surging ahead together, these sort of last-ditch revolutionary indigenous movements. And along with that, she inspired this kind of religious fervor among the poor and the downtrodden as well. So it was just something that Mexico wanted to quell before what they knew would happen sooner or later happened, which was the revolution.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as I said, Luis, the character of Terasita Urrea is an actual person, an actual, historical person. But this is novel, not a nonfiction book. Why did you choose to do that?

URREA: Oh, because -- you know, it's like composing an opera, or a symphony. And I grew up down there in Logan Heights, and then up in claimant. You know, in a household that revered those big, fat novels, like the missioner books, you know?

CAVANAUGH: Right, yes.

URREA: And I really had a sense that it's only in a novel that you can enter this dream, this other world so completely, you know? That you can imagine for yourself and dream what their world was like, and what things tasted like, and how things felt, and what things sounded like. And is it gives you room as a composer to create. You've got endless special effects at hand. All you have to do is right them.

CAVANAUGH: As you're composing this work of fiction, how much of the real Terasita is actually in this?

URREA: I try to keep as much as humanly possible. She died in 190 six. And at least ten years of the writing process was involved actually talking to, studying with, and being guided a bit by medicine people. So I have to say in some strange sense, you get a feeling that you've actually met this woman. They'll certainly -- those teachers can make you dream. They actually gave me dreams. And she would sometimes show up and speak to me, which was very moving. But those books, both of those books, the skeletons of those books are the actual, historical events. So you have to hue to the record. You can't change the record of history. Though some people wish you could. But you can't. It's a historical story. But everything else around it is open.

CAVANAUGH: Now, your first book about Terasita was the hummingbird's daughter. This one is called queen of America. Why that title?

URREA: A couple of reasons. She had all these various monikers, you know, through her life that were give to her. She really didn't want to be known as a saint. She felt that was rather embarrassing and pretentious. But when she got to the United States , she had lost everything and was trying to find her way in the US, like many immigrants do. And she interestingly enough ended up living in New York City, believe it or not. She lived on east 28th street in New York City. And she became a high-fashion lady. She actually won a blue ribbon at a little fashion show.


URREA: And actually for any an evening, anyway, considered queen of New York. And I thought, well, queen of New York, that's going to alienate everybody, lots of New Yorkers. So it just seemed kind of fun to call it queen of America, and it was also something that was starting to percolate among her followers, as one of her various names.

CAVANAUGH: Is that one of the reasons you've called this book, queen of America, your Lady Gaga book?

URREA: Yeah! It is lady Gaga! When she was a kid in Mexico, it was one thing. But then she came to the United States and became a pop star. And I don't think she was ready for it. I don't even know that the nation was ready for it. There wasn't, of course, you know, MTV or any of that sort of thing. Nor were there paparazzi, but she suddenly became their version of a pop idol. She was in the parties all the time, and had managers and all of a sudden, she was beset upon by not just followers, but fans who just wanted an autograph. How do you come to this country and become a pop star when you are trying to be a woman of God? I thought that was really interesting.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, in one section of really dazzling writing, Luis, you described Terasita as she arrives in San Diego. This is before, in New York, and all the things that are here that she's never experienced in Mexico, and I'm wondering, is that kind of shock is still part of many people's experience when they come to the United States from Mexico.

URREA: Oh, yeah. Are you kidding? I think it is complete shock. And you know -- I would say both into the beautiful north and queen of America are my love letters to the country. Because I love the country, you know? And I think it's an incredibly blessed, just physical presence, this continent we've got. And I fudged it a little bit, you know, the train ride through San Diego. But I wanted people to understand just how miraculous it is to come to a place like that when you haven't seen it before. My own experience coming out of Tijuana, at about five, and I lived on national avenue there. And we moved up to Clairemont off Clairemont drive. And I remember something echoed in into the beautiful north, when I saw the lawns in Clairemont, I thought, dang, these people are millionaires, man! They've got these green lawns! I had never seen anything like it, these beautiful green lawns. That's all I could think about. So these cultural shocks still happen, I think, all the time.

CAVANAUGH: You no longer live in California, I believe you're in Chicago these days; is that correct?

URREA: Yeah, I'm in Chicago.

CAVANAUGH: But most of your writing still takes place dealing with this -- the border issue between Mexico and the United States , are. A lot of it in Southern California. Sometimes southern Texas. Do you miss San Diego and Tijuana?

URREA: Yes, I do! I really do. And I try to come back as much as possible. All my family is still there. I was just there on book tour, which was fantastic. And coming back in February for the One Book. So I miss it, definitely.

CAVANAUGH: And what would you like people to get out of your One Book selection, into the beautiful north? What are hoping as San Diego collectively reads this book that people will come away with?

URREA: Oh. You know, I guess the whole point of that book is what you were saying in the introduction, you know, that we forget sometimes that we're members of a family, a larger family. I think, you know, just looking at the political discourse in the country, people have forgotten how to speak to each other and forgotten how to air concerns. And I am acutely aware of the borders that separate us on every level, all the time. And it's really interesting to me when there's a chance to reach across that border and speak. And one would think that border towns are places are sheer paranoia and anger, and it's just not the case, you know? I think sometimes people get the wrong impression of places like San Diego or of the border patrol, or of the people of Tijuana. And so I'm always interested in trying to reach the witness of people's humanity, which I think unites us. And that's why I make the books funny because I think laughter is a uniter.

CAVANAUGH: And you'll be back here for a within book, one San Diego event?

URREA: Yes, I will in February. Can't wait.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me tell everyone, I've been speaking with writer, Luis Urrea, his new book is queen of America. He's also the author of one of this year's one book, one San Diego winners. That book is called into the beautiful north. Thank you so much, and we look forward to seeing you again!

URREA: Thanks.