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Luis Urrea: The nicknamed “Literary Badass” with a rock n’ roll heart

Tucson Festival of Books
Luis Alberto Urrea is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss and triumph.

Luis Alberto Urrea lives in two worlds at once, but writes with no barriers. 

The award-winning author of novels like “Devil’s Highway” and “Hummingbird’s Daughter” was born to a Mexican father and American mother in Tijuana, Mexico. He then moved to California with his family when he was 4 years old.

According to his website bio, Urrea uses his “dual-cultural life experiences” to paint stories that “explore the greater themes of love, loss, and triumph.” From this, Urrea is most often recognized as a border writer, but in his response he said that he is “more interested in bridges, not borders.”

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However, Urrea comments that the border is not one that stands fenced between United States and Mexico at Nogales.

“It seems to me that in this world we are forgetting how to simply talk to each other,” Urrea says. “The border is truly what separates us from each other.” 

Urrea hopes to connect that message through his writing. 

Though his books are often inspired by his family, Urrea said he takes his own experiences and makes them “into a more universal truth by creating something different.” In this way, there is one thing that he always wants to convey in his novels, and that is “Ultimately, we are members of the same family.”

Urrea has been coming back to the Tucson Festival of Books every year, for 10 years, since it began. 

“By an accident of history, I was in that gang of writers that became a kind of ‘founder’s club’ and we old-timers make it a tradition to come back every year,” Urrea said. “I lived in Tucson for a bit while I was working on a writing project, met my wife in Tucson, have relatives and dear friends in Tucson. It feels like home and always has. For me, the Tucson Festival of Books feels like a family reunion.” 

To honor his history here in Tucson, Urrea purposefully asked his publisher to officially launch the new release of his novel “The House of Broken Angels” at a pre-festival event on March 8.

While the Tucson Festival of Books is happy to have him attend every year even though his “fame and popularity have skyrocketed,” according to his event page on their website, Urrea is not sure what being a “successful author” means. 

It took 10 years for anyone to consider publishing his first book, “Across the Wire.” Urrea was also stuck in between serving as a relief worker in the extreme poverty parts of Tijuana, and odd jobs like a film-extra and a columnist-editor-cartoonist for various different publications. 

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Since then, he has gone to teach at Harvard, received many awards for his novels, such as being a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and is now a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago. However, Urrea still can’t say much about himself. 

“All I can hear is Kendrick Lamar telling me to ‘sit down, be humble,’” Urrea said.

However, NPR nicknamed him a “literary badass” and “master storyteller with a rock and roll heart” because of his talents. 

“At the end of the day, I am a servant,” Urrera said. “If I can write something that can change the world, I have done my job.”

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