AURORA — Luis Alberto Urrea, a Mexican-American author who lives in Naperville, stood in an auditorium filled with dozens of East Aurora High School students Wednesday.
Many students had read his book “Into the Beautiful North,” as part of their advanced placement or honors English class, and the district purchased 100 copies of the novel for the high school’s library.
The story chronicles the journey of a Mexican girl who travels to the United States to find several men to protect her hometown, which is vulnerable to gang violence after losing most of its male residents.
The novel is this year’s selection by Fox Valley Reads — a partnership among public libraries in Aurora, Oswego, North Aurora, Big Rock and Sugar Grove — that receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
As part of Fox Valley Reads, Urrea also spoke about “Into the Beautiful North” on Wednesday and Thursday at Aurora’s Copley Theatre.
“How does it feel to be a famous author?” one student asked Urrea, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction writing in 2005.
“It feels good,” he said, elongating the last word, causing students to laugh.
But then the tone became serious, as Urrea related the first of a series of candid personal anecdotes about how he’d faced racism and challenges as the son of an American mother and a Mexican father.
“When you start publishing, people start to write to you a lot,” he said. “I used to get really crazy, crazy stuff. A lot of hate mail.”
A man once wrote him an email, Urrea said, calling him a traitor to the United States. Urrea deserved to be executed, the email said, and so did his children.
“Then things got better,” Urrea said. “Now fans are generous.”
Urrea grew up in a poor section of Tijuana near the U.S.-Mexico border, he told the East High students, where streets were made of dirt.
But despite that poverty, Urrea said his upbringing inhabited a kind of magic that would later inspire characters and plot elements for his books.
“I [got] entrée into worlds that I think are magical,” Urrea said. “I lived in Wonderland. I loved it, how could you not? There are so many stories.”
He told students about a family that lived near his childhood home that had a bear in the backyard. A retired Mexican army man built a yellow castle in his town, he said.
His grandmother, an entrepreneurial woman, used to smuggle green parrots into the United States with the intent to sell them, he said. She would feed the birds a few drops of tequila to knock them out, then wrap them in newspaper and stuff them down her bra to get the animals across the border.
His stories, filled with Spanish-language asides, elicited laughter from the high school students, many of whom also are Hispanic.
One student asked if Urrea had crossed the border illegally.
“Of course I crossed the border a million times, but it wasn’t a matter of papers for me,” Urrea said.
His mother was a U.S. citizen, so although Urrea was born in Mexico, he has U.S. citizenship, he said.
But that didn’t shelter him from the realities many Mexican families face.
“I have relatives who were chased by the border patrol,” he said. “I have some nieces and nephews who thought they were born here [in the United States].”
A student asked about how being mixed-race affected Urrea.
His parents split when he was 12, Urrea said, and he felt pressure from each parent to be more American, or more Mexican.
“It was a little difficult to keep both of them happy,” he said.
He also faced pressures attending grade school in California he said, where white students labeled him as Hispanic and Mexican students saw him as white. African-American students didn’t know what he was.
“That was racial strife, man,” Urrea said.
He encouraged the students to rise above the racial prejudices they faced in their lives, to write their own stories and to pursue higher education.
“They need to have someone else to look down on,” he said, referring to people who bully or put down people of different races. “It’s a waste of our energy. As more people of color come up, people are going to try harder and harder to have you not [succeed].”
“When you go to college, everyone [in your family] goes to college,” he continued. “It changes the discourse in some weird way.”