Saturday, September 24, 2011

Luis Urrea's Surrealistic Mexican-American Tale "Into the Beautiful North"

By Dylan Foley

In his novel “Into the Beautiful North”(Little, Brown, $25), the Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea has created a fantastical tale of three young women who leave their small southern Mexican town overrun by drug dealers and corrupt cops to go to the United States to bring back seven worthy Mexican men to get rid of the vermin.

In the spaghetti Western “The Magnificent Seven,” which was inspired by the Japanese film “The Seven Samurai,” helpless Mexican villagers are preyed on by bandits. The villagers hire gunmen to get rid of the outlaws. In his wonderful comic satire, Urrea stands the cowboy classic on its head. In the novel, all the men of the town of Tres Camarones have emigrated to the U.S. Three teenagers--Nayeli, Yolo and Vampi, are sent to California with Tacho, the gay owner of the village taco stand, to find the virtuous men who will save the town.

The roots of the novel came from both a modern Mexican phenomena and Urrea’s own childhood. “I had heard stories of Mexican towns that were empty of all their men,” said Urrea, on a recent book tour through New York City. “There was an anecdote of a small town in Guadalajara that really touched me. The girls of the town wanted a spring dance, but there were no men. So the girls danced with each other under the bobbing lanterns.”

Though Urrea was raised in both Tijuana and California, he spent much time in his father’s tiny village of Rosario Sinaloa. “That’s where I spent my boyhood summers and some Christmases,” said Urrea. “It is the kind of place where ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ came out of. It’s a stinky little town of 10,000, but it used to be the center of silver mining back in the cowboy days. The place is riddled with subterranean caverns. One of the legendary moments of the town is that a street vanished, collapsing into an old mine. I was brought up with these wild stories.”

The cheap movies were a mainstay of the town social life. “My uncle owned the local cinema, complete with bats and a tin roof,” said Urrea. “I wondered what would happen if Nayeli saw ‘The Magnificent Seven.’”

In the novel, Nayeli is a martial arts expert, Yolo is a romantic and Vampi is a Goth. The young Mexicans are robbed and almost raped in Tijuana. Their quest is saved by a samurai-crazy, garbage-dump dweller named Atomiko, and they sneak under the border through a drug tunnel.

“I am actually a ‘Seven Samurai’ fan,” said Urrea. “Atomiko is the Toshiro Mifune character, using his gestures, his role in the movie. Mifune is Mexican, complete with the whisker scratching.”

In creating his impressive young women Nayeli, Yolo and Vampi, Urrea has a hidden motive. “I wanted Americans to understand issues of crossfertilization across the border,” said Urrea. “things we don’t think about. In this little town in Mexico, they have access to the Internet, so they listen to bands like 69 Eyes and read about Johnny Depp. In the little village movie theater, they watch Bill Murray in ‘Lost in Translation.’ We are all now interwoven in a new fabric that people don’t think about. The whole world we know is shifting and Mexico has been transformed.”

Urrea, 53, has been writing about the tortured relationship between Mexico and the United States, and the border that runs like a scar between the two countries for more than three decades. He’s the author of “The Devil’s Highway” in 2004, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Though the takeover of the fictional Tres Camarones by corrupt cops and drug dealers is satire, the truth in Mexico is much more grim.

“The drug war in Mexico is much worse than we read about in the United States,” said Urrea, of the bloody conflict where bodies are dumped in schoolyards and kidnap victims are usually killed. “There is a Mogadishu-Baghdad style of violence that is terrifying. I know members of the Mexican government who are in hiding in the United States because kidnappers are after them.”

Urrea has received his own warnings, especially after the success of his novel “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” in Mexico. “I’ve been told not to tour down in Mexico,” he said. “I am too well-known now. The kidnappers may think that my publisher will pay a ransom.”

At the end of the novel, Yolo, Vampi and the formidable Aunt Irma, the bowling champion and mayor of Tres Camarones, start recruiting men to retake their town, while Nayeli and Tacho take a surreal drive from San Diego to Kankakee, Illinois, looking for Nayeli’s lost father.

On the journey, the two friends find help and betrayal in the strangest places. They drive across a surreal America, with burning RVs on the road, racist cops, beatific fishermen and benevolent small-town detectives. Urrea uses a breathtaking Mexican magical realism to construct a shimmering portrait of the United States.

“It’s almost easy for me to write about a magnificent tropical village with orchids and dragonflies, said Urrea. “That’s intoxicating, but the United States is magical, too. We just forget this. I wanted to show America through Nayeli’s eyes. She’d see things she has no reference for--the mountains, the snow, elk, the people she meets.”

Tacho and Nayeli, though helped by some kind Americans, realize their future isn’t in the beautiful north. “I think it is Tacho who sees the first,” says Urrea, “when he tells Nayeli, ‘People like you and me don’t marry Johnny Depp.’”

In writing his Mexican and American characters, Urrea sees a holy light. “The surrealistic element may also be my eye,” he says. “I see everything as illuminated from within. I see the presence of the sacred everywhere. For me, the book is a love song for Nayeli and the others. It’s my Jack Kerouac book.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
(This piece originally ran in the Denver Post in June 2009)

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