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Author Chronicles Ever-Changing Life On The Border


Over the past couple of weeks we've seen some important changes on immigration - the president announced a new plan to defer deportation for some young undocumented immigrants, and yesterday the Supreme Court decision on Arizona's controversial immigration law. Much of writer Luis Alberto Urrea's career has focused on life along the U.S.-Mexican border and on the lives of the people who cross it. Now those stories are beginning to change a bit.

Luis Alberto Urrea joins us here at the Paepcke Auditorium. His books include "The Devil's Highway," "Into the Beautiful North" and "The Hummngbird's Daughter." And it's good to have you with us today.

LUIS ALBERTO URREA: It's an honor to be here.

CONAN: And there's a story you tell - we're going to get around this in a bit of an indirect fashion. There's a story you tell about a busboy in Illinois.

URREA: Ah, story swap, eh?


URREA: Yeah. Well, you know, your viewers will have to look deeply into their radios to see that, ironically, I look rather Irish.

CONAN: Yeah.

URREA: That's where it begins.

And the reason is my grandmother was named Guadalupe Murray(ph).


URREA: Red-haired, blue-eyed Irish lass. So I make it a habit wherever I go to talk to the people who are taking care of us. We're here in this sacred, beautiful place of Aspen, but my people from where I come from are changing our sheets and scrubbing our toilets for us right now. And so I have a real habit of saying hi to people and talking because it's become an amazing thing for me, story swap oddly enough. And so we live in a suburb of Chicago, a conservative suburb, and there's a pancake restaurant where people go to have pancakes. And a lot of the really successful, wealthy businessmen gather there in the mornings before they go off to their great jobs.

And we go there sometimes, my wife and I. And there's a busboy there, and I was intrigued by this man because he's very small in stature. And he actually looks like an Aztec warrior - very short man, semi-indigenous features, long ponytail. But what really intrigued me is his arms are covered with 666, Satan, dragons, and I thought that dude's a heavy metal guitarist, for sure, you know? And I told my wife, he's also a Mexican, no question. And he is a busboy, and he's going all day.

So as he was going by our table, I said (speaking Spanish) and he stopped and he turned and looked at me, and I saw him blanch. And I realized he thought, ah, damn, immigration caught me. And I said, no, no, no. I'm from Tijuana. It's OK. And he was like, oh, really? You're Mexican? So we began talking and...

CONAN: You should have said O'Reilly.


URREA: Yeah. I'm a cousin of Colum McCann. No.


URREA: And so we began talking. And he's inescapable now because he wants to talk a lot. So he came one day and he told me this story that broke my heart. And I realized that everything we're trying to do with art is in this story. It stays with me all the time, and that was that he came here undocumented. He owns that. He came here from Mexico, where he was a heavy metal guitarist, because his parents became old and there was no social net to catch these people. They were plummeting into hell. And he gave up his music career.

He gave up all of his dreams of Mexican rock stardom to come here because it was the only way he can make enough money to keep his mother and father alive in their old age. He hasn't seen them in years. He hasn't seen his brother in years. He actually paid for his brother's wedding without attending, from the United States. So through various ways, a lot of people end up in Chicago. It's one of the hugest Mexican cities. You know, it's like the fourth largest Mexican city. I think it's, you know, Mexico City, Guadalajara, L.A. and Chicago.

CONAN: Yeah.

URREA: Go figure, right? And he ended up at this restaurant. And he also, in the back of his mind, thought maybe he'd make it as an American rock star with no English and, you know, the dream. So he's been working at this restaurant, attending to these men - mostly men. There's businesswomen too. And he notices a lump in his throat and he's having trouble swallowing. So he goes to a public health clinic six miles away from the restaurant. Every morning, before sun up, he rides a bicycle to work. Every night, after sun down, he rides the bicycle back to this rooming house, 12-mile journey.

So he goes to the free clinic, and they do tests, and they find out he has throat cancer, and he realizes he can't afford any kind of treatment. He - they can't do it for him. He can't do surgery. He has a death sentence on him. He doesn't understand why. He's a straight-edge, heavy-metal dude, so no drinking, no smoking, no drugs his entire life, yet he has throat cancer. And he's thinking when he dies, his parents are going to die.

And he confides in the waitresses who are Americans. Now, the waitresses who have been feeding these gentlemen for 20 years start telling the clients, this poor guy has got throat cancer, and they start telling them the story. So what happens? These strong Republican businessmen who don't like illegal immigration have looked in this man's eyes. He has served and taken care of them. They take up a collection amongst themselves, and they pay for his surgery and save his life.

When he's recuperating, one of them buys him a fancy, expensive bicycle so he can get to work back and forth. So he tells me the story, and I said, so what are you going to do now? You've got your health. And he said, well, I'm going to stay here forever because I owe them service.

And, you know, and, you know, these good people you've just heard speak, I think it's something we've been sharing, that we realize that, you know, I think a place, I think a piece of land, I think a borderline. They're just places. What affects those places is the story attached to it. And I think, looking in each other's eyes as human beings, hearing the art or the honesty of a story or if we laugh, if there's humor, it's a kind of a virus that infects us with humanity. If I have shared your story with you, if I've shared your tears with you or your laughter with you, I can't then a minute later say, and by the way, you're not quite human, and I don't like you anymore. There's this incredible power in it.

CONAN: I can the say the word immigration and our phones will be filled.

URREA: I know.

CONAN: We want to hear stories of your experiences with immigrants today. 800-989-8255. Email us: Let's begin here at the microphone at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen.

WALTER GALLACHER: Hi. My name is Walter Gallacher(ph). And for the past five years, I've been collecting immigrant stories here in the Roaring Fork Valley. And I just want to underscore what has been said here not only by Luis, but the other storytellers that the power of a story has really the ability to change people's attitudes, and I've seen that firsthand. I collected about 150 different stories of folks from all over the world that live in the valley.

CONAN: And what is the one that has moved you the most?

GALLACHER: I think the story that has moved me the most is the story of Anna Riza(ph), who came from El Salvador, and she was a child during the civil war there. And I started by asking her a question about what was her - what were her holidays like. And she basically said, I didn't have holidays, that the 10 years that I was there were my - that was my childhood. I just hid from the bad people.

CONAN: During the civil wars there?


CONAN: Yeah, yeah. I wonder - thank you very much for that. I appreciate it. And, Luis Alberto Urrea, we were hearing earlier from Assaf Gavron about people in Israel who did want to hear stories from the other side, any number of other side's stories get complicated. And I'm sure that's not totally true in Israel. And I know it's not totally true in this country when you hear the stories that you tell and the stories that we've seen in films, in books and otherwise, but this is part of the story. We get so outrage sometimes by issues. We don't look at the people behind those stories.

URREA: It's very difficult. But again, it's the nature of the story, how is the story told. If you don't have the endless drumbeat of the word illegal, then what is your impression of it? I, you know, I'm in a funny position. With a name like Luis Alberto Urea, it's political no matter what I do. If I go on a radio show and I say, you know, I like fish tacos more than hot dogs. I will get an email saying I'm a traitor and should be executed.


URREA: It's just, you know, go back, go back to Mexico then.

And I think one thing people don't know in this country is that people in Mexico don't want to hear the story, like don't tell me that garbage. You know, people don't want to hear about this stuff. And if you go into Mexico - I had this amazing experience, which you, as a radioman, will appreciate. I was at the Guadalajara Book Festival, a great book festival. And I was just, oh, my God, you know, all these Spanish authors that I idolized. And I turned on talk radio one day, and the talk radio host, you know, might have been Glenn Beck - oh, I don't know - a Mexican...


URREA: ...was saying, I'm sick of these Honduran illegal aliens coming in. I'm sick of those Guatemalans. What we need is a wall on our southern border. And they're coming in and taking jobs, and they're taking free health care, and they're not part of our culture. And I thought, wow, that's really funny. You know, it's as though you lived in a episode of "M*A*S*H." It's darkly funny, but it is funny that we're all human, and we all have these feelings.

CONAN: We're talking with Luis Alberto Urrea. He's - looks Irish, but he can roll his Rs much better than I can.

URREA: I see.

CONAN: We're talking about stories of immigrants here at the Aspen Institute. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go to Lonnie(ph) on the mic here at the Paepcke Auditorium.

LONNIE: Hi. So the stories that I know of local immigrants are of students here in the valley, who had a community safety officer who was placed in their school, who, on the side, was also working for ICE and was using information that he gathered from the students to deport these students' families. And they created an organization called AJUA, and they have been organizing their community. They've been doing incredible work meeting, or trying to meet with the police, with the sheriff, setting up meetings with the local school district, trying to get this police officer removed and create a policy so that that doesn't happen anymore.

And I think what, you know, really what I learned and what I - struck me is that a lot of these students are just - they're wise and experienced beyond their years. They're true leaders. They inspire me. I introduced my children to them so they can learn what it is to be, you know, real community organizers, real leaders in their community and to stand up for their rights and, you know, hopefully to be able to go to college. These kids are mostly dreamers when they originally organized. And right now, you know, this week, they're standing in line at local immigration attorney's offices trying to figure out how to get in line with this new policy and try to achieve their dreams and their dreams of - that their families have for them.

CONAN: It's interesting. We live in world where dreamers is a term of art in this conversation. It reflects - it addresses a specific subset of the community that we're talking about. But getting back to the original idea of this segment, Luis Alberto Urrea, are these stories beginning to change? What's happened in the past couple of weeks?

URREA: Wow, it's kind of weird to watch all this happening, you know, but I think a lot of stories are all of a sudden changing. I feel like there's been a logjam of intractable feeling about a lot of things. And, you know, me personally, I can't - I cannot ignore or discredit the Arab Spring, for example, for changing feelings around the world about things. And I can't help but feel that there's this incredible upsurge of simple, basic humanity, you know? You mentioned with Reza earlier about the Internet. You know, people all over the world now are having at least an informational democracy, and it's having a lot of effect.

I am a bit cynical because I'm a political agnostic. So, you know, I say, OK, the DREAM Act, sure it's an election year, and my side wants to beat their side, and their side might pick a Latino vice president to try to beat my side. You know, I understand we're in a chess game. But the symbolism of the DREAM Act being, at least, protected a bit is very powerful. And you're watching all of a sudden an ignition of, I hate to say, activism of action. And I think we create coalitions without knowing it. We drop seeds without knowing it that sprout in ways we don't foresee or expect.

CONAN: Let's see if we'd get another caller in. This is Isaac(ph), Isaac with us from Camden, South Carolina.

ISAAC: Hey, how's it going?

URREA: Hi, Isaac.

ISAAC: I really like the show. Great topic. I want to share something with you guys that, I think, you know, it's very, you know, pertinent with regard to the DREAM Act. I immigrated to the United States in 1992 by legal means. But coming up in school, I made friends, met many more as I, you know, got through to high school who were not legal. I'm very close friends with a family whose oldest son is illegal, but their two younger kids were born here in the United States. And I want to share with you a story, something that happened to me that I think the DREAM Act will directly impact and change for the better.

When I was in high school, I got a letter from my school that said I had made the honor roll. Upon further review, it was actually one of my peers. She had made the honor roll, not me. Her last name was also Lopez. And, you know, it's actually happened for a while. And finally my mom went up to the high school and said, look, stop sending me these people's mail especially since my kid's making C's. And when we graduated, we graduated together, she graduated with honors.

I went on to college because, you know what, I was with a legal status. Unfortunately, she did not have that opportunity. She went and worked illegally for a couple of businesses around town, and she ended up getting mixed up with a couple of bad people and, you know, had - got pregnant and had kids with this guy that treated her pretty poorly. And the last I heard of her is she, you know, was in jail for assault and battery. And...

CONAN: And we know that that story might have happened anyway, but you really worry about what might have been. Thank you very much for that story, Isaac. We appreciate it. And Luis Alberto Urrea, thank you very much for being with us today and telling us some of your stories as well. Appreciate it. Among other things, he's a nonfiction writer and novelist and a judge on the Three-Minute Fiction contest for WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Special thanks to Natalie Lacy and Sara Halterman of the Aspen Writers' Foundation as well as to Susan Glah and Collins Kelly and Andrew Todd with Aspen Public Radio. Thanks also to everybody who joined us here at the Paepcke Auditorium today. Tomorrow: Kenneth Feinberg and deciding the value of human life. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Aspen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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