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Words to live by

Luis Alberto Urrea

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Author Luis Alberto Urrea has taken advice from Albuquerque’s Rudolfo Anaya, and it’s paid off.

“He was one of the first celebrity authors I’d met, and he told me if you can make your abuelito in Tijuana the grandmother of a reader in Iowa or in Chicago, then you have committed the most profound political and religious act,” Urrea said in a phone interview. “I just loved that. That’s been one of my prime writing rules for everything.”

“Everything” includes “Nobody’s Son,” which won an American Book Award; “The Devil’s Highway,” which was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize; “The Hummingbird’s Daughter”; “Into the Beautiful North”; and “The House of Broken Angels,” his new novel about an American family with roots in northern Mexico. The book will appeal to anybody, really, not just Hispanics.

“Broken Angels” is a tender, sprawling, funny, violent family saga centered on aging, ailing patriarch Miguel Angel de La Cruz, who lives in the fictional barrio Lomas Doradas in San Diego.

He’s nicknamed Big Angel, and the breadth of his family influence would be comparable to that of Don Corleone, only benevolent and blue-collar.

The saga’s scenes explore the intrigues and affections of a flock of family members – siblings, children, grandchildren, cousins and even his parents in La Paz, Baja California. The story also explores themes of immigration, the ways there are to be an American and the power of culture as a reflection of identity and expressed through food and language.

English is the dominant language of the book, but characters also drop in with phrases of proper Spanish, street Spanish, “folksy Spanish” and Spanglish.

Urrea said the character of Big Angel was heavily inspired by the death three years ago of his own big brother, Juan.

The scenario was the same as what the reader finds in the book. “Juan had been fighting cancer, and he knew he was going to die, so his grandkids and nieces, the army of young people who circulated around him, came out for his birthday. Like Big Angel, Juan knew what others suspected – that this would be his last birthday,” the author said.

Urrea’s family fretted that it would be a sad event. It wasn’t. “But Mexicanos, man. Music and fiesta, and for some reason everyone wanted KFC and, of course, drink and joy. It was just this overwhelming day of the goodness of a family and people coming to terms with their histories and watching people thank my brother for all he had done,” Urrea said.

Juan died a week later.

Big Angel passed seven days after his at-home birthday party. After his death, Urrea writes, Big Angel’s family would find the “details trailing any good story. Like tin cans on the back bumper of a newlywed’s car.

“Rattles and pings and wonderful small moments spinning in the wake of a great life.”

Urrea lives outside Chicago and is a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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