Latinx authors share how their Mexican culture, family influences their work

April 18, 2022

Celebrated playwright Luis Alfaro and acclaimed novelist and short story writer Luis Alberto Urrea treated audience members at the University of Illinois Chicago to an intimate discussion recently where they spoke about their similar backgrounds, their writing process and how their Mexican heritage and family guides their creations.

The discussion was the second of three events that made up the Luis Alfaro Residency Project, funded through the Presidential Initiative: Expanding the Impact of the Arts and the Humanities. The University of Illinois System-funded grant was awarded to Young Richard Kim, associate professor and head of classics and Mediterranean studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Christine Mary Dunford, director and associate professor in the School of Theatre and Music in the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts.

“A Conversation with Two Great Latinx Authors,” took place April 13 at the UIC Recital Hall, where Alfaro and Urrea, UIC professor of English and distinguished professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, exchanged stories about their writing and upbringing.

Urrea is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and the bestselling author of 18 books. His honors include a Pushcart Prize, an American Academy of Arts & Letters Award and an Edgar Award. His most recent book, “The House of Broken Angels,” was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Alfaro’s plays and performances include “Electricidad,” “Oedipus El Rey,” “Mojada,” “Delano,” “Body of Faith” and “Straight as a Line,” and have been seen at regional theaters throughout Latin America, Canada, Europe and the United States, including at UIC.

The discussion was moderated by Lisa Freeman, UIC professor and head of English, who began the conversation by asking the writers where the kernels of their stories come from. As they answered, the two Mexican American writers said their stories are based on their Mexican heritage and tap into their own families’ stories as well as their own life experiences.

“For me, a story is family, a story is culture, a story is community. I came to the world of art by way of two farmworkers, my mother and my father from Delano, California, and, really, I came to the world of art through politics,” said Alfaro, noting that before he became a playwright he worked with farmworkers unions, ran an HIV-AIDS hospice and served as an activist.

“I did a lot of what I would call my formative art practice in political work in trying to change the world. I believe art, for me, is a means of creating social shift, social change.”

He said he draws upon his own complicated story as a gay man who was raised “very Chicano” in a barrio he called the poorest and most violent neighborhood in Los Angeles. He said he was raised in a very religious, Pentecostal family where people spoke in tongues, where baptisms occurred in public and where the stories he heard in his family, “had theatricality built into them already, and they had action, social action, political action, familial action. I speak with an American tongue, but my heart is still very Mexican.” Women also played an important role in shaping his stories, as did the death of his father.

Acclaimed writer and UIC Professor of English Luis Alberto Urrea

Luis Alberto Urrea, acclaimed writer, UIC professor of English and LAS distinguished professor, discusses his work. Photo by Brian Fuentes.

Urrea, who was born to a Mexican father and an American mother in Tijuana, Mexico, then spoke about moving with his family at an early age outside of San Diego. He discussed how he wrote about his life in Tijuana in a piece titled “Tijuana, Wonderland,” where he recalled glorious memories that looked past the dirt streets and recalled how an eccentric neighbor had even built a castle on a bluff overlooking the barrio where they lived.

That changed when his family took him to the other side of the border in the United States. Much of his work focuses on straddling the U.S.-Mexico border and its culture.

“Everybody was awesome and had the best Christmas in the world, and then I came to San Diego as a little boy and then all of a sudden we were trash,” Urrea said.

Eventually, his family relocated to a working-class white neighborhood, where he struggled to fit in. He said to try to fit in, he joined a Boy Scouts troop where the other children pelted him with racist anti-Latino slurs.

“I was like, ‘What just happened?’ That weird wound for me launched me deep into trying to make art,” Urrea said.

Freeman asked Urrea about the important role that family plays in Urrea’s works. His latest novel, “The House of Broken Angels,” is based on the real story of his older brother Juan, who was dying of cancer when his mother died. After her funeral, the family throws a party for Juan, and the family seems to bind everyone together and almost becomes a character on its own. He pointed to how his own family was impacted by immigration issues when children of his relatives discovered they were not legal citizens.

“We can’t escape it. There’s a certain sacredness in families that are somewhat under siege,” Urrea said. “I was obsessed with being the chronicler of those folks.”

The aim of the project is to showcase the transformational impact of the arts and humanities by bringing the acclaimed playwright, MacArthur fellow and USC associate professor of dramatic writing to the campus of UIC during the spring 2022 semester. Working together with UI Health and various community organizations, Alfaro led storytelling workshops that addressed individual and community mental health challenges through an active engagement with the arts. Other projects included classroom visits for UIC’s department of theatre and department of classics and Mediterranean studies, master classes and public events at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Illinois Springfield, a multimedia ethnography project, and a public outreach event co-organized with UIC’s Institute for the Humanities.

The series kicked off with Alfaro at UIC with professor Kim’s Greek mythology class via Zoom Feb. 17 and Feb 25, followed by a presentation at UIUC, “A Conversation with Playwright and Theatre Maker Luis Alfaro: Creative Care and Collaboration.”

The storytelling workshops, titled “Speaking my Mind” with health care professionals and students from UI Health, and communities from the Pilsen Food Pantry, and Gage Park Latinx Council, occurred in March and April.

The full discussion is available on YouTube.