Luis Urrea and the Serendipity of Inspiration–With a Side of Humor and Grace

Have you ever experienced one of those wonderful moments of confluence, when suddenly all the trickling aspects of your life seem to be pouring into the same inspiring river?

Consider these trickles, seemingly unrelated:

  1. I’m teaching myself Spanish for a few years now.
  2. Since the 2016 election, I’ve been listening to podcasts of On Being, with Krista Tippett, on a semi-regular basis, to give me inspiration.
  3. I’ve been contemplating opportunities to bridge our national divide on a local level–whatever that means.
  4. Ursula LeGuin, a writer who felt like more of a teacher than an author to me, died this year.
  5. A friend recommended Luis Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

Last week I tuned into my favorite podcast, and found, to my surprise, an interview with Mr. Urrea himself. The topic: “What Borders Are Really About, And What We Do With Them.” I also discovered that Ursula LeGuin had been Urrea’s mentor. She called him Luisito.

Luis Urrea at the Texas Book Festival, 2015 (courtesy Wikipedia)

Urrea knows about borders. He is the son of a woman from Philadelphia and a man from Tijuana. On his website, he sums up, in eerily tidy prose, how he lost his father when he, Luis, was 20:

I won’t belabor it here–many of you know the story already.  But some of it is central to the Ursula story.  In short, my dad had gone to Mexico to retrieve money from his bank to give me a graduation gift.  And on the long drive back to the United States, he fell afoul of some Federales and local cops in Sonora.  He died awfully in their care.  And then they sold me his corpse.  He cost me $750.

The details of those days are ugly.  Suffice it to say that by the time I got home, I had forgotten certain words in English.  My bestie, Rick Elias, was waiting for me at my house.  He couldn’t stop laughing because I had returned with a heavy Tijuana accent, and he thought I was kidding.  Because I was always kidding.  But I wasn’t kidding this time–I was broken.

As I listened to Urrea and Tippett talk–hey, is it cool if I call them Luis & Krista? Yeah? great–the streams of inspiration just kept building. Luis is a teacher, like I was, and here’s what he has to say about bridging divides in his classroom:

As a teacher, I teach in Chicago, and I watch students fear each other. I come into a class, and African-American students are on one side, and white students are on the other side. Or I come into a class, and there’ll be two young ladies with the hijab, and no one will sit near them. There’s an empty arc of seats around them. And so I’m always trying to find ways to stop these things, because it only takes this much, I think, for us to see each other, know each other, and then, love each other. And that’s what’s so dangerous. That’s very dangerous.

So one of my writing rules with my students, which I use all the time — and it’s why the books are so comedic in places — is, I always tell the students that laughter is the virus that infects you with humanity. And if you sit with somebody and laugh — not at them, but laugh with them wholeheartedly, how in the world can you get up from that table and say, “Pssh, those people.” You can’t. And if you’ve laughed with them, you’re going to cry with them too. That laughter is a very dangerous portal for humanity.

Yes, please! I want that infection. Don’t we all?

Luis’s book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is itself inspiring, being the fictionalized story of Teresa Urrea, “the Mexican Joan of Arc,” “Saint Teresita”–who happened to have been his real-life, great-great aunt. It’s full of humor, and pathos, and faith, and Spanish. Gaps are bridged all over the place, between races, between theists and non-theists, between men and women. I could not have found a more apt book for this moment in my life, and the life of our nation, if I’d done research.

Speaking of our nation’s moment, Luis also gives the background of his nonfiction book The Devil’s Highway, a look at the path traveled by people crossing the desert to enter the U.S. without papers. That story hit me harder than anything else he said. While researching the Border Patrol–and being essentially hazed by its agents, he had a moment of epiphany:

...the supervisory agent of Welton Station, Kenny Smith, a lovely man, a 30-year veteran of the Border Patrol, while they were basically eating me alive, tearing my sinews off my bones, he came out, and he said, “What’s going on?” They said, “This idiot’s writing this book about the…” And he just looked at me, and it is what I call grace. I don’t know what else to call it. But this moment came, when his eyes focused and he looked at me, and he said, “I sent out the rescue. I sent out that big banzai run.”

And at that moment, without knowing it, my life changed. And he took me in, and he began training me. And he took me out and showed me what it means to track people and how to know what time of the morning somebody walked by. It was incredible. I realized, this guy had a Ph.D. in dirt, I say in the book, because he could read a piece of dirt like we read a poem in a lit class; then he was saying things that were blowing my mind.

And there came this moment — the transformational moment, for me, was standing on the Devil’s Highway with him. And there’s nothing there. There’s no fence. There’s no barbed wire. It’s just desert, as far as you can see…

And I am standing there with him, and he says to me — and mind you, I still think they’re evil. He says, “I know what you think of me.” And I remember looking, because he’s got his .40-caliber Glock on his belt, and I thought, oh, man. And he said, “You think I’m a jackbooted thug.” And I was busted. I wasn’t gonna say, “Well, yes, I do.” I just stood there. And he said, “I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor.” And he started talking about his life.

And he told me all this amazing stuff that I couldn’t have imagined in 100 years: how agents park — they live 70 miles, 50 miles away from any station, because it takes that long to get into the game and change the human being you were when you woke up, to the human being that has to go out now. And he said, “And you gotta drive 70 miles home, because you gotta go home and bounce your child on your knee.” And he said to me at one point — it’s a white cowboy. He says, “My daddy was a rancher. I’m a rancher. You know what I do all day? I chase ranchers around this.” He said, “I know they’re my own people.” And he said, “My job is to save innocent civilians dying a terrible death. My job is also to arrest those same civilians.”

I could go on and on with quotes from the interview, not to mention quotes from the novel. (Can’t quote Luis’s other books ’cause I haven’t read ’em yet, but believe me, I’m going to.) But I think I’ve made my point.

Borders. Bridging. Grace. Hope. 

Any questions?

 

 

Move Over, Hogwarts: These Students Really Are Getting Their O.W.L.s

A funny thing happened to me on my way to the classroom the other day: I got bowled over by watching high school students LEARN Spanish.

So what, you say? Ah, but pay attention to that verb. Ask nearly any high school student in the U.S.–I don’t care if it’s P.S. 392 in New York City or Snobster Prep in Massachusetts–what their classes are, and they’ll say this: “I’m taking Spanish [or French, or Japanese, or whatever].” TAKING. Not LEARNING. 

Translation: “I have to do this because it’s a college requirement.”

“I’ve only been taking it since 9th grade because that’s all our district funds.” (OK, maybe not at Snobster Prep.) (…this when ALL the research shows that the best years to learn languages are the early ones!)

“I don’t bother to speak with a proper accent, because when I do, the other kids call me a brownnoser.”

“As soon as I’ve fulfilled the requirements of my school/college/parents, I’ll stop ‘taking.’

So, you’re fluent in Spanish now? “Um, not exactly. We didn’t really speak Spanish, y’know. But we did take it.”

Can you tell this has been a bit of a sore spot with me? And I’m not even a World Languages teacher!

But: a few days I had the opportunity to visit my old high school, Franklin Pierce (home of the Cardinals) in Tacoma. And at lunch one of my former colleagues told me, “You have to see something.”

Her next period was free, so she took me to the room of the teacher next door. There I witnessed a minor miracle. I’m going to get all teachery here for a sec and focus on OBSERVABLE BEHAVIOR, as though I were an evaluator.

  • Every single student had his/her assignment in his/her hands without being prompted: a hand-drawn map of a typical Mexican town, showing names of buildings, i.e. Correo (P.O.) and Panaderia (bakery).
  • All students sat in a giant circle of chairs without desks. As soon as “el Profe” directed, each student turned to the one sitting adjacent and took turns conversing on the assigned topic: “Tell your partner the name of your town, and the size of its population.” “Tell your partner which building in your town is the most important, and why.”
  • From the moment the bell rang, I heard not a word of English.

Did I mention that this was a first-year Spanish class in a mid-sized public school with a free-and-reduced lunch student population of over 50%? And that this was not an Honors class? If you are not, like me, amazed not to have seen a single student try to worm his/her way out of this assignment, or drag his/her feet, or otherwise try to hijack the teacher’s attention onto anything but learning Spanish, well…let’s just say you haven’t been hanging around schools or teenagers as much as I have.

These kids were not only learning, they were having fun. They were proud of themselves. (I heard one kid, dressed in classic slacker mode, describe how in his town, “Robertlandia,” the most important building was the statue of himself in the center of the Plaza. But he said it all in Spanish!)

Turns out this miracle has a very real source: The Organic World Languages program, or OWL. Their website says, We believe in movement, 100% immersion and an emphasis on the importance of creating community in the classroom. This was very evident, as we all moved and switched partners twice during the 20 minutes I was there. (Of course El Profe didn’t let his visitors sit quietly on the sidelines–we got to participate! Turns out I can speak enough Spanish to converse with first-years, but only just.) So, we spoke. We laughed. And we learned.

If only I could go back to high school and start over!

Want to see what I mean? Here’s a short video from OWL that explains its history, emphasizes its effect on test scores, and shows its work in action:

So, I’d like to hear about your own experience with learning another language. Did you? Was it because of, or more despite, your school experience? (If you were raised bilingually, I’m totally jealous, but go ahead and brag.)