Wooden frame of a new house
#53: Luis Alberto Urrea 2012
Writing as Prayer, May 27, 2022
In Rewrite Radio Episode #53, Luis Alberto Urrea shares his journey as a faithful writer—from a Tijuana garbage dump to Devil’s Highway.
- William Stafford
Jennifer Holberg: [00:00:05] Today on Rewrite Radio, Luis Alberto Urrea speaks on viewing writing as prayer and knowing that God pays attention and responds. Listen as he tells captivating stories, like washing hundreds of people's feet in a Tijuana garbage dump to calling author Dean Nelson his "homeboy."
My name is Jennifer Holberg, and I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Novelist, poet, and essayist Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of several books and a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame. His first book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the Christopher Award. His memoir Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life won an American Book Award. His other works include The Water Museum, a 2016 PEN-Faulkner Award finalist and Washington Post best book of the year; and The Devil’s Highway, a Lannan Literary Award winner and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
And now, from the 2012 Festival of Faith & Writing, Luis Alberto Urrea.
Luis Alberto Urrea: Buenos dias, Calvin College. Tijuana in the house. Uh, I have a cold, so I'm going to try not to sound like the cookie monster when I talk to you right now. I am, I'm here to talk specifically about writing. I'm dying to talk to you about this. This is, this is a festival made for me. And I don't often get to talk about things like spirit and faith.
In fact, I teach at, uh, University of Illinois, Chicago, and God isn't in the docket very often. Interestingly enough, my two favorite colleagues constantly come in my office and we have these surreptitious talks about God all the time. I just found out they're Calvin alumni. No, and now it makes sense.
They went crazy when they heard I was coming—What, you're going to Calvin? So they were college pals here, and they teach there, so. I want to begin with just a little thought from the poet William Stafford, and I'll come back to it at the end. I think it's really illuminating some of my journey as well, but, um, he said this really funny thing.
If you don't know Stafford, he's worth looking up, he's a fabulous, or was a fabulous poet. Um, identified much with, uh, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, but he came out of the American Midwest, Kansas, that area, and he was a conscientious objector in World War Two. His son, Kim, if you can ever get Kim here for this Festival, you will love. I think he's America's greatest writing teacher.
Um, but William Stafford said this thing, which for a long time became, uh, a motto of mine. And I thought it was very funny. And he said this. He said, "If you want to have success as a writer, the first thing you need to do is lower your standards.” And I thought, well, that's great. And I've used it with my students.
And he's gone on to talk about, you know, that the portal to the doorway should be low, so things can come in. And that your response to ideas and topics should be welcome, because without those, you can't write. And he always said, you know, if you doubt the idea you had, you're in trouble because, well, that's the idea you had. Do the best you can with it.
I'll come back to that in a moment. People always mistake me for a political writer because of the border. So I can confess to you right now that I'm a theological writer. I'm interested in the eternal soul. I'm interested in God and our relationship with God. That's what I write about all the time. To me, writing is prayer.
I pray all the time. I don't pray enough, but I pray all the time. And, uh, I, I try to explain this to my kids sometimes because, you know, I think, I think the kids, watching a writer at work, it's kind of weird for them. You know, they always say, if they hear really awful loud music coming from upstairs, they know Daddy's working.
I don't have the meditative quiet, but I light incense, even, sometimes. And I asked my daughter, "Why do you think I light incense?" And she said, "Because you're a hippie?" And I said, "No, I'm praying. I'm praying." Even in the naughty bits, I'm trying to pray. I'm talking to God. Um, but this is what it's like when you're a writer, I'm sure.
You know, I know a lot of you are writers and you may concur. Um, but you know, I wander upstairs to my writing loft and I put on the stereo, maybe light a candle or two, light some incense, and I have a cup of coffee, and then I sit in my chair, sipping my coffee, looking up at the ceiling. And somebody will come upstairs and I say, "I'm trying to work! Go back downstairs."
[00:05:20] But it's kind of that way, you know, you're playing with a little ball of yarn, like a cat. But, um, my beginnings were, were rather curious as you heard, I was born in Tijuana. My dad was Mexican. My mom was American. Um, uh, my grandmother—I always do this on the road, but I'm retiring—it's a joke everybody's seen on YouTube, but I often tell groups I don't know, my first line is, "I'm here to answer your most burning literary question first. And that is why do I look Irish?"
And, uh, the answer to that is that my grandmother was named Guadalupe Murray on my dad's side. She was Irish, and my grandfather was Basque, and my mother's people were actually English, and they were, um, plantation owners in Virginia. In the Civil War, lost it all, went north, and through weird permutations of history, mother and father met. And here I am.
Um, you know, I come from a godless family in a lot of ways. My mother was Episcopalian but separated from her church and thought that since I was Mexican, my family was Mexican, Catholicism would be great. Cause she felt that, you know, Episcopalianism to her was kind of Catholicism lite.
My family had escaped from God entirely. They did not like God. You would think that as Mexicans, they would be devout Catholics. My dad certainly was not. I wouldn't say he was a God-hater, but everything about God made him livid. Um, my grandma, Guadalupe Murray, um, she was a lapsed Catholic. And she felt like—she had enough of a connection to the church that she thought if she would send my cousins to the church to steal holy water so she'd have holy water around, she'd be pretty good with God.
And if she did godly things like burning incense, that would be good. So you'd go to her house, uh, sometimes in Tijuana in colonia independencia, and there'd be a little blue haze of smoke in the house where she was busily lighting cones of incense all the time.
She thought that was a shortcut to the spirit. Now my Aunt Leticia, whom I talk about—and I was talking to my homeboy Dean Nelson from Point Loma Nazarene College, and we were remembering my aunt. My aunt was this woman who possibly launched me in the writing career because she was a compulsive, crazy woman, liar and fabulist.
And she would use her tongue to constantly twist reality to get us to do what she wanted. And I won't go into her because she's not central to this talk. But just to give you an idea of what she was like, um, I would come from San Diego. I spent my first five years there in this neighborhood, which will come into this talk in a second, um, and I had to leave. I was dying of tuberculosis.
The whole neighborhood was dying of tuberculosis. That's how I came to the United States. Um, and, uh, but we would go back. And I would see these cones of incense everywhere. And my grandmother seemed to think that if you did not disturb the little ash cones after the incense had burned, that was somehow even better in God's eyes.
And so you'd see all the shelf space and the old piano and the windowsills would have burns on them and these little cones of white ash or pale gray ash. And I didn't know what it was. And because of my aunt Leticia, who would tell us stories that you wouldn't believe all the time, hair curling stories, I was scared of the cones of ash and I went to her and I said, Tia, we called her Flaca. Tia Skinny. And she was always smoking and was blind in one eye. And I said, oh yeah, Flaca, what, what are, what are those cones everywhere? What's that ash? And she said, "Those are the souls of dead men."
Really. If you disturb those ghosts will get loose in the house—and off she went. So I—that was what she would do to me all the time. I used to play out in the street and she hated for me to play in the street because it was dangerous. I was kind of a street boy. They used to call me calle, street boy, and I'd go out and shoot marbles with my buds.
Still, everybody in Tijuana, there there's nothing, you know, no one has money. So you shoot marbles, throw tops, which is rough on a dirt street full of rocks, right, they don't—and you fly paper kites. And I would do that all morning with my friends, and Tia Flaca worked at a tuna cannery in the U.S., and she would come home from work and they would wear these white uniforms, looked like nurses. Hairnet, big white shoes, white stockings, white skirt, and she'd have blood all over her legs from the tuna, smoking her menthol cigarettes, you know, and I was out there shooting marbles and here comes the old Chevy.
And I thought, uh-oh, you know, I am dead. So I stood to take my punishment. And she got out of the car, smoking a cigarette and she said, hey mijo, in the street again, when I told you not to go in the street. I said, si Tia, it's okay. It's okay. She said, What am I going to do, Luis? Okay. She said, oh, but you know, the hills around Tijuana, mijo?
[00:10:36] I said, yeah. She said, you know, there's hills all around the city, right? I said, yeah, Tia. She said, you know, what's up on top of those hills, mijo? I said no. Marjiuana farms. I said, really? She said, oh yeah, these bad men grow marijuana all up in those hills. You know how they grow marijuana, mijo? I said, no, how? They sent trucks into Tijuana, and they look for little blonde boys in the street, and they kidnap them and they take them up there to work as slaves, growing marijuana.
And then she said, But stay outside if you want to.
My first preacher, Tia Flaca. So I was lucky enough anyway to go to college. I was the first person in my family to go to college. And sadly, my father was killed violently in Mexico in my senior year in college. And when I graduated, I did not know what to do with myself. I was at a loss. And I wanted to be a writer.
I'd wanted to be a writer my whole—probably from junior high school on. Actually, let's face it, I wanted to be Jim Morrison, but I figured I couldn't do that. I wanted to be Steve McQueen; I couldn't do that. I wanted to be Jimmy Hendrix; I couldn't play guitar. So a writer was good, you know? A writer was good. I could do that.
And I had been writing and writing and writing, and I graduated by the skin of my teeth, I felt, because I was in deep shock over my father's death. And I didn't know what to do with myself, as I said, so I did stuff like, you know, Southern California. I was a film extra. I extraed in a couple of movies. I extraed in a Chuck Norris movie, so I felt like I was bad, you know?
Yeah. I hung out with Chuck Norris for three days. I'm deadly. Um. And I had moved to Los Angeles and I was doing all this stuff. Now, my mother, who was thrown into a catastrophe when my father died, um, sort of opened my childhood home in San Diego to a bunch of musician friends.
One of whom actually went on to have some fame in contemporary Christian rock, which shocked us all cause he was a cocaine maniac, wild man named Rick Elias. And Rick is releasing his new album; he just—we're going to write the new album together. So I'm really excited, but we were always partners. So these guys were all in the house, and I came back, and one of these guys was named T-Bone, and T-Bone was a keyboard player.
And he kept saying, Hey—he used to call me Lou Bob. Hey, Lou Bob, you got to go down and see Pastor Von at Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church. I was like, you're nuts, dude. I'm not going near the Baptists. You're crazy. He said, no, come on, Pastor Von. He goes to Tijuana, man. You got to go down there and see Tijuana. I was like, Tijuana, dude,
I am from Tijuana. I am Tijuana, man. I was like, I am the terror of Tijuana. A Baptist's not going to show me anything. And he kept after me. He kept after me and Pastor Von was quite well-known. Um, his guys began a magazine called The Door. It was The Wittenberg Door back in those days, an amazing magazine. That, those were Von guys.
The Jesus movement out of Southern California exploded out of his church. A lot of people were affected by him, Larry Norman and people like that, you know. So I was, I knew about Von. I was a little scared of him. If you don't know Von, he's 86 and he's still impressive, but he, uh, he's actually a German baron.
Erhardt George Von Trutzschler the Third. And he speaks like this. He has a very deep voice. So I thought, oh Lord, you know, I'm going to go see this guy. So T-Bone took me down there, and Von took me to Tijuana on his Monday night Bible run. And I've got to tell you, this is where I always tell groups, I'm the only writer you have whose writing began in the Tijuana Municipal Garbage Dump.
That's where my career began, but this is how I got there. And this is how I started dealing, I think, with this journey of the soul and writing. Um, and if time gives us, if we have enough time, I'll somehow connect that to the US border patrol.
We'll see. But, um, so we went to this orphanage. Now you need to know about—I know a lot of you have gone on these church trips. I'm probably explaining something you already well know, but the orphanage situation on the border is really not about orphans, but about needy children or abandoned children.
[00:14:47] Um, the Narco wars have made Mexico a seething hell that people in this country have no idea about. You—we think we know, we don't know. In the state of Chihuahua right now, there are 23,000 actual orphans. Because of the Narco war. Just in the state of Chihuahua. In the Juárez area, by March 1st, there had already been 60 women assassinated. Bad scene.
So we're driving into Tijuana, and I'm looking around, and I'm feeling a little bit arrogant. You know, I know all this stuff, I know this stuff. And guess where we drive? To my grandma's neighborhood, where I grew up. And I thought, what? We were about a quarter mile away from my grandmother's house.
And I realized in that moment that the world is not what we think it is. That I knew that place so well, a quarter mile away was something I'd never heard of. An orphanage, it was called Abigail's. And, uh, you know, and I'd never been around evangelical people before. I'd never seen all this kind of stuff.
So we walk in there. There're 40 kids gathered and these really—not to offend anyone, but these really lovely young women in sort of, you know, sister-wife pioneer floor-length dresses. Um, and they have acoustic guitars, and they've learned sort of evangelical Spanish at New Tribes Missions, you know, and they get up there and I'd never seen this before.
So I was like, wow, this is really interesting. And they start strumming and they start preaching to the kids in missionary Spanish. And it sounded like this. They'd be like, Hola mis amigos, Jesus es mi amigo fial. Todos vamos al abaro Señor. Ahora! A cantor solamente in Christo....
And the kids, I realized, were dying. They were like—
And I was in the corner saying, wow, this is really a trip. This is strange stuff. And so I was looking around and there was this little girl sitting near me. And I looked at her, you know, she was staring at me. We nodded each other and I thought, that's funny, he's got my color hair. You know, I looked at her, she's got blue eyes.
I thought, man, there's a little blue-eyed kid, who knew. And I looked at her again, she had round cheeks, just like mine. She had my family's nose and my family's upper lip. And I thought, oh no, it's one of my nieces. My uncle's been over here, you know? And I went over to her and I said, Hey, what's your name?
She said America. So you're a young, early twenties writer given to cheese already. So all of a sudden, right, America is abandoned in Tijuana. I thought I've got, I got, I can do something with that. And we began talk. And she said, oh my gosh, you speak like me. I said, yeah, I'm from this neighborhood. No, you're not.
I said, I'm from right over there. I didn't say, I think I'm related to you. So we kept talking and it was time to leave and all the, all the good folks were getting in the vans to go home. It was about 10 at night. And, uh, I went to leave and the kids do this thing I call the orphanage boot. You know how they boot car tires sometimes when you haven't paid your tickets and they clamp a thing?
They do that to you in the orphanage. So America sat on my foot. Don't leave! And she said on my foot. Which wasn't any big deal, you know, you can walk around, but then she calls in reinforcements and one sits on the other foot. So now you're lurching like Frankenstein, but it's all—it was all right.
Then the stratagem: they get two behind and they cross their legs. And then America gets two on the sides. And they put their legs over the whole mess. So I had six kids on my feet. And I couldn't move. And I'm watching my friends get in the vans and drive away. And I was saying, you got to let me go. I'm going to be stuck here for a week if you don't let me go.
They're, they're leaving. I've got to go. And, uh, they made me swear I would come back. Please promise me you'll come back. And I said, I'll come back. Just let me go. And I got out of there. I was like, I escaped man. And I was walking outside and Erhardt George Von Trutzschler the Third was waiting for me.
Big black mustache. What did you say to my child? I said, I told her I'd come back, Von. And he said, don't you ever lie to a child again. I know, right? I thought, excuse me. I was in a Chuck Norris movie, dude. You can't talk to me. He said, uh, he said, you know, that girl will wait a week for you. And then she'll wait two weeks for you and she'll wait months for you.
And somewhere years down the line, she will ask herself why she wasn't worthy. Why you wouldn't keep your word to her. So. I got in the van, went home feeling about this big, because he was right. I just lied to her so I could get out of there. So the next week I had to go. And I went the next week and he was then watching me.
And he said, you're pretty good with that Spanish. I said, yeah, I'm from this neighborhood. No way. I said, yeah, Pastor, I'm from a few blocks away. So he said to me, would you like to go to an orphanage after this late night visit? And I said, sure. All right, let's go. You've never seen this before. It's all boys.
So he took me to this place. I'd never seen anything like it. We, he ministered to these boys and then just the two of us driving home, one in the morning. He says, you ever been to the Tijuana Municipal Garbage Dump? I said, no, he said you should come. We're going on Thursday. You've never seen anything like it.
And I said, really? Okay, I'll go, sure. So I went, you know what he did to me, my first job? Washing feet. He gave me an aluminum tub and a bar of Ivory Soap. He said, it's a good thing that soap floats. You'll see what I mean in a minute. And he put me to washing about 300 people's feet. Garbage pickers. Beggars. Street urchins.
[00:20:55] And at that moment, as soon as I knelt in the dirt to wash the feet, I thought, this is my St. Francis moment. I'm going to bless these people. Why, then, did it make me cry? And I realized I was crying because those guys were blessing me. I wasn't doing a thing for them. They were trusting me with their bodies, with their wounds.
With their shame, with their dirt, and the water turned to chocolate milk like that. You couldn't see. I, I was very thankful that soap floated. That was my first day; Von's no fool. Zen Baptist Von. Uh, so I was profoundly moved like I'd never been moved in my short life. And uh, we're driving home and he says, how'd you like that?
I said, incredible. He says, that's good. What are you doing Saturday? I said Saturday, why? He said, well, we're building houses for the poor. Have you ever built a house for anybody? No. He said, well, you should try that. You've never done it. So I went Saturday, we built houses and sure enough, he came up to me and he said, Luis, what are you doing tomorrow?
And I said, what are you talking about, man? I just gave you a whole week. He said, tomorrow I have to preach. I need a translator. I said, whoa, wait a minute. I said, if I get into pulpit, we'll both be hit by lightning, man. And Von said, I would dance with the devil himself if it kept these kids alive. I know. And I thought, oh, I'm the devil, that's pretty cool. So that's how I became his translator.
And I began working for Von full time, um, in my early twenties. And it was definitely a change of direction. I had wanted to be Stephen King, right. I thought I'm going to be—poor boys dream of money. I was a poor boy. And I thought I'm going to escape the border, and I'm going to get rich and famous.
I'm going to get so famous. I'm going to have an assistant. Even my siblings will have to make an appointment with her to talk to me. I was so done with my life. Instead, I was with Von. And I learned something as a translator, which changed things for me as a writer forever. And that was that if you have the gift of speaking to somebody, you've inherited the responsibility of listening to somebody.
I did not know that I had entered into a career of writing as witness at that moment. And I'd had, because I saw and heard everything. Many things I was not ready to see or hear. Things that are so nasty, I didn't even put them in my books about the border because they were just overwhelming. Um, and I have to tell you, it was very hard.
I'm not outing him in any way. He would tell you this himself: Pastor Von has had several breakdowns over the years because of the pressures of doing this work. It's not fun, though it is fun. It's a hard thing to explain. So I was standing in the team on a garbage dump, surrounded by burning animals. The city of Tijuana takes the run-over dogs, dead goats, dead cows, dead horses to this one plateau, which has now been decommissioned, so you don't see this anymore.
But at the time, there were towers as though you were in Dante's Inferno of skeletons on fire, massive columns of smoke, depraved sorrow, all around. You know, I had just been with, uh, a woman who was dying of dysentery, actually standing in a puddle of her diarrhea. 'Cause I couldn't get to her without being almost ankle-deep in her blood and diarrhea.
This was a place I can't even, I can't get across to you, but you can imagine. And Von came up to me and he said, you know, what's interesting. He said, people who write books don't ever see this. People who write books don't live with these people like you do. You should write about this, getting to write stories you should write about this.
And I thought, what? Really? I didn't, know one could do that. I thought really, are you serious? So I decided to start keeping journals. And I started taking notes and I learned—I can talk about God here, so I'm going to. I learned that God understands and hears and pays attention to these things and responds.
It's not always on our schedule or even in a way we see or understand, but he always does. And I started getting this idea that—I thought, you know, if God, isn't a writer, he's a reader for sure. You know, look at the Psalms, Song of Solomon, you know? Look at the book of Romans, my favorite new Testament book. He's definitely a reader.
[00:25:26] I think he's a writer. So I started keeping notes. He sent something immediately. Von used to teach us that scripture about angels often come to you in disguise and you don't know it. Um, I was standing in a place called la Tijera. And then I'll jump up to the present, just to give you some roots about this thing. And la Tijera is a place where people south of the city of Tecate, where the Tecate beer comes from for you spring breakers, um, where people have made a neighborhood in a field of adobe. They can dig up their own ground and make bricks and sell them.
And they fire it up with diesel fuel. Now we would drive all over—he's still doing it. Eighty-six years old. He's still there every week, driving around Baja, California—and we would get radio calls, and we got this radio called transferred from station to station to Pastor Von. There was a little girl burned at la Tijera.
There's no medical attention. She's severely burned. Can you get there and help her? So we drove quickly as we could to this place. And they said, she's in this hut, and this place was so low you couldn't stand up completely. And Von and I walked in, bent over in the gloom and there was a little girl standing in this hut. Completely naked. Burned. And she had her arms out like this and she was shaking.
Completely burned all down her front. She had gotten fuel on her nightgown, and it caught fire. And so, you know, we took her, and Von took her to a group who flew emergency flights and he flew her to San Quintín clinic and saved her life. So he became a real hero to this town. And the first thing they said was, will you build us a church?
We need a church. So he built them a church. He had this system where he'd build churches out of garage doors so you could get in there and little L brackets put together. But the men wouldn't go in the church. They thought it wasn't macho to go and sit with the women in church. So Von, being a genius, put a lift-up shelf with a gate, like at a taco stand.
And when he'd go on Sunday, he'd pull up the taco stand and the men could lean outside. They'd smoke and talk about Von, but they'd hear him preaching. Right? So I was standing there anyway, writing in my journal. Believe it or not, this is the story I was trying to get to, but I was leaning there writing in my journal, and a man came along.
I'd never seen him before. I never saw him afterward. So, you know what I think it might've been, but he had a rag tied on his head with four knots. And he had a long stick and he was completely black, completely covered in oil and smoke and grime. And he was watching me and he came over and he put the stick down and they call you hermanito, little brother.
He said, hermanito. Que estas haciendo?
I said, ah, my journal, man. That's good. That's good. What's a journal? I said, it's a diary. Oh! Yeah. What is that? I said, well, it's a blank book. Oh. I said, yeah, it's a little blank book and you write stuff. And he said, what are you writing about? And I said, I'm writing about what I'm doing with, with what's happening with Von during the day.
And he said, wait a minute, you're writing about this place? I said, yeah. You writing about these people? I said, yep. I sure am. He said, you're writing about me? I said, I'm probably going to, yeah. Now.
And he says to me, is anybody going to read it? And I said, wow, I hope so someday. And he did this really odd thing where he leaned back a little bit and he smiled. And I thought either he was going to punch me or hug me, you know, that moment. That somebody, not that anybody here has ever had liquor, but sometimes when people drink, you know, there's a moment when they could go either way?
That's what I thought. I thought, wow, this guy has been into the tequila and he's going to clock me one, you know? He leaned back and he smiled and then he came forward and he said, that's good. That's good. He tapped the book. He said, write this down, write it down. He said, I was born in the garbage dump. I spent my whole life picking trash. When I die, they're going to bury me in the garbage.
He said, just tell them I was here. Now, this is a revelation for a kid like me. It was like the sky opened and the angels sang, you know? Ah, tell them he was here, okay. Okay. And I went and I made the worst mistake of my life. And I'm gonna tell you now, all you writers, don't do this.
[00:30:18] I made a deal with God. Dumb. I went home and I said, God, that's it. I'm going to give up my desire to be Stephen King. And I'm going to only tell your story. This is the first book I'm going to do. No matter, come hell or high water, I'm going to do it. And I feel like God looked at everyone around him and said, did you hear what this idiot just promised me?
Let's test him. So I started writing that first book, which you heard about. And, uh, nobody would publish it. I actually had some amazing revelations hit me. I was hired to go teach expository writing at Harvard out of the blue. Um, some really miraculous stuff. But anyway, I wrote that book for 10 years, and no one would publish it.
Ten years of constant failure. One of the New York editors said, nobody cares about starving Mexicans. Literally. And I thought, you know, if I write a book about people nobody cares about, everyone's going to want to read it because they'll care, because I wrote about it. Wrong. Bad move. Um, now Pastor Von, without me, he was, he was fantastic, but he got a little cranky.
My favorite moment. And one day I want to write a book about this man before he's gone. But my favorite moment of Von's in my absence is this. And this'll tell you all you need to know about him as a preacher. He works out of Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church, and it's a very nice church with the solamente in Christo, you know, folk singers and all that.
And everybody's got a Beamer, and it's a very nice, upper-middle-class church. And he's sort of the roving madman, you know, the, the old Testament prophet. And they were having a folk service and everybody's singing and he has this huge old Bible that he's, he uses. It's a beautiful Bible. I'd give anything to get it when he passes on, it's got his lifetime of notes.
But he walked in and he stood there looking at everybody singing, and the music died down and they all turned to him like, it's Pastor Von, he's going to have a word of wisdom. And he just looked at them and he said, dead sheep. And he turned around and walked out. Von's a little cranky. Dead sheep.
He doesn't, he doesn't buy it if you're not feeding the kids. But. So I, uh, I failed, I failed and I felt really badly about all this. I couldn't get this book written. And, uh, my second visitation-- and I won't go there anymore, but just so you know, where I come from, uh, I was walking through Harvard Square. And there was a gentleman standing on the sidewalk, and I've never forgotten this guy because he was bright as a neon light.
He looked too bright. And I thought it was like, there's a sunbeam hitting this guy. He was an older guy with gray hair. And he, I thought at the moment he was English. And he was just staring at me and I went to walk by and he put his hand out and he said, would you help me? And I said, sure. And I reached in my pocket and I handed him a $5 bill. And I started to walk by and he grabbed me and he pulled me back, and he said, God bless you.
I said, oh, thanks. And he pulled me closer. He said, he will, you know. And then he let me go. And I walked about five steps and I thought, what?? You know, my hairs—and I turned around and he was gone. And I thought, oh, he went in the restaurant with my five bucks, and I went in and he wasn't there. I went around, he was gone. Five steps behind me.
So I was just like, whew. Wow. You know. Still, nobody would publish my work and my mother died. Yeah. Thanks for nothing. So my mother died and I went back to San Diego, uh, and I started working at a local newspaper there called The Reader. And I called them and asked, do you need a copy editor? And they said, no, we need writers.
Do you have anything about Tijuana? And I said, well, I just happened to have a book about Tijuana. And they started publishing sections of this book, the Pastor Von sections about the Tijuana garbage dump. And I did not know that it wasn't just me. Nobody knew that people were eating dead dogs to stay alive 10 minutes from downtown San Diego.
So this publisher published it as a front page story Thanksgiving week. Boom. Madness ensued. All of a sudden, you know, the radio stations were doing Christmas drives, Pastor Von hanging out with punk rockers, you know, on the, on the air. It was fantastic. Um, and I went on to college and started publishing books.
So this is the paradigm that I carry with me all the time and what I try to write. And, um, I am very aware of this issue of, of spirit and God. And I want to just throw this out to you that this question of borders—I write about the border. It's true. But I write about the border for a specific reason.
Not because I have a political ax to grind, uh, but because the border is everywhere. The Mexican border is just a great metaphor for what separates us. We are separate. I asked Von once, if you could tell me one word, what is the meaning of everything? One word that you've come to understand in 60 straight years of preaching and living, what is it?
[00:35:46] And he said, "reconciliation." And I thought of course, about the thing that separates us from God. But there are things that separate us from each other. All you have to do is turn on TV. Right and left. Tea partier versus occupy wall street. Black, white. Muslim, Christian, Jewish. It's unbelievable. Man, woman. The border is everywhere.
I could tell. I could pick out border fences all over here. So I felt that reconciliation really made a lot of sense. That was what I really felt was important. And, um, I got this opportunity to, to write this book, The Devil's Highway, you heard about. Um, a really interesting project that I turned down at first. My publisher asked me to. Uh, before 9/11 happened, the most popular nonfiction genre in the country was a thing called "men in peril."
And you'll understand this right away when I mention Dad on Father's Day, Christmas or birthday. We don't know what to get Dad. Hankies? I used to get my dad cigarettes. What a bad gift that was. What do dads want? Golf balls? So they figured out that dads really liked books where a bunch of manly men suffer a manly death. The more gruesome, the better. Dads dig it. And families are like, oh, let's get Dad this one.
Black Hawk Down, The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. These books where bad things happen to guys. And Dad says, well, that's very interesting. I'm going to read that, you know, it was very successful. 9/11 kind of changed our taste in that sort of thing. So at the time when men in peril was hot, this horrible tragedy happened. And they contacted me and they said, would you like to write it?
And I said, no way I can't deal. Why not? Well, the first of all, the responsibility is awfully great for 14 people who died, and I'm scared of the border patrol, and all these other issues, but I thought I'd be a fool not to join Little Brown, America's oldest publisher. Publishers of Little Women, for crying out loud.
So I thought, okay, I'll try this. And fortunately, my wife's an investigative journalist, cause I didn't know what I was doing. And I began investigating this and they said, what we'd like you to do is write a men in peril book. But design it like the Trojan horse into which you can fit everything you know or learn about the border that average Americans don't know.
Cultural, law enforcement, criminal, spiritual, historical, everything you can fit inside the Trojan horse, and roll it into Iowa City's living rooms and unload your secret agents. And I thought, wow, that's awesome. Right? That's incredible. What I hadn't counted on was the U.S. Border patrol was not particularly interested in having got, like, me—notorious Latino writer about the Mexican poor with some kind of missionary background— come in. And I didn't realize at the time how weird that was, right, how odd it would be, um, for a cop of any sort in an embattled and notorious service to have some hippie guy come in out of the blue and say, Hey, can I write a book about your most controversial case?
They'd say no, which these guys did. And, uh, they were in a lot of trouble. They were being sued. They were in a criminal investigation. The, the, the federal case trying to protect the coyote who led to the deaths of all these people, uh, was specifically, uh, because they believed the border patrol caused this crisis for their own entertainment.
They scared the guys into running into the desert for their own entertainment, which was not true, but they understood that people had such a bad opinion of the border patrol that they might assume that was true. And all they needed was that doubt to get this kid off who had killed 14 people. So I walked in like that and they said, no. No, no, no.
And I was incredibly depressed—four months of the runaround. And my wife, being a reporter, got fed up with the proper channels and just called the agents themselves directly. I went to Washington like a moron, and Washington said, why, no, no, no. So she called Yuma, Arizona and got this cowboy and said her piece, and he said, sure, send him down.
After failing for four months, I thought, what? She said, yeah. They said come on down. I said, okay, okay. So I went down there-- I thought before Washington finds out, let me go to Yuma. I'd never been in a border patrol station, never really talked to a border patrol agent. I didn't know what was happening.
I had a big gold earring. I thought it was Bono, you know, big gold earring, long hair. I went walking and had my notebook, you know, and I was looking around thinking, wow, I am in the belly of the beast now. And, uh, the secretary was standing there. I was sitting at her desk and I said, hi, I'm here to see agent Mike McGlasson.
And she went into the Intercom and she said, Agent McGlasson, your writer's here. I remember thinking, how does she know? And McGlasson came out and I didn't know at the time, but he's a Marine. I believe he was a DI. Any of you Marines? Uh, believe me, I was not ready for a Marine DI, let me tell you. And he started walking down the hall and he's looking at me. And you know, they're spit-and-polish. People don't know.
[00:41:07] I mean, these guys are, their uniforms are immaculate. And he took one look at me and I saw him start to march instead of walk. And then he got more erect, and he became V-shaped, you know. So I'm already kind of scared and I'm backing up a little bit, and he comes up to me and he puts his hands behind his back and goes into this parade rest.
And then he looks right about here.
And I was thinking—I didn't know what was going on. And I said, Agent McGlasson, um, I understand that you're willing to assist me in my investigation of the Yuma 14? THAT'S AFFIRMATIVE, LUIS! Like that. And I said, uh, so would you take me out to the Devil's Highway, first of all? THAT'S A NEGATIVE, LUIS!
And I thought, I'm dead. It, my life has ended right here. And he looked at me and he said, follow me. And he did this thing that you guys in the military know, I don't, where they do this deal. And they spin like a turntable. He's like, woooh. And off he went. So I followed him into the border patrol station and I'm looking and he points to an empty room with a chair, and he says, sit there.
So I sit down. I'm praying. Please, God, don't let them kill me. Please, God, help me do this story. And nothing happens. I sit there for 20 minutes. During the 20 minutes, one agent walks by and stops at the door, looks in at me and goes, sheww. And keeps going.
McGlasson comes in and says, Luis, why are you in here bothering us? I said, well I've got to write this book. And I don't know-- he says, look, you got to go to Wellton station. The agents at Wellton station did the rescue. You should go there. I said, okay, um, will you take me there? He says, no, I don't want you in my vehicle.
I said, well, would you lead me there in your vehicle, and I can drive my Jeep? And he said, if you think you can keep up with me. I'm thinking ah, this is a macho thing, right? So I go out there with him. He gets in his vehicle. On the way to the vehicle, I think I'm going to make pals with him. And I say to him, say, Mike, that Tyson fight on HBO, did you see it?
And he says, I don't appreciate violence, Luis. Off he went. So I'm chasing him. I didn't realize that these guys were having fun. They thought this was hilarious. Terrorize the writer. I got into the station, and there were all these guys that looked like WWE wrestlers. These massive, steroidal blond men, and they were at their desks.
And I always think of them trying to write on their computers with these giant fingers, you know, like this. And I walked in and they looked at me and started smiling and they rose from their seats and it wasn't like, hail, brother. It was like, meat, meat. And this agent came up to me and he got in my face and he said, what are you doing in my station, boy?
And I was like, I said, I'm trying to write a book. Oh yeah, what's the book about? I said, it's about the Yuma 14, man. And he said, yeah, what do you call it? I said, I'm going to call it The Devil's Highway. He says, that sucks. And of course later they laugh. They're still laughing about my panic attack in front of them.
And he says to me, at one point, if you—I don't want you quoting me in your book. I said, no, sir, I won't quote you. And he said, but if you do quote me, I don't want you to use my real name. I said, what should I call you? He said, Officer Friendly.
[00:44:48] All that to say that in the midst of this madness, the senior supervisory agent came out. And this is where grace happens, I think. This man, this man was the guy who was present the day of the crisis. And he sent out the rescue operation. It was the largest rescue operation in border patrol history. They had 70 flat tires that day, trying to get to these guys.
The agent who found the survivors walked three days by himself, retracing their path. An incredible story. And he's watching this, he says, what are you guys doing? What's the matter? And they said, this idiot is gonna write a book about the Yuma 14, man. He said, are you really? And I said, yes, sir, I'm trying to find out about it.
And for some reason, something happened. He was moved a little bit. And he said, you know what? You come with me. I'm gonna take you back to the computer center. And Officer Friendly said, Hey, you can't take him back there. Civilians don't go back there. And this guy, Kenny Smith, he said, Hey, I'm the senior supervisory agent. I do what I want.
And he went. And I was like, see ya, Officer Friendly. And I went back there and I thought the best thing I could do was just be quiet while these men did their work. I thought they were bad guys. And, uh, you know what? I listened and I listened and I realized just being quiet so they forgot me made me learn something.
And at one point, probably two days in, Kenny said, how can you write about the Devil's Highway if you haven't been out there? I said, well, it's on the federal bombing range. I can't get there. And he says, you busy tomorrow morning? I said, no. He said, well, I'll take you. Be here at seven. So I got there at seven, and the station chief had given us his personal vehicle.
And I realized it was like going to work with Pastor Von. He was getting all of his equipment together, and he had all this stuff, and he had a sense of humor like Pastor Von. He says to me now, Luis, we've gotta pack the most important piece of border patrol equipment that you can take. You know what that is?
And I said, no, what is it? He said, roll of toilet paper. Puts that in the car. And off we go. And I first I realized it was like being with Natty Bumppo. This man was like the Deerslayer. You know, he knew every inch of the desert. And he was telling me what kind of dirt it was and what kind of rocks they were.
And he's identifying trees. And this one moment he points across the desert. He says, see those ironwood trees over there? They were about a thousand years old when Jesus Christ walked the earth. And I thought, this guy loves the desert. What's going on? He's a beautiful guy. What? And we stopped the truck and he looks at these cliffs, and he says, oh, there's nobody up in there.
And I said, up in where, and he said that cave up there. I said, what? And I looked and there's this little dot, you know? So I thought he was razzing me still, like the other guys did. And I said, oh, you have Superman x-ray vision. And he said, no, He said, I've climbed up there. It's not deep enough to hold a human body.
So when they hide in there, they put something in front of their things, thinking it'll hide them. And if I, if it's not a perfect circle, I know there's somebody in there, and they're in trouble. I'll go get them out. So I'm adjusting my own prejudice as we go, right? A lot of things happened, but the point I want to make to you is we get out there, and we're standing on the Devil's Highway, a real road through the south of Arizona, very deadly place.
And we're looking into Mexico. There's nothing there. There's not—there's one sign, no fences. Just a wash. We could walk. He said, you want to enter Mexico illegally? Step in the wash. There was nothing there. And we were standing there—now, there's no one for a hundred miles in either direction, except one border patrol guy with a water truck who's driving away.
Kenny's got a 40-caliber on his hip and he says to me, I know what you think of me. And I thought, uh, what do I think of you? He said, you think I'm a jackbooted thug. I was thinking, uh-oh, what if he's mad at me? There's nobody here, right? And he says, I'll tell you what I am. He said, I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor.
I know! I looked at him, yeah? And he said, you think I don't have any feelings? You know, I'm a father. I got a daughter. So you try carrying a dead 19-year-old woman six miles across the desert in your arms. Tell me I don't have feelings. I looked at him and he says to me, you know, if my wife was starving, I'd invade any country on earth to feed her.
And then he says to me, my daddy was a rancher. I'm a rancher. You know what I do all day? I chase ranchers. He said, buddy, I know these are my own people. It's a white man, not a Mexican. We went on like this for like a half hour. And this is where the moment happened. I suddenly understood that when you're writing, if you put all your heart there and you walk into it with your faith, sometimes every time in my case, people decide to give you their story.
[00:50:01] They trust you. And I could destroy this man. I could write anything I want to about him. And he does not care because he wants the truth to come out, and he hands me his entire destiny in the U S border patrol. Telling me all this stuff. And I finally crack. My alarm is going off, you know, may not love border patrol, do not love border patrol, you know, don't believe border patrol. And I just, I couldn't help it. I turned to this guy and I said, Kenny, I love you, man. And Kenny said, I kinda like you too, buddy.
So, you know, that was my ultimate, I think lesson in all of this stuff, literature of witness, is that if I am going to write this, if I am going to be true to what I think God wants from me, I have to remind myself, I have to witness everybody. Even those jerks over there I think are beneath me. Who am I?
Who am I? I thought, nobody. I thought these guys are going to be all these crazy, you know, right-wing monsters. And I was going to be the illuminated liberal. And I thought I was the most prejudiced guy there. I was more prejudiced than the entire U.S. Border patrol because I thought I had it together. Now they're very kind to me to this day. They treat me like their brain-damaged liberal bud. You know, it's okay, buddy. You're okay.
You know, because they asked me one thing and they said, one thing you can do for us is tell the truth. Even if you hate us, tell the truth as you saw it. And we will know if you're lying or not. People know. So that was my great lesson about all of this. And I always feel like God's talking to me. Um, and the reason I call this the theory and practice of trust, this talk is just that, that I started feeling that my message was to fight, not—to stop fighting with spirit, to stop fighting with God, to stop fighting with the process and surrender and trust that process, because it's interactive because I believe it's spirit-driven.
It knows what you're doing. It knows what you're doing. Now, to close up this—are we going to, are there Q&A, a couple of minutes? I talked too long! I get to preaching, and I can't stop. Anyway. Um, here's the, here's the kind of wrap-up on the William Stafford quote that I just loved. And it was the final kind of illumination to me about all this.
I went to do a talk in Oregon for his son, Kim Stafford. Now Kim Stafford, like I said, one of the great writing teachers in America. His dad was a strange kind of spiritual giant in his own way. Um, so I went to give this talk about trusting the spirit as it expresses itself in writing. Okay. And I told them, you know, God does speak in a little still voice that you don't hear.
It's absolutely true. And sometimes it happens through the world you walk through. That every morning is your birthday. But you forget. I forget. Cause I'm watching Deadliest Catch reruns. I'm getting to work. I have a cold, I don't pay attention, and I get, we all get these little Christmas presents, birthday presents all day long, but we don't see them.
So I'm giving this lecture. Kim had paid me quite a bit of money to do it. I was five minutes into the lecture and just got to every day is your birthday when he stands up. 500 students there, he says, did you hear what Luis just said? And I thought, you know, the choir doesn't need to get in on this dude.
I'm talking, you know. Did you hear what he said? And they said, yes. And he said, fantastic. I want you to take your notebooks, take your pencils and leave. Everybody go out in the woods and find that present. And they all got up and walked out. And I said, Kim, what are you doing? And he said, that was great. It was a great lecture.
I said, I only spoke for five minutes. He said, they were the right five minutes. You said enough. Easy paycheck, I'll tell you that. So I started talking to him about his dad. And I said, you know what I loved about your dad? He was so funny. And he said, really, how was he funny? I said, he was hilarious, the things he said about writing. Like what?
And I said like that great quote: if you want to be a successful writer, first lower your standards. I said, that's hilarious. It's made my students laugh every year. And he looked at me. He said, you obviously don't understand my father. And I said, well, what's to understand about that? And he said, you know, my father was a pacifist, right?
I said, yeah. And he said, he came from a pretty strict Christian tradition in his early days and went more heathen later? I said, yep. And he said, don't you get it? Pacifist, standard? So when you went into battle, you would hold a battle standard up and that meant you would give no quarter. You were going to slaughter everyone on the field.
[00:54:46] And if you wanted peace, if you wanted interaction and negotiation, you would lower your battle standards. He said, Daddy was saying, stop fighting, invite the spirit in. That's what he was saying. And I thought, wow, you know, that's what happens when you deal with a genius. Everything has so many levels; I just saw the joke.
So that's what the theory and practice of trust became for me: my constant attempt to understand that there are things offered to me that I don't always recognize because I'm caught up in my own maze up here. I'm caught up in my own attitudes or my tiredness or my bad mood, or God forbid, celebrity.
That's been the new thing. You tour all the time and people think, oh my God, you're so awesome. And then you go home—my wife will tell you, I get home, and I'm like, where's the room service, ma'am? You know, it'll take you off the tracks, and you can't get off those tracks. So as writers, I urge you to think about that.
William Stafford. Lower the standard. Tell—if you, if you're not a God person like me, tell the spirit. If you want to think of it as the spirit of writing, which my new age pals want to call it, think of it that way. But you're here, you're open and you're ready to work in partnership. It's not a football game. We're not going to go out there and win yardage. We're going to show that we are attentive and we'll be shown more to write about. That's what I firmly believe. And that's my experience. So thank you.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.