By Dylan Foley
MEXICO: In his new novel Into the Beautiful North, the Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea has created a satirical tale about three teenage girls who, after seeing a screening of the classic Steve McQueen classic film The Magnificent Seven, leave their small southern Mexican town of Tres Camarones — itself overrun by drug dealers and corrupt cops — to go to the United States to bring back seven worthy Mexican men to get rid of the vermin.
Urrea, whose book has also been published in a simultaneous Spanish language edition available in Mexico, found out the hard way that doing a promotional tour in Mexico itself may well require the protection of seven worthy men. “I have been told by members of the Mexican government that I should not tour in Mexico with the new book,” said Urrea in an interview in New York City last week. “I am too well-known now. The kidnappers may think that my publisher Little, Brown will pay a ransom.”
His 2005 novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, based on the life of an ancestor who had supernatural healing powers, was a bestseller in both the United States and Mexico, significantly raising his profile. “I’ve been told that the kidnapping is very bad right now,” he said. “They kidnap children and send their fingers back to their parents.”
Urrea, 53, has been writing about the tortured relationship between Mexico and the United States, and the border that runs like a scar between the two countries, for more than three decades. His 2004 non-fiction look at illlegal cross border immigration, The Devil’s Highway, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.
“The drug war in Mexico is much worse than we read about in the United States,” said Urrea of the bloody conflict where bodies are dumped in schoolyards and kidnapping victims are usually killed. “There is a Mogadishu-Baghdad style of violence that is terrifying.”
In the movie The Magnificent Seven, itself based, of course, on the Akira Kurosawa film classic Seven Samurai, helpless Mexican villagers are preyed upon by bandits. The villagers then hire gunmen to rid their community of the outlaws.
With Into the Beautiful North, Urrea plays the situation for comedy, standing the cowboy classic on its head: All the men of Tres Camarones have emigrated to the U.S in search of work, so, with only women remaining in the village, three girls — Nayeli, Yolo and Vampi — travel to California accompanied by Tacho, the gay owner of the village taco stand, to find their saviors.
Though Urrea satirizes the situation, he knows that in reality the circumstances are much more grim, so much so that he believes the drug war could actually destabilize the Mexican government.
“There are powerful Mexican officials who are hiding out in the U.S. because kidnappers are after them and their families,” said Urrea. “You read the Mexican blog narcotijuana.info and you think, abandon all hope. The last thing the U. S. government wants is a violent revolution along the 2000 miles of its border with Mexico.”
During the numerous stops on his American book tour that goes from Chicago to San Francisco, Urrea has welcomed strange encounters. “A man came up to me after one reading and said, ‘There were revolutions in Mexico in 1810 and 1910. What about 2010?'”
Pausing for a moment, Urrea shrugged and said, “We’ll see.”
FOLLOW: Luis Alberto Urrea via his Web site.
VIEW: At an astonishing photo essay about the US-Mexico border drug war.
LEARN: More about Mexican drug gang culture from The New Yorker’s Alma Guillermoprieto.
Dylan Foley is a book columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.
Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North is published by Little, Brown in the United States, which has also published a Spanish language edition available in Mexico titled Rumbo al Hermoso Norte. Italian rights have been sold to XL Edizioni.