by Antonio Zavala
The character Big Angel is the long-standing patriarch of a large Chicano family in Luis Alberto Urrea’s new novel The House of Broken Angels, but he is dying of cancer. So, he gathers his extended family for a last ‘good-bye-see-you-in-the-beyond’ blast in San Diego, California.
However, before the party can take place, America, Big Angel’s mother, passes away and now the entire family has to pay their respects at her funeral and celebrate his birthday bash the next day.
Urrea’s new novel then follows the close to sixty members of the Miguel Angel de la Cruz, aka as Big Angel, clan for those two days as sons, daughters, half-brothers, cousins and grandchildren all fly or drive to San Diego to pay their final respects to the two family members.
Big Angel, who is 70-years-old, is a bigger than life character who moves north to the United States early in his life and later brings his wife Perla with him. Starting at the bottom, Big Angel eventually becomes a cyber systems manager at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company before retiring. In fact, Big Angel was so punctual and diligent that his co-workers called him The German.
These two traits remain with Big Angel into the present and should any family member arrive late anywhere, Big Angel is sure to call it to their attention.
Over the two days of the funeral for the 100-year-old matriarch and the birthday celebration for Big Angel, the extended family members interact, solidify their relationship as a Chicano family and here and there its members develop new hates, pass around “chismes”, fuel jealousies and try to rekindle old romances.
Big Angel has a half-brother, part Mexican and part Anglo, named Angel Gabriel who is an English professor in Seattle. He is called Little Angel. He is the son of their Mexican father, Don Antonio de la Cruz and a white American woman named Betty.
Big Angel is the father of three: Lalo who has completed his service with the military, a daughter named Minerva who is called Minnie; and a son named Braulio, who was killed years earlier due to street violence.
Author Urrea in this epic novel pays homage to Mexican families this side of the border and their marginal status in a white society bent on seeing families such as Big Angel’s as outsiders.
Mexican American families, Urrea seems to say, share traditional values such as honor, work, truth and loyalty and hold on to their dreams just like all American families do.
Chicano and Mexican American families in the United States are not new but American literature and the film industry has done its best to ignore them. In fact, Chicano families (remember that maxim that says we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us) have been around since even before the US-Mexican War. All Mexicans in the United States, I must point out, are not recent arrivals to American society.
Urrea, of course, needs no introduction to serious readers. He has written such popular novels as The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Queen of America, Into the Beautiful North and the 2015 short-story book The Water Museum.
He is also the author of the landmark book The Devil’s Highway A True Story, a 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist. It’s a true story about how a band of coyote smugglers got lost in the Arizona desert in 2001 and caused the death of 14 immigrants from Central Mexico.
Urrea is the son of a Mexican father and an American mother and has told the media his latest book was inspired by the death of his older half-brother, Juan Urrea, who died three years ago of cancer just as he was about to reach his 74th birthday.
His brother Juan had a farewell party with all his relatives who knelt and kissed his hand as if he was, indeed, the godfather of the clan. Luis Alberto was in doubt about how to remember and honor his carnal or brother when a fellow writer, Jim Harrison, told him “Sometimes God hands you a novel. You have to write it.”
And so, Urrea did. And Urrea has said it’s all fiction, except the fact that he did lose his half-brother, so that readers are not led to believe that all that he wrote in House of Broken Angels did take place.
Unbeknown to most Chicanos and Mexican Americans in the Chicago area, Urrea teaches creative and non-fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), a few short blocks north of Pilsen, something he has been doing for close to twenty years now.
On a September day I met Luis Alberto in his office with the help of Marta Ayala, Community Affairs Specialist with the Latin American Studies Department at UIC. He was friendly, amiable and very witty. Later he allowed me to visit his class.
During the class, Urrea and the students were discussing second-person narratives they had written. He was at the top of his game discussing literature, point of view, colloquialisms and a recent trip he had taken to New York to talk about diversity.
I told Urrea I was not the ambassador for the entire Mexican community but that I, nevertheless, was glad he was here and writing such interesting books.
Antonio Zavala is a Chicago journalist and writer. He is the author of Pale Yellow Moon, a collection of 15 short stories and also of Memorias de Pilsen, a non-fiction book of memoirs about Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Zavala, originally from Coeneo, Michoacan, Mexico, is busy working on another book of short stories.