A hand holds up a copy of Luis Alberto Urrea's "The House of Broken Angels" against a colorfully painted wall

Luis Alberto Urrea, My Hometown, and Me

by Donna Miscolta

Editors’ Note: The House of Broken Angels by Mexican American author Luis Alberto Urrea is this year’s selection by Seattle Reads, a citywide book group by The Seattle Public Library. Urrea will be in Seattle Oct. 19–20 to participate in a series of Seattle Reads discussions. Register for these events — including an author discussion in Spanish at El Centro de la Raza — at the official Seattle Reads website. Copies of the book are available in English and Spanish at the library.

Luis Alberto Urrea writes from the heart about a Mexican American family in “The House of Broken Angels.” (Photos courtesy of The Seattle Public Library)

When The Seattle Public Library announced Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels as its 2022 Seattle Reads pick, I took my signed copy off the shelf to read again — to read in community a book that itself is a tribute to community and family. And place. The novel is set in the fictional barrio Lomas Doradas. The reviews and summaries refer to it as a San Diego neighborhood. But, more specifically, it’s a National City neighborhood, just south of San Diego. My neighborhood. Or at least, the one I grew up in. For decades, I’ve lived in Seattle, where Little Angel, one of the characters in the book, also lives — one more reason The House of Broken Angels makes me feel like I’m home inside each page. It contains both my homes and speaks to the ambivalence we can feel about the places we live, like this conversation between Little Angel, the youngest of the first-generation de La Cruz siblings, and his niece, Minnie, daughter of Big Angel, the eldest of the siblings and the focus of the novel.

“Is it nice up there where you live?” Minnie asked.
“It’s beautiful, yeah,” he said. “And Bigfoot lives there.”
“You crack me up, Tío.” She hugged him with one arm. “I hate this town sometimes,” she said.
“Come to Seattle.”
“Nah. This is home. I belong here.”

Belonging is the point of this book — belonging to America, its land, its history, its culture. Viet Than Nguyen wrote in his March 2018 New York Times review about the compelling emotions in “Urrea’s powerful rendering of a Mexican-American family that is also an American family. And what is Urrea’s novel but a Mexican-American novel that is also an American novel?” It’s why I read and reread this novel.

The book opens with the family gathering for the funeral of Mamá América, mother of Big Angel but not his youngest brother, the half-gringo Little Angel. The unanticipated demise of Mamá requires that her funeral be held the same weekend as the long-planned farewell 70th birthday party for Big Angel, whose health has been rapidly deteriorating. It’s a novel that, with humor, piercing dialogue, a colorful cast, and a hard-knock setting, affectionately portrays the immigrant roots of a family, the establishment of new roots in America, and the struggles and triumphs through several generations — all while challenging stereotypes of laziness and lateness propagated by advertising logos and cartoons.

It’s a story that is like mine. Which is why the squabbles, the gatherings, the generational differences in the large, extended de La Cruz family could’ve been plucked from my own family in National City, whose reputation as a place to avoid I was largely ignorant of while growing up there. 

There was a time when I didn’t claim National City. When someone asked where I was from, I said San Diego, because, first of all, as I pointed out in an essay I wrote some years ago called “Home is Where the Wart Is” (New California Writing, 2013), “who has ever heard of National City? And if they have heard of it, what exactly have they heard?” Most likely, something akin to these two entries in the Urban Dictionary.

Posted Sept. 25, 2005, by FrmHighlandto43rd:
“City in San Diego County’s South Bay. Also known historically as Nasty City for it’s [sic] inner-city grit and past high crime, it’s a predominantly low-income/working-class community inhabited most visibly by Latinos and Filipinos. Had been known as one of the poorest cities in California, and is still the poorest city (in terms of income) in the County, but recent civic improvements and investments, as well as improvements in law enforcement in recent years, had shown that this town is ‘a city on the move.’” 

The visible Latino and Filipino inhabitants mean abundant taquerias and Filipino restaurants. Where is the downside in that?

Posted April 30, 2007, by Carmina:
“Take the 5 south almost all the way and you’ll end up in National City. This place is boring as fuck! If you live there it’s ok cuz you have friends and everything. Drive by and you’ll see all the walls are blotched different colors from painting over tags. The only stores are car dealerships, donut shops, 99 cent stores, and pawn shops. Since it has the same street names as Barrio Logan it’s fricken confusing when you use a map. The only reason to go here is if you are visiting someone or you want to buy a used car.”

Ah, but not just used cars; National City has a gleaming throng of new cars to sell. The Mile of Cars is literally a mile of car franchises on National City Boulevard. According to Wikipedia, the strip had previously been known as the Mile of Bars for the host of establishments wetting the whistles of the sailors from the nearby naval base. 

This amenity (of cars, not bars) is referenced in Urrea’s novel when Little Angel, the half-sibling and family outsider, arrives from Seattle for the weekend of grieving and celebration.

When Little Angel got as far south as National City, he still had hours to kill. His hotel was right off the Mile of Cars, where the funeral home awaited. 

That funeral home is surely the one where my parents and grandparents in turn over the decades lay in repose prior to their burials. Urrea’s mention of various places in and around National City makes me feel as if my old hometown matters and is, if not exactly loved, appreciated for its grittiness and its tenacity in the face of, well, its grittiness. There’s Paradise Valley Hospital, where I volunteered as a candy striper in high school and where Big Angel had been driven many times by his son Lalo “every time he thought he was dying.” There’s the Bay Theater, now a church, where I spent many Saturday afternoons in the ’60s and where in Urrea’s novel “lots of crazy boys from Tijuana came to see movies.”

There’s a thrill in knowing that this famous and prolific writer knew my city and might’ve done the things I did — cruised the main drag Highland Avenue, skated at the Sweetwater Roller Rink, hit the pinball machines at the Plaza Bowl, all now changed or gone, paved over or rebuilt in the city’s rush to grow up. But the book’s evocation of place renewed pangs of affection for my hometown’s hard-edged, mellow essence.

Aside from this place we have in common, Luis Urrea and I are around the same age, so the book’s pop culture references associated with Big and Little Angel’s childhood and adolescence are mine as well. Both brothers reflect on their place in the family, and their relationship to each other, the two of them opposites in many ways. Little Angel grew up to be el profe. Big Angel, el filósofo, had schooled himself. He had always been observant. 

Big Angel knew what his baby brother’s Saturdays were like…
At 3:00, Moona Lisa appeared on channel 10—Science Fiction Theater. She lounged around a cheap set that looked like the moon, dressed in Morticia Addams skintight dresses. Big Angel thought she was hot. But Little Angel didn’t seem to notice. He was holding his breath for Them and The Brain from Planet Arous.
Big Angel made Little Angel his project. He had never seen his own isolation mirrored in the world.

In these lines, amid the tenderness of the fraught brotherly connection, I picked up immediately on the reference to Moona Lisa, whose cheesy act was the reason I sometimes watched Science Fiction Theater. Her performance, with its puns and sight gags, was groan-inducing yet weirdly charming, sort of like National City.

Then there’s the reference to a velvet painting, Little Angel’s assessment of La Gloriosa, sister to Perla, Big Angel’s wife and love of his life: 

She was as magnificent as a velvet painting of an Aztec goddess in a taco shop.

The heyday of these paintings in the ’60s and ’70s meant they were a staple in many homes. Not just in taco shops or tiki bars! My cousin commissioned one from a Tijuana artist that depicts my grandfather at the height of his boxing powers, the deep colors on black giving dimension and movement to his fighter’s stance. Magnificent.

There’s the reference to Perla and her slow acquisition of English: 

Perla had only lived in the United States for forty-one years—she couldn’t be expected to learn English overnight.

This was my grandmother Francisca’s story. She emigrated from Mexico in the 1920s, lived to be 87, and never adopted English. Too busy was she toiling in a tuna cannery, raising seven children, and cooking Sunday dinners for the extended family. 

Being from National City and having Mexican ancestry made House of Broken Angels especially resonant for me. But the references, situations, and characters are sure to evoke sentiments of recognition in readers anywhere in America and beyond. In an interview in Time, Urrea called his book “a love song to this country.” 

Still, I like to think it’s also a love song to National City, city of car dealerships and 99 cent stores. And there’s the nod to Seattle as well, where Little Angel is a professor in the land of Sasquatch and rain. It’s a fitting pick for this year’s Seattle Reads.

Donna Miscolta’s third book of fiction, “Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories,” was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. It was named to the 2020 Latino Books of the Year list by the Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club. It won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Multicultural Fiction and an International Latino Book Award Gold Medal for Best Collection of Short Stories. It was also a finalist for the American Fiction Award and the Nancy Pearl Award.

📸 Featured Image: Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The House of Broken Angels” is Seattle Read’s book selection for 2022. Urrea will be in Seattle October 19-20 for a series of discussions hosted by Seattle Reads, including an event in Spanish at El Centro de la Raza on Oct. 19. (Photo: Leo Carmona)

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