I always considered Luis Alberto Urrea a genius, a chingón as talented with his words as he is with critiques of America’s eternal Mexican-hating ways. But there’s one paragraph in his new book, The House of Broken Angels, which especially solidifies his status as the Sinclair Lewis of the border, someone who calls out the hypocrisies and beautiful messes of both the pelados and the pendejos.
And it happens through, of all things, sea turtle soup.
The book’s protagonist, the 70-year-old Miguel “Big Angel” De La Cruz, is on his deathbed with cancer—on the day of his birthday, no less. He surveys the family members gathering before him “from the short watchtower of his chair,” as they prepare to throw one puro pinche parri for their patriarch at his San Diego barrio house. Big Angel decides to continue his goal to repent of one sin a day. Today’s transgression: enjoying caldo de caguama, which his “tongue wiggled from just thinking” about it “with lime and cilantro, fresh rolled corn tortillas with salt in them to catch a bit of broth, and some chile.”
But now, all Big Angel “really wanted was to simply swim with the turtles and beg their forgiveness for finding their flippers so delicious for so long.”
The casual reader will think the passage a throwaway thought, or perhaps Urrea trying to play to the PETA crowd. But for Mexican-Americans who grew up in the San Diego-Baja California area, they will see Big Angel as their confessor. People who lived in the region during from the 1960s through the 1980s —when seemingly all of Mexico came through Tijuana to cross over, or come back home— reminisce about food vendors who’d pour out the soup in plastic cups, or crack open the top of an egg so eaters could suck up the yolk. Caldo de caguama is praised in the region for its restorative powers, the sea turtle eggs prized for their aphrodisiacal properties of hangover cures. In fact, people loved the dish so much that Mexico finally declared a total ban on its consumption in 1990—one of the few good things (maybe the only?) Carlos Salinas de Gortari ever did.
I still can’t get over it. Through soup, Urrea shows a man’s vulnerability with it, but also reassures an entire region used to only negative depictions: I got us, locos.
San Diego doesn’t exactly have a memorable body of fiction around it save Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. But that has now changed thanks to Urrea, who grew up shuffling between America’s Finest City and Tijuana and offers exact details of each side of the border to prove it. The book takes place over three days in the life of Big Angel, who had to bury his mother a day before his 70th birthday party. He’s someone who’s ultimately more American than Mexican —a longtime cybersystems manager for the City of San Diego— raza to the core.
The setting of a party is perfect—it’s a bunch of little, messy stories and dramas and comedies that makes the book feel like a packed dance floor. Cousins and friends come and go, with some getting their own five-page plays and others taking up more room. Through it, Urrea paints Mexican-American families as they’ve always been: human. But he can’t help but to tweak the expectations of his readers, both American and Mexican.
Another food passage: Little Angel (Big Angel’s somewhat-estranged younger half-white half-brother) is in to pay his final respects. The Seattle professor imagined an authentic Mexican feast “displayed in pornographic lushness” would serve as his older brother’s Last Supper. Instead, the spread is Chinese food, spaghetti, and KFC. Little Angel is left to think “it was all turning into an end-of-semester project for his multicultural studies course.”
With that line, Urrea satirizes the armchair Aztecs who demand Mexican families always remain “authentic” even in fiction. And it also plays against gabacho expectations of how Mexican families eat. It reminded me of my Tío Santos’ 70th birthday late last year, where we had a great buffet of moles and tacos. Yet the most popular item turned out to be the pizzas that my 95-year-old grandmother insisted my cousins offer for her great-grandkids that she knew would reject the Mexican food. The pizzas went first.
In lesser hands, The House of Broken Angels would’ve read like a parade of clichés—a huge Mexican party, murderous cholos, kissing cousins who do more than peck, a prodigal gay son, a Mexican standoff, and enough chronological switchbacks and unreliable narrators to make Gabriel Garcia Marquez seem as straightforward as Hemingway. But this is Urrea, a hell of a writer who’s wickedly funny, writes sex scenes like Neruda, and constructs his 60-plus-years narrative with the care of an urban planner.
The novel revels in its borderless setting (tellingly, few Spanish words are italicized) but is ultimately a meditation on a macho coming to grip with his mortality. “Even flies do it,” a Jesuit pal tells Big Angel about death. “Everyone here is doing it. We’re all terminal.” It’s words that serve Big Angel well, as the book ends with —what else do you expect from a Mexican family?—a brawl that brings everyone together, just in time for Big Angel to make his peace with the Big Homie in the Sky.
The House of Broken Angels
Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Company, 321 pages
Gustavo Arellano is the California columnist for the Los Angeles Times op-ed pages, and has covered Southern California and Latino everything for the past 16 years. He tweets from @GustavoArellano.