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Mansfield Lecture: Luis Alberto Urrea

American Dream Reconsidered Conference

In a wide-ranging lecture, author Luis Alberto Urrea excavated the true stories and real people behind his novel Into the Beautiful North. The book was Roosevelt’s One Book, One University Read for incoming first-years.

Hailed by NPR as a “literary badass” and a “master storyteller with a rock-and-roll heart,” Urrea is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss and triumph. He gave the annual Mansfield Lecture as part of the 2020 American Dream Reconsidered Conference.

Urrea’s novel Into the Beautiful North follows Nayeli, a teenager in a small Mexican village. After watching The Magnificent Seven, she begins a hero’s journey to the United States, where she hopes to find seven men that will return to protect her village from banditos.

The book, Urrea said, was written to “give the United States a chance at empathy.”

“My deepest hope is that people would realize there is no Other. There is no Them. There’s only us.”

– Luis Alberto Urrea

Mansfield Lecture with Luis Alberto Urrea - Discussion

Urrea told listeners the true stories about the real people and locations, on both sides of the border, that the novelist brought to life through the story. The fictional Nayeli is named for a real Nayeli Urrea met as a relief worker in Tijuana.

“I was really trying to populate this book with souls, actual souls, as a way of doing a summoning,” Urrea said.

Years later, Urrea said he returned to Tijuana with an NPR reporter to reconnect with Nayeli for an episode of This American Life. Urrea recounted how the producer had treated the real-life Nayeli and her mother to a dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant in downtown Tijuana. Nayeli, who had never had shellfish before, went into anaphylactic shock. The group rushed her to a private clinic where at first the doctors refused to treat her because she was india — indigenous.

“I promised Nayeli I would write her a novel and make her the hero,” Urrea. “That’s some of the motivation of the story, to bear witness.”

For Urrea, his writing is a way to see and “revere” people who feel unseen and unheard. He reflected on the readers who had come up to him over the years, telling him about how scenes in the book captured their experiences.

“Our works of witness have impact that you can’t imagine,” he said.

Urrea answered student questions about his passion for writing and doled out advice to aspiring writers, telling them to “keep your butt in the chair, and try and try and try again.”

The conversation was hosted by Roosevelt’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation, created in 2009 to disrupt the cradle-to-prison pipeline. Each year, the Institute invites an author to give a guest lecture. Hundreds of students have moved through the Mansfield Institute and learned ways to apply their classroom studies into action in their communities.

The American Dream Reconsidered is a free conference that invites scholars, activists and leaders to explore the modern American dream. Sessions delve into immigration, health care, politics and more in America today. With optimism and hope, our panelists share visions for the future of our democracy.

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