Luis Alberto Urrea to speak in Carbondale

Will Grandbois

Bestselling author Luis Alberto Urrea is slated for a pair of area events this week in support of local nonprofit English in Action.

First, he will be the features speaker at the an intimate fundraiser, complete with cocktail reception, at Casa Tua Aspen. The event takes place from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31 and space is limited. Tickets may be purchased at

At 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept 1, Urrea comes to Carbondale’s Third Street Center for a bicultural presentation for a general audience and designed to be accessible to English language learners of all levels. Event admission is a $10 suggested donation. For reservations, call 963-9200.

English in Action endeavors to strengthen the community by helping adult immigrants learn to read, write and speak English, and by building cross-cultural relationships

“What we do through our programming is create connections,” said executive director Lara Beaulieu. “We want to bring people together.”

The organization got its start through the Basalt Library in 1994. I expanded into its own nonprofit in 2005, and has touched the lives of 1200 people along the way.

“There are very few opportunities for immigrant community members to share their stories,” Beaulieu observed. “Language is a huge obstacle, and we often live very separate lives.”

To combat that, English in Action arranges one on one tutoring between an English learner and a fluent speaker, a relationships which often persist long after the language barrier is gone.

“A lot of times people think they need to speak Spanish to participate, and that’s not true,” Beaulieu said. “Once they have a foundation, someone who’s not bilingual can be a very effective tutor.”

The organization first came in contact with Urrea when he spoke at Aspen Words and area schools in 2012.

“I personally have witnessed him turn a packed auditorium of 200 skeptical, slouching, seemingly indifferent teenagers into an engaged, cheering mob,” said board member Julie Pickrell, who helped connect Urrea with English in Action.

“He’s such an inspirational speaker,” Beaulieu agreed. “He has opened a window into different life experiences and different cultures. Many of his stories talk about situations that are similar to what our students have gone through. It was a great fit for English in Action.”

“I think there’s something for everybody in his work,” she added. “His talk will not be focused on just one book, it will be about his experience growing up in Tijuana and San Diego and his journey to becoming a writer.”

Hailed by NPR as a “literary badass” and a “master storyteller with a rock and roll heart,” Urrea is a prolific writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss and triumph.

His recent story collection “The Water Museum,” was named a best book of the year by The Washington Post and Kirkus Reviews, among others. The National Endowment for the Arts chose his bestselling novel “Into the Beautiful North” — which included a scene in Glenwood Springs — as a Big Read selection. “The Devil’s Highway,” his 2004 nonfiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” his bestselling historical novel, tells the story of Urrea’s great-aunt Teresa Urrea, known as the Saint of Cabora and the Mexican Joan of Arc. The book involved 20 years of research and writing and won the Kiriyama Prize in fiction.

Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother, Urrea is most recognized as a border writer, though his real passion is for the bridges that transcend them.

“I feel particularly riven by the border,” he said. “It went right down the middle of our lives.”

“Every place is a border town now,” he added. “People are trapped between cultures. They feel rejected by one and ashamed of the other and they’re lost.”

Urrea’s job as he sees it is to bare witness and tell the truth as he sees it. While the characters and events in his works of fiction are products of his imagination, he takes plenty of inspiration from real life.

“I take it as a real honor that people trust me with that” he said. “I think you never go wrong representing humanity to other human beings.”

“I think the country yearns for connection,” he added. “A lot of the rhetoric is inflamed to the point of being cartoonish, but when the panic and rage start to abate, I think our natural desire as people is to work in partnership.”

Despite what he’s seen, Urrea finds glimmers of hope in border towns, fruit farms and his own family.

“We have Phd’s where I was the first person to go to college,” he observed. “That’s how quickly the American Dream can work.”

His next project will focus on women in the Red Cross during World War II. He doesn’t see anything odd about the apparent shift of topic.

“First and foremost, my job is to give you a good story,” he said. “Beyond borders and ethnicity, it’s a human question.”

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