Luis Alberto Urrea was born in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1955. His father was Mexican and his mother American. He grew up in a poor neighborhood until his family moved to a mostly white suburb of San Diego. He was the first in his family to graduate from college (the University of California at San Diego). He also completed graduate studies at the University of Colorado.
Urrea returned to his neighborhood in Tijuana to complete mission work after he graduated from college, which fulfilled his curiosity about the Mexican part of his heritage and also served to fuel his poems, essays, and stories. His first book, Across the Wire (1993), stories of Mexican border residents near Tijuana, was named a New York Times Notable Book and won a Christopher Award. In 1999, he won the American Book Award for his memoir, Nobody’s Son: Notes From an American Life.
An honest portrait of people living in great deprivation can be found in his book By the Lake of Sleeping Children (1996). Without falling into the trap of sentimentality or shock tactics, Urrea describes people in such desperate conditions that they are forced to leave their children in garbage cans and elsewhere.
In The Devil’s Highway (2004), Urrea offers a tragedy that is explained by historical events, cultural forces, and politics. Reviewers praise Urrea’s brilliance at offering an engaging story with in-depth investigative reporting. Readers witness the abject conditions that drive the illegals to such a fateful decision. The Los Angeles Times called the book “superb.” The Devil's Highway also provided a rare look at the changes in border control policy following 9/11. It gave readers surprising insight into the Muslim missionaries that have moved into Mexico, replacing the Christian ones and setting even more complications along the border.
His next work, The Hummingbird’s Daughter (2005), is an epic novel that took him twenty years to write. Into the Beautiful North (2009) is the story of a woman’s journey to America. In 2005, Urrea was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction. He has also won an American Book Award.
Urrea is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.