The House of Broken Angels

by Luis Alberto Urrea

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

Laid low by a fatal illness, Miguel Angel De La Cruz decides that he may be nearly out but he will not be down: he will throw himself the party of a lifetime. Just as his plans start to firm up, however, his mother dies. The fiesta will now be a funeral. The author uses the paradox of finding joy in sorrow to hold together a sometimes rambling multi-generational family saga, spanning the United States and Mexico. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in San Diego, Urrea explores how the physical and conceptual border figures into the diverse characters’ lives.

The younger half-brother, called “Little” Angel to distinguish him from the older Miguel or “Big” Angel, is the protagonist. Positioning him as the central voice creates a particular tension, because he is the one sibling who has a different mother than the rest and grew up in a different household. His mother also was from the United States rather than Mexico, so the family considers him a “gringo” and teases him as inauthentically Mexican. These lifelong identity issues instill a desire for understanding in him, and this desire is far deeper than curiosity. Although Urrea probes these issues deeply, he also does so with gentleness and humor.

The complex relationship with their father also holds the book together. A problematic character who looked for his own identity affirmation through womanizing and drinking, Antonio had tried to forge a new life in the foreign land, only to find his hopes dashed by borders of racism and language. For Little Angel, awareness of his own greater opportunities in life eventually overtakes his shame at being only half anything. The author effectively moves between past and present, using the younger man’s memories to help the reader understand the family conflicts and alliances in the present.

Urrea also includes his debt to other Latin American authors and to U.S. authors who have written about Mexico. The matriarch lives to be 100, as did Doña Ursula in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The title alludes to Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits, another family saga that likewise satirized the earlier novel. The Mexican town the family hails from is La Paz, with a character named Perla—clearly alluding to John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. In these and other ways, Urrea sets himself within and against prevailing literary images of Latin America.

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