Ryan Chartrand

Luis Alberto Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother. “The border runs down the middle of me,” he writes. “I have a barbed-wire fence neatly bisecting my heart.”

With the appearance of a “gringo” and the spirit of a Mexican, Urrea represents both countries without fully belonging to either, making the Harvard professor the perfect travel guide to “the secret life of the Mexican border.” In his book, “By the Lake of Sleeping Children,” Urrea illustrates both the controversy and the stark reality of life directly south of the United States.

“By the Lake of Sleeping Children” provides a well-rounded narrative of many aspects of Urrea’s Mexican experience. Each chapter seems to be written slightly differently – from factual articles to deeply descriptive accounts. This discrepancy in style stems from the fact that “By the Lake of Sleeping Children” is a compilation of several essays and articles that appeared in various publications.

These essays portray Urrea’s personal encounters; a day in the life of a borderland family, Mexican orphanages, immigration, and even provide a lesson in Mexican slang (who knew the tune “Shave and a Haircut” is an obscenity south of the border?).

Urrea paints, in vivid detail, the lives of a group of people who spend their day sorting through the tons of litter at the Tijuana dump, where floods uproot graves from the nearby trash-strewn cemetery and mix remains with refuse.

In the same dump, orphaned children and wild dogs fight over turf and struggle to survive by any means necessary. It is obvious that at times, Urrea manipulates his audience’s reaction by directing his focus on children. What hardened heart can read about starving, dying and abandoned children without a rush of sentiment?

His basic premise shows that these lives are beyond human help. The state of existence in the area has reached such a low that neither Mexico’s own people nor busloads of well-intentioned Orange County youth groups can make a positive dent in its squalor. Urrea merely gives the reader a glimpse into the daily realities of a different way of life, and lets his audience come to its own conclusions.

Urrea’s writing is often crude, even offensive, but his bleak honesty shows he is leaving no stone unturned in his portrayal.

Despite this fact, Urrea has a gift for showing beauty in unlikely places: like the mother nursing her baby after a day working at the dump, or the neglected boy who tenderly cares for the orphanage’s chickens.

Urrea has published works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. His background in creative writing is evident in his book – his descriptions are strewn with plush images.

In one scene, he writes about the sky above the dump; “Knots of clouds speed east, far above the gulls, and the gulls rise so high that they seem an optical illusion: from huge birds to nearly invisible specks in the sky, they seem to hang on wires, a mad museum display, held in place by the violent wind.”

Although depressing, “By the Lake of Sleeping Children” is a unique and worthwhile read. Urrea’s talent for stark but scenic language is the spoonful of sugar that helps readers swallow the medicine of the dismal state of human life portrayed, but still leaves an ominous chill.

Haley Stocking is an English senior with a minor in theatre. E-mail any questions, comments or book recommendations to hstockin@calpoly.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *