- We Are Family
Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Company
368 Pages; Print, $11.99
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea brings to life the story of a family gathering for the funeral of the de la Cruz family's oldest living member, Mamá América, in what the author describes as "a Mexican Finnegan's Wake." On the day after the funeral, the family celebrates the last birthday of Big Angel, who is deteriorating from cancer and concerned with who will take his place as the family's patriarch. Full of humor, tender moments, and feelings of loss, this story of a multigenerational family reuniting presents a complicated, at times heartwarming, glimpse of an individual Mexican American family at a time of grief and joy, providing a necessary slice of humanity. The pages drip with the inside jokes by family members deathly afraid of the silence that hangs thick with tension from the passage of time that collapses amongst loved ones, bringing back youthful longing and forgotten heartache.
In House of Broken Angels, Urrea follows in the tradition of Latinx storytellers. A family tree at the end of the novel diagrams the de la Cruz family and harkens back to the Buendia family of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Instead of a Columbian village learning of the invention of ice, Urrea's House invents a San Diego barrio with true-to-life depictions of the harsh realities that immigrants face crossing into the US, struggles to keep a family together, confrontations with racism, and reconciliation with the myth of the American Dream.
For audiences desiring the familial tales from times past, Urrea includes the struggle of life in Mexico that precipitates crossing over into the US. Over the course of the two days when the novel takes place, Urrea takes the reader on a flashback to Big Angel's youth, setting out to earn money as a young man on a boat with an unscrupulous Chentebent. Wanting to make his way in the world and out of the Mexican city of La Paz, Big Angel escapes the boat of Chentebent, where Angel is captive to the whims
of the drunken and criminally violent boat captain. Though not as dire as circumstances facing Central Americans in countries ravaged by narco violence, Angel's experience in Mexico helps the audience to understand how motivations to migrate often come from life-threatening factors back at home that are beyond a migrant's control.
In the context of Trump-era "build the wall" political rhetoric, Urrea includes complicated histories and generations of crossing the border, with the voices of former crossers and the children of immigrants. Almost torn from headlines circulating in social media, The House of Broken Angels includes the voices of an emboldened woman in Target who tells family members to "go back to their own country" and the everyday racist command to "speak English." The novel does not linger on these moments for too long, although their inclusion undergirds the world in which the characters occupy as one anchored in our own politically turbulent moment. In his good-natured way, Urrea tells a very real story of a Mexican American family with a divorce that forever damaged relationships between characters and mixed backgrounds that include an educated professor, Little Angel, Yndio the Cher impersonator, someone simply called "Pato" (because of his duck laugh), and Lalo the army vet. Lalo grapples with having served and injured in the US army overseas, though he is unable to receive citizenship as the army recruiter promised. The familial tensions are timeless while the individuals caught in the flawed immigration process and the struggle for LGBTQIA rights speak to commonplaces in our current political landscape.
Never one to dedicate too much text to description, Urrea captures the feelings and smells of homes with well-placed asides about the merits of instant coffee or facial tattoos indicative of a gang murder. Capturing differing perspectives in the multigenerational family, the dialogue is layered with...