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Luis Urrea takes book tour media to Tijuana dump.

The vagaries of literary fame

The newsguys are also surprised at how courteous and friendly the trash-pickers at the Tijuana dump are.
  • The newsguys are also surprised at how courteous and friendly the trash-pickers at the Tijuana dump are.

We’re sitting in the greenroom at KMEX-TV, on the Paramount lot on Melrose. It’s actually a raunchy little lunchroom with a television atop the Coke machines showing Star Trek. Taping for a Mexican talk show is going to begin in about a half hour. The assembled young men eat bag suppers and chat in Spanish.

Visiting the Tijuana dump is no different from visiting a friend at work. It is, after all, a factory.

Visiting the Tijuana dump is no different from visiting a friend at work. It is, after all, a factory.

Suddenly, Mexico’s Official Bombshell, Olga Briskin, totters in on an absurdly tall pair of stiletto heels. Actually, in true Mexican Sex-Goddess fashion, everything about Olga is somewhat absurd: she is shoehorned into a white late-period Elvis jumpsuit, and she moves as if she were a barely contained explosion of buttocks and breasts. My partner, Victor, and I look at each other in disbelief. Olga maneuvers her Leatherette wiggle directly in front of us, then she turns and stares at herself in profile in the wall-length mirrors. We are then treated to an amazing sight: Olga clenches her butt-muscles and watches, as if in reverie, her nalgas rise in fabulous flesh-domes, pushing the white jumpsuit to the extremes of its stitching.

In three months, my little book about the Tijuana dump will go into three printings, shocking everybody at Doubleday.

In three months, my little book about the Tijuana dump will go into three printings, shocking everybody at Doubleday.

Olga and me, the Schmooze-meisters. I’m the one they save for the last three minutes of the show, the guy in the slot reserved for the farmer from Iowa who has meticulously crafted the world’s largest yarn-ball. I carry a pen. I’m the writer.

I wrote a book about Tijuana, about the garbage dump-dwellers and the street kids. Incredibly, it was published by Anchor/Doubleday. In three months, my little book will go into three printings, shocking everybody at Doubleday, but mostly shocking me. I’m still reeling from being dumped by my wife, and the media blitz that follows publication is confusing to me, at best. I’m feeling like Mr. Worthless while 30 radio and television shows in a row gush about what I have done. One morning I do a radio interview on the phone — naked. I lie on my bed and think of the thousands of listeners completely unaware that they’re darned lucky I’m on radio and not TV.

The garbage-pickers are not embarrassed in the least.

The garbage-pickers are not embarrassed in the least.

I’m on a book tour, and one of the stops on the journey is KMEX. I have just returned from Boulder, Miami, Chicago, San Antonio, San Francisco. I am about to go off to Denver, Tucson, D.C., Boston. Miami again, San Antonio again. Lafayette, El Paso, upstate New York. All along the way, I am booked into fabulous rooms in pretentious hotels. In San Francisco, I’m bunked in the Four Seasons; my room has a small office attached in case I need to write, and the bathroom is appointed in gray and rose marble, with a phone beside the toilet. All of this on Doubleday’s tab.

We often delight in leaving the doors unlocked when we get out, greatly worrying the reporters.

We often delight in leaving the doors unlocked when we get out, greatly worrying the reporters.

I’ve been ordering room service for the first time in my life. And I think, lying in my king-sized beds, watching HBO and drinking goodies out of the rooms’ wet bars, I am here to talk about starving people on the border. I watch the doormen snag $5 tips for carrying some lazy bastard’s bag from the cab to the front desk, and I know that if my friends in Tijuana knew about this, they’d all come across the border en masse: two million free-agent doormen wandering the streets of America offering to carry anything they could get hold of.

Dante and Bosch are often cited as references when the newsguys get a look at the dompe, the many little graves on the hills.

Dante and Bosch are often cited as references when the newsguys get a look at the dompe, the many little graves on the hills.

Olga has toadies in attendance, a seemingly matched set in Male and Female. The woman carries billows of costuming; the man apparently drives, receives withering glances, and totes Olga’s armory o’ jewels. He clutches the Briskin jewelry box to his breast and watches her morosely.

Olga is taller than everyone in the room. She herself is clearly tall, but the stilettos and the explosive Tina Turner ’do add at least three feet to her presence. She has traded in her jumpsuit for a skin-tight sequined evening gown with a see-through panel that plunges toward her navel. She never looks at me. Not once, even when we’re being made up. Then she further amazes us all by grabbing her breasts and wrestling them into a more cleavage-deepening attitude.


We wait in a grimy news studio next door to the actual taping. Olga has taken over the set: I stare at her on the monitor. She is complaining about sexism. She lays into men for their ridiculous interest in her bosoms.

I am distracted by a newsman rushing in and sitting behind the news desk. A red light goes on, and he’s reading the “news at 11” drop-in on the air. I’m about ten feet away from him. He wears a suit-coat and dapper shirt and tie, while below the level of the desk he has on white tennis shorts with gym socks and running shoes. I am suddenly convinced that Ted Leitner is actually nude from the waist down every night on the news. Who would know? Hey — I’ve done it!

When I turn back to the monitor, Olga has yet another astonishment to spring on the world. She is shown, jaw clenched in righteous artistic fury, sawing away at a violin. In fact, she is wearing one of her low-cut, painted-on gowns, while women dance around her, and she is standing on a rotating turntable, and — can this be? — yes, she is in fact playing “Bolero” with gusto!

“My act,” she later confides, “is now done with an eye toward taste.”

I sit in the garage-door home of Negra, one of the heroes of my book, and one of my best friends. Toys from the latest “91Xmas” drive are still holding together, though conditions in these dirt barrios are hard on things. The dolls have a sort of leprous skin condition, their arms and legs tattooed with a mysterious patina of gray-brown biological smears. All the dolls are naked.

We munch Taco Bell burritos — Negra’s favorite food. Lately, I have subjected her to a spate of enthusiastic media-types, eager for a touching photo-op. She endures their attentions with aplomb. In fact, she has become adept at interviews and photo sessions. When I pull up with a van-load of gringos, she doesn't even blink — she puts her baby in my arms and heads inside to get spruced up.

She asks me if Olga Briskin was a cabrona. Victor, one of the old hands of the missionary group I wrote about in my book, always drives. We have it down to a science. We bring them through town, to Negra's house. Then Negra takes over, walking them through her barrio as they furiously snap shots of: shacks, dogs, wrecked cars, the fabulous view of San Diego, the picturesque dirty children. We hop into the van, and Victor pilots us to the Tijuana garbage dump.

Dante and Bosch are often cited as references when the newsguys get a look at the dompe, the many little graves on the hills, and the outer ring of shacks. They are also surprised at how courteous and friendly the trash-pickers are. We often delight in leaving the doors unlocked when we get out, greatly worrying the reporters. They obviously imagine their Gucci bags and pocketbooks drifting away on a brown shoulder.

But how are the reporters to know that these hunched and grimy people are working? How could you know that trash-picking is a skilled labor, and it is passed down from generation to generation?

That the garbage-pickers are not embarrassed in the least — might even be proud? That this work feeds children, clothes families, buys groceries, brings in small but fairly steady amounts of money.

Visiting the Tijuana dump is no different from visiting a friend at work. It is, after all, a factory. And the trash-pickers are busy — too busy to worry about lazy gringos wandering about. And most of them are Workers, in the traditional union-loving sense of the word: focused on a difficult job, they have no time to be rummaging around in someone else’s car. When you're working for your family, you do not want to demean yourself by stealing.

One fascinating event came from this culture-clash of gringo visitors and dump-dwellers, and it illustrates perfectly what I'm talking about.

John Lueders-Booth, the photographer for my book, is a Harvard professor of photography. The dump-people have come to know and value him. After having been subjected to his photo-safaris (over 10,000 pictures taken on four visits), they jokingly refer to him as “the terrorist with a camera.” Booth has provided some of the people with their only photo albums: Art prints of children and elders appear with incongruous regularity in the shacks.

One day, Booth was shooting the dompe when a clay cliff some 50 yards away collapsed, burying a woman alive. He dropped all his equipment — cameras, lenses, film, vest — and ran to the landslide with several others. They frantically dug at the soil with their hands. Booth thought the woman was surely dead, but they managed to find her head and free it from the dirt so she could breathe. Then began the long task of digging the rest of her from the ground.

They finally managed to free her, and they got her on her feet and walked her around until she was steady again. Booth later told me he knew he had lost a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of stuff, but at least he’d saved a life. He figured it was a good trade. But, just to check, he went back to where he’d been shooting. The trash-pickers had cleared out a spot and stacked all his equipment there neatly. Everything was in its place.

Later, Negra smiled when I told her this story. “Of course,” she said. “They’re workers. You have to take care of your tools.”


The cameramen can’t resist getting a shot of me looking off in the distance. Often, I’m standing with Negra, and we stare out at the sea through billows of predatory dump gulls. Actually, it’s a rather beautiful sight, all those hundreds of gulls swirling like a living cloud of fog. Sometimes, there seem to be thousands of them, and their shrill chorus overarches the dompe, a high note above the tidal sound of tractors and crashing glass. And the little graves have pale blue and white wooden planks on them, paper flowers fading to pastels in the brutal sun. The garbage is a riot of color: from a distance, it seems to have a pointillist design, as if you could back away for a mile and suddenly see a vast mural in the many dots of color. And beyond, the sea, glittering benignly, with its humped islands pulling the trash-pickers’ eyes to them, their dull slopes swarming with dreams of escape and cool breezes.

I don’t know if the photographers can see this or not. They usually favor the tractors, the floppy banana peel, the mangy dog. They also like it when Negra and I hold hands, or lean against each other — some sort of waifs-in-the-apocalypse image. Lately, though, Victor and I have noticed something else happening. It’s a kind of Kevin Costner thing: they like me to undo my ponytail and let my hair blow. Look off in dreamy poses. For a while now, Victor and I have been joking when it’s time to head down there again: “It’s time to go look sensitive.”

We have started to call the process Dances With Mexicans.

The book tour really kicks into gear in Miami. I have, of course, never been to Miami. Needless to say, I have never been on book tour either, and the drill is a labyrinthine mystery to me. I get off the plane, gawk at the Miami sky, and grab a cab to Coral Gables, where I’m registered at the Hyatt. I spend a comfortable night playing millionaire and eating the $8.95 Reuben sandwich in bed.

The next morning, I am greeted by my media escort, Penny. This is a fascinating new feature of my life — escorts. They pick you up, drive you around, provide snacks, meals, and companionship. My favorite thing on tour is to grill them about who the biggest jerk is. Nobody wants to say, though one author — who will remain nameless — is smelliest, Stephen King is funniest, and Ursula K. Le Guin is everybody’s favorite. Oddly, I keep missing Bill Moyers and Gloria Steinem on my tour. (Moyers, one escort was told, loves health food. She had a huge treat basket in her car filled with Evian and rice cakes. Moyers scrambled around, tossing aside the rabbit food, until he found some really satisfying candy bars and high-octane sodas. I got the rice cakes.)

Penny tells me most authors don’t want to do much while on tour. What, are you kidding? I’ve never been here! I’m on vacation! Between TV shows, we dash off to Homestead to look at hurricane damage, then off to the Everglades, then over to a fruit stand where we drink key lime shakes. We walk the boardwalk, hit all the Art Deco hotels on Miami Beach, eat Cuban food (I fall in love with a beautiful Cubana who suddenly — with a voice like James Earl Jones — reveals herself to be a Cuban drag queen), and drive around Coconut Grove looking at the impossibly tanned and liposucked Jerseyites hitting the disco trail.

Brief stops in various studios slow down the pace, of course. One of the radio shows is hosted by a rabidly anti-Castro former recording star and occasional telenovela actress. She begins her show by ranting about the imminent Communist collapse of Puerto Rico, then warns her elderly listeners that the Socialist regime of Bill Clinton is going to steal all their social security moneys.

Finally, she turns to me and says, sweetly, “So, Luis — Mexicans live like animals!”


Chicago is a disaster.

I’ve been booked to appear at the Council for Foreign Relations at a local university to talk about NAFTA. I know nothing about the free trade agreement, I warn them, but they still expect an Illumination. A Republican Illumination.

As soon as I arrive, it is obvious that the Council consists of Midwestern businessmen in retirement, dragging their hausfraus along. They don their old suits and sit through various political natterings, feeling important, then storm up to the lobby to eat lots of free gourmet food. I no longer own a suit, having tossed all my office-whore get-ups when I decided to write full-time. I imagine somehow a snappy black sweater and black cowboy boots will do the trick: I happen to be wrong. The ponytail really thrills them, too.

My speech is too hideous to recount here. As I gaze out over the crowd, I see THAT LOOK. You’ve seen it. It’s the look Tom Metzger gets sometimes on TV when a really doltish talk-show host says something liberal. It’s that look that says: I have an old turd stuck under my nose and I don’t like it one bit.

During the question-and-answer period, I dig a deeper hole when I suggest — diplomatically, I think — that big business is not altogether honorable, and there is some — silly me! —danger of nefarious dealings in Mexico once NAFTA kicks in. The vague smattering of applause I receive at the end of this session says all I need to know about how well the book’s going to sell in Chicago.

Before I can submit to the humiliation of actually joining these gray people at the food table, a retired CEO accosts me and starts hollering incoherently, “It’s a question of the bottom line, mister!” and “Big business is the most honorable citizen of these United States!” I’m thinking, tell that to Ford Pinto drivers, to GMC truck drivers, to United Fruit, to Dow, to the maquiladora babies being born without spinal columns, but Dennis, my escort, has me by the elbow and is steering me out of there. I glance back; the CEO is quaking in rage, and I’m sure he’s going to pop a vein and start spraying blood out of his noggin like a garden hose.

I sit at a table in the lobby and watch these Chicagoans eat. Nobody looks at me. I am smiling inanely at everybody from behind a wall of books with my pen eagerly poised. One old guy wanders over and picks one up, then glances at me. “Would you like to buy one?” the evening’s hostess asks. He sneers and tosses it back on the table and adjourns to the fancy macaroni salad.

“Gee, Dennis!” I chirp, “I hate to be going!”

We bail out of there and laugh all the way to the airport. I have a late flight to San Antonio. I arrive at 1:00 a.m. I have a 6:30 appearance at a Mexican radio station. When I wake up in Texas, I can’t remember where I am. I lie in bed and wonder if I’m in California yet.

Negra knows she’s famous. She likes being famous. Her enthusiasm for the book is sometimes my greatest reward. She says, “You gave me a life.”

“No,” I say. “How could I have done that?”

“People all over the United States who never knew I existed now know my life story,’ she says. She looks at her photographs in the book. “it’s our story, she says, “It’s a love story.”

Her girls are stampeding through the middle distance, chasing pigs. Someone has given them miniature pot-bellied pigs. They can’t quite grasp the concept and have become convinced that a black magic curse has been put on the pigs, that the evil eye is keeping them tiny. They scoff when I tell them the pigs are meant to be small, and they take the pigs to a curandera to remove the curse. For some reason, the blessing doesn’t work.

Sometimes, I’m fooled: what I take to be a puppy sleeping in the corner is a micro-pig.

I regularly bring Negra greetings from Hispanic stars. She is thrilled to receive a hello from one of the actresses acting in the telenovela called “Yolanda.” And I look around and realize that Negra is famous. Her life is as irrevocably changed as mine, and we are entering into a strange new life together, this fascinating experiment.

People sometimes give me money for her, buy loads of groceries unexpectedly and send them with Victor and me. She has a house built of lumber that Victor and I smuggled into her on a flatbed truck. The border guards didn’t want to let us through with the wood, but we were saved by machismo: the comandante was inspecting the border crossing when we pulled up. He came out to see what we were doing, and the guard made the fatal error of telling him, “You cannot allow this wood to enter, Mi Comandante.” In utter fury, the comandante shouted, “I am the one who gives the orders here! I’ll pass whatever the hell I feel like passing!”

“Since you’re feeling generous,” I asked, “can we bring in a second load?”

Thus, Negra’s new house.

They have two battered trucks now. She drives the girls to school in the morning, while her mate, Jaime, drives co-workers to the dump. And lately, she has been dreaming of writing her autobiography.

“No one really knows,” she says, “what it feels like to live in the trash.”


Back at KMEX, the hostess says, “Olga went on a little too long.”

Tee-hee, we all say.

“I’m afraid you only have three minutes.” Ho-ho, we all say.

“Can Olga sit on my lap?” I ask.

This seems to be a shocking quip and frozen smiles settle into place.

“Good luck,” one of the cameramen says. Suddenly, I feel guilty about Olga Briskin. I want to go ask her to sign something. Tell her I adore her choreographed “Bolero.” Ask her to send Negra a note.

“What do you want me to ask?” the hostess says.

“Huh?” I say.

She no doubt is beginning to suspect that I am going to be a massive flop.

“What’s interesting about your book,” she says, “that you’d like the public to know about? In three minutes.”

I have to think about it.

“Ask about the children,” I say. She blinds me with her smile and they count down and the camera is on and I chat mindlessly for two and a half minutes, then she says good-day for a half-minute and the crew congratulates me and I’m back in the other studio, watching Olga pick earrings out of her jewelry box. She has returned to the fabulous jumpsuit.

She drops an earring on the floor. She follows it as it rolls over by my foot. I’m about to pick it up, but she obviously won’t hear of it. She folds like a pocketknife and lowers herself, retrieves it with impossibly long nails, then rises. She comes up to her full height almost as though pneumatic pistons were driving her from within. Unfortunately, the jumpsuit is so tight that she has popped her pants open and her zipper comes down her universally adored belly all by itself.

She marshals herself, tosses her mane, and walks out. Not a glance at anyone else in the room. We all watch her as she pauses for the merest second for her driver to open a door for her, and she’s gone into the night. The hairdressers, who a few minutes ago scrambled for her autograph, now laugh derisively in her wake. “She’s going to fall over,” one of them says.

I can smell her perfume for the rest of the night.

Paulo Amorim, ace reporter for Tele-Globo Brazil, is blown away by Negra and the dompe. “It’s a favelal” he says, falling back on his own language to explain what he’s seeing. “But never have I seen such a thing,” he gestures toward the U.S., “so close to such wealth.”

We have spent hours with illegals amassing at the border. The Brazilians are astonished that the Mexicans can just drop off a block retaining wall on the road to Playas de Tijuana and be on some gringo’s farm. We meet one small group from Guerrero. One of the men tore his hands apart the night before on barbed wire. They’re scabbed into claws, and he can’t close his palms. He laughs.

The leader of the group has been working at a horse ranch up north, and he’s gone back home for his cowboy friends. They huddle. He murmurs to them, intense and handsome in the late light, “Don’t be afraid. You follow me, and always stick together. Don’t let anyone get arrested alone. Watch out for each other because we’re alone in this world.” They pat each other and head out.

Paulo is beside himself. The cameraman is shooting tape after tape, all too good to pass up. The Border Patrol toys with us, driving along the fence and waving pleasantly.

One of the runners turns to me and says, “Is he famous?”

“He’s famous in Brazil,” I say.

“Is that in Europe?” the runner asks. Then, “Are you famous?”

I’m stumped. We just stare at each other. “I don’t know,” I say.


Negra nails the taping on every take. She immediately understands pick-up shots, reaction shots. She chats glibly, gestures expansively, just like a television star. The cameraman pulls me aside and says, “She’s beautiful.”

Then they ask us to stand together and look, well, sensitive. We lean close to each other, let our hair go in the Costner wind, and stare up at the gulls.

She doesn’t know it, but I’m putting aside a percentage of everything I earn from my book for her. I am eager to get on the road again, get back to Miami, where Doubleday is inviting me to a party with Pat Conroy and Margaret Atwood and John Grisham. That’s the nicest thing about this, you know — being a fan and meeting all the Big Kids. I think: I spend all my days doing exactly what I have always wanted to do. I think: Someone I don’t know is reading my words at this very moment. I think: Someone in Brazil will turn on a TV and see Negra and me. I think: Sometimes, dreams really do come true.

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