I came to Baja Arizona to stay one summer in the ’90s. Or I thought I would stay. I was in such a state of career and personal collapse that I believed I would never be able to scrounge enough gas money to drive on down the highway, like so many questionable dudes I met at my friend’s favorite bar. His name was The Bear. He bought. The Bear was one of those guys who lurk around the far edges of Tucson—banned for stealing cue balls from several watering holes. I never did find out what he did with them.
I was in a tiny white adobe up by the UA. I was down to my last box of Minute Rice. I ate one bowl a day. I did have a bottle of Tabasco, though. So I was set.
Fortunately, I had indigenous cousins on the south side. Down where you could see the black mesa of the O’odham people. My cuz was a medicine woman of the Mayo tribe; she could see dead people walk the ridge. They carried torches. Her husband was Yaqui, and he didn’t see things like that. They all let her do her mystical thing in that house. He would kiss me when I went down there.
The medicine woman could not believe I had let my karma go so rotten that I was eating faux rice and fearing for my soul. Man, I was ruined. The Tucson Weekly occasionally gave me a gig—so I scraped together rent money. It was food that was the extravagance.
Local writers took good care of me. Brian Laird often invited me to coffee at the Cup Café. And he would manufacture a powerful hunger for a meat loaf sandwich. “Let’s have a Gila Monster!” he’d suddenly suggest, and order them and pay for them. Saint Brian of the Holy Bank Account.
Grace came in that form. Food. The medicine woman would call me. “M’ijo, I made tacos.” Or,
“Have you ever had green tamales?” Now, I’m from the West Coast, and Mexicans don’t eat green tamales there.
“Is that an Arizona thing?” I asked.
“That’s a goddamned Indian thing,” she replied.
I was in the car in a minute.
She wasn’t going to coddle me. She found my despair and ruin a fine bit of vision-questing. I was appalled that she liked it when I suffered. But her heart cracked about once a week.
“M’ijo, I made a big cosido.”
I had not eaten that, either—soup with corncobs and meat and potatoes and other happy-looking things in colorful swimsuits drifting in crystalline caldo.
I had a dead rattlesnake in my fridge, coiled on some tortillas. She wouldn’t eat that.
“What are you?” she said. “A savage?”
I did not understand until I was hungry that blessings come in corn masa. That deserts teem with sustenance—and you can even eat if you know what to harvest.
P.S.—I lived. ✜
Luis Alberto Urrea is the best-selling author of 13 books, including The Devil’s Highway, which won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, to a Mexican father and an American mother, Urrea is a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame and has published extensively in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He lives with his family in Naperville, Illinois, where he is a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.