Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the
Filled with unforgettable characters and prose as radiant as the Sinaloan sun, INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH is the story of an irresistible young woman's quest to find herself on both sides of the fence.
Release date: June 16, 2010
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 352
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Into the Beautiful North
Luis Alberto Urrea
good time for bad men to come to town. But Tres Camarones was unguarded on that late summer’s day when so many things had
already changed. And everything that remained was about to change forever.
Nobody in the village liked change. It had taken great civic upheaval to bring electricity to Tres Camarones, for example.
Until 1936, ice came in big trucks, and fathers took their sons to observe it when it slid down the ramps in great clear blocks.
It took the visionary mayor, Garcí a-García the First, to see the potential in electrical power, and he had lobbied for two
years to have the wires strung from far Villaunión. Still, there were holdouts a good decade after Tres Camarones had begun
to glow with yellow light. Such stalwarts relied on candles, kerosene lamps, and small bonfires in the street. These blazes,
though festive, blocked the scant traffic and the trucks bearing beer and sides of beef, and Garcí a-García had to resort
to the apocalyptic stratagem of banning street fires entirely. Denounced as an Antichrist, he was promptly defeated in the
next election. Later, he was reelected: even if his policies had been too modernizing for some, the residents of Tres Camarones
realized that a new mayor meant change, and change was the last thing they wanted. Progress might be inevitable, but there
was no reason they should knuckle under without a fight.
True, the occasional hurricane devastated the low-lying forest and semitropical jungles and reformed the beaches. Often, parts
of the town were washed away or carried out to sea. But the interior clock of evolution in Tres Camarones was set only to
these cataclysms of nature.
And then, the peso dropped in value. Suddenly there was no work. All the shrimp were shipped north, tortillas became too expensive
to eat, and people started to go hungry. We told you change was bad, the old-timers croaked.
Nobody had heard of the term immigration. Migration, to them, was when the tuna and the whales cruised up the coast, or when Guacamaya parrots flew up from the south.
Traditionalists voted to revoke electricity, but it was far too late for that. No woman in town would give up her refrigerator,
her electric fan, or her electric iron. So the men started to go to el norte. Nobody knew what to say. Nobody knew what to do. The modern era had somehow passed Tres Camarones by, but this new storm
had found a way to siphon its men away, out of their beds and into the next century, into a land far away.
The bandidos came with the sunrise, rolling down the same eastern road that had once brought the ice trucks. There were two
of them. They had to drive south from Mazatlán, which was at least an hour and forty minutes away, then creak off the highway
and take the cutoff toward the coast. Explosions of parrots, butterflies, and hummingbirds parted before them. They didn’t
One of them was an agent of the Policía Estatal, the dreaded Sinaloa State Police. He earned $150 a month as a cop. The drug
cartel in the north of the state paid him $2,500 a month as an advisory fee. He got a $15,000 bonus each Christmas.
The other was a bottom-level narco who, nevertheless, was the state cop’s boss. What he needed to really get ahead in his
game was a territory to call his own, but the cartel had the state sewn up, and there was no room for him in Baja California,
Sonora, or Chihuahua. He had hit the drug gangster’s glass ceiling and it irked him, because he looked so damned good. The
boys called him Scarface. He liked that. In spite of the awful heat and soggy air of the coastal swamplands, he wore a white
sport jacket and regarded the world through mirrored sunglasses, sucking on a cinnamon toothpick.
Neither of the two bandidos enjoyed this bucolic trip to the bottomlands. But the one in the jacket had gotten a cell phone
call from Culiacán that there were gringo surfos camping on the beach who were in need of some bud. He shook his head as he
looked out at the stupid mango trees: all this trouble for marijuana. “It’s a job,” Scarface said. The cop snorted.
Scarface wore his irritating chrome .45 automatic in a shoulder rig. It made his armpit and ribs into a swamp of perspiration.
It was against the law for a Mexican to carry an automatic weapon, though he didn’t even think about it. His partner wore
a uniform and had a heavy Bulldog .44 in a Sam Browne holster—the narco could smell its leather and was irritated by its squeaking
as the car bumped along the bad road.
The holster squeak was the closest they could get to a theme song. There was nothing on the radio out here except the crappy
Mexican music on AM.
“Me gusta Kanye West,” the narco said, snapping off the radio.
The state cop said, “Diddy es mejor.”
“¡Diddy!” cried Scarface.
They argued for a few moments.
Soon, they reverted to silence. The cop turned up the AC. His gun belt squealed.
“Dios mío,” Scarface sighed. “I hate the country.”
The men kept their windows rolled up, but they could still smell the ripe effluent of mud and clams and pigsties and spawning
fish in green water. They wrinkled their noses. “What is that?” the cop asked. “Boiling mangos?” They shook their heads, greatly
offended. The other one pointed.
“Outhouses!” he scoffed.
They couldn’t believe it! These towns were so backward, Emiliano Zapata and a bunch of revolutionaries could ride through
at any moment and fit right in. The bandidos, a generation removed from outhouses, sneered at the skinny dogs and the absurd
starving roosters that panicked as the car rolled over oyster shells and brushed aside sugarcane and morning glory vines.
The rubes down here had apparently never heard of blacktop. It was all dirt roads and cobblestones. No tourists.
They were slightly pleased, yet jealous, when they noted one of the small houses had a satellite dish.
As in most neighborhoods of most tropical Mexican villages, the walls of the homes in town went right to the edge of the street.
Walls were wavery and one block long, and several doors could be found in each. Each door denoted another address. The windows
had big iron railings and wooden shutters. Bougainvillea cascaded from several rooflines. Trumpet flowers. Lantana. The bandidos
knew that the back of each house was a courtyard with a tree and an open kitchen and some chickens and an iguana or two. Laundry.
On the street side, the walls were great splashes of color. One address might be white, and the next might be pale blue and
the next vivid red with a purple door. Sometimes, two primary colors were divided by a bright green drainpipe or a vibrating
line where the colors clashed and the human eye began to rattle in its socket.
The big police LTD rolled down the streets like a jaguar sniffing for its prey. The two visitors came out of the narrow alleys
into the open space of the town plazuela, a tawdry gazebo and a bunch of trees with their trunks whitewashed. On the other
side of the square, they spied a restaurant: TAQUERIA E INTERNET “LA MANO CAIDA.”
“The Fallen Hand Taco Shop? What kind of name is that?” the cop asked.
“It’s an Internet café, too,” the narco reminded him.
“Let’s get out of here quick,” his partner said. “I want to catch the beisbol game in Mazatlán tonight.” He spit out his toothpick.
They creaked to a halt and could hear the music blasting out of the Fallen Hand before they even opened the car’s doors.
Here came Nayeli, late for work again, dancing through town on her way to the Fallen Hand. She didn’t mean to dance—it was
just that everywhere she went, she swung and swayed, and it was all she could do to keep herself from running. She had been
the star forward of the Tres Camarones girls’ soccer team for four years, and even though she’d been out of high school for
a year, she was still in shape. Her dark legs were hard with muscle and she still wore her tiny school uniform skirt, so everybody
could admire them. Besides, clothes didn’t grow on trees.
Nayeli was dreaming of leaving town again. She wanted to see anything, everything. Wanted to go where lights changed color,
where airplanes lumbered overhead and the walls of great buildings were covered in television screens like in that Bill Murray
Japanese movie they’d seen at the Cine Pedro Infante the week before. She wanted shimmering lines of traffic in city rain.
She was eager to see a concert, ride a train, wear fancy clothes, and sip exotic coffees on a snowy boulevard. She had seen
elevators in a thousand movies, and she longed to ride one, though not on the roof of one like Jackie Chan.
Sometimes, she dreamed of going to the United States—“Los Yunaites,” as the people of the town called them—to find her father,
who had left and never come back. He traded his family for a job, and then he stopped writing or sending money. She didn’t
like to think about him. People kidded her that she never stopped smiling, and it made her look flirty, but thinking about
him made the smile fade. She walked faster.
Nayeli was coming from Aunt Irma’s campaign headquarters, located in the stifling kitchen of Irma’s house on Avenida Francisco
Madero. Irma, sick and tired of the ancient mayor of Tres Camarones (“That smelly old man!” she often complained), was making
history by running to replace him in the next election. It would be a first: Irma García Cervantes, the first female Municipal
President of Tres Camarones. It had an excellent ring to it. She had leadership experience—Aunt Irma was Sinaloa’s retired
Lady Bowling Champion—and she was used to celebrity and the heat of the public’s attentions. If political power was not her
destiny, she reasoned, it could only mean the Good Virgin herself had dictated that Mexico should continue its slide into
chaos and ruin.
One of Nayeli’s main tasks was to write with fat sidewalk chalk, “¡Aunt Irma for President!” on walls all around Tres Camarones.
As campaign manager, she earned twenty pesos a week, proving that Aunt Irma, too, had that affliction detested by Sinaloans
yet epidemic in proportion. They called it “el codo duro”: the hard elbow, or the unbending elbow—unbending when it came time
to spend money.
Twenty pesos! You couldn’t even afford corn tortillas anymore on twenty pesos. The Americans were buying up all the maize
for fuel, and none of the rancheros could afford to use it for food. What did come down to the people was too expensive to
purchase. So Nayeli danced on down the street to her second job, serving tacos and soft drinks at La Mano Caída.
Let’s eat,” the cop said. They had gotten restless, waiting for the damned Americano surfos to show up. They had a brick of
pot in the trunk of their car, and the clock was ticking. He tapped on the bar.
Tacho, the Fallen Hand’s taco master, glowered.
“What you got?” the cop asked.
Tacho was tired of the thugs. They glared too much for his taste.
“Food,” he said.
The narco smiled.
“You’re kind of mouthy for a queer.”
“He’s a queer?” the cop said.
“He’s wearing eye makeup,” said Scarface.
“I thought he was one of those emo kids you hear about.” The cop shrugged.
“Emo sucks,” Scarface muttered.
“I like Diddy,” the cop reminded him.
Tacho had just about had it, but suddenly, Nayeli burst through the doors.
“You’re late!” Tacho scolded.
“I’m sorry, Tachito mi amor,” she called, automatically falling into her flirting banter with him. “Tachito machito mi angelito.”
The gunmen snorted: Little Tacho, my little macho, my little angel. That was too rich. They nudged each other.
“You’re macho, eh?” the cop said. “A macho angel.”
“¿Eres joto?” the narco asked Tacho, because if this hot little girl was talking to him like that, he might not be a queer
Tacho made eyes at Nayeli. She hurried to tie on a white apron. She saw the silver glint of the narco’s .45 peeking out from
behind his jacket.
“Take a table,” Tacho said. “No need for gentlemen like yourselves to sit at the bar.”
He smiled at them—it looked as if he were getting a tooth pulled, but anything to get them across the room from him. He didn’t
want to have them near enough to smell their tacky cologne. One of them was wearing Old Spice!
They sat at one of Tacho’s quaking little tin Carta Blanca tables.
“What do you recommend?” the cop asked Nayeli.
“Tacho’s fried-oyster tortas are legendary,” she replied.
She turned away.
He grabbed her hand and pulled her back.
“You,” he said. “You’re under arrest.”
She felt a pure cold bolt of panic.
“You’re under suspicion”—he sneered—“of stealing my heart.”
He let her go and sent her back across the room on a gale of laughter. Her face was burning. Tacho whispered to her, “Viejo
feo.” Ugly old man. It was one of his favorite insults.
“Good one,” the narco was saying.
They kept laughing, wiping their eyes.
“Hey!” he called. “Girl! Bring us some drinks!”
Tacho sighed. “It’s going to be one of those days,” he said.
Nayeli fished two beers out of the vat of ice at the end of the bar.
The men scared her. She tried to think about other things when she was tense or afraid, better days, before things had turned
so sad, before everyone had become so poor.
She opened the beer bottles, served them, and rushed back to the end of the bar while Tacho started frying up the oysters.
The narco pulled his big pistol out of the shoulder holster and laid it on the table. He held open his jacket and flapped
his arm a little. He turned his head and eyed Nayeli. He patted the gun and smiled at her.
“Está caliente, la chaparra,” he noted.
The cop glanced over at her to see how hot the shortie really was. They studied her legendary legs. Her bright white teeth
against the deep cinnamon brown of her skin made her smile radiate like moonlight on water.
“A little dark,” he said. “But she’ll do.”
He winked at her and sipped his icy beer.
Nobody was quite sure if Tres Camarones was in Sinaloa or Nayarit, since the state line wavered in and out of the mangrove
swamps and lagoons thereabouts. There was no major highway going through; there was no local police station, no hotel or tourist
trap. No harbor, no television or radio station, no police station, no supermarket. The high school was in Villaunión, a long
sweaty bus trip away. The church was small and full of fruit bats. Of course, there was a small Carta Blanca beer distributor,
but come to think of it, the office had shut down when the men went north to find work. It was easier to float a boat down
the tributaries of the Baluarte River than it was to drive the dirt road spur that angled southwest off the highway to Rosario.
At any rate, nobody had ever worried about maps—on the official Pemex highway guides, Tres Camarones didn’t even exist.
The American boys who started it all by making a peeved chibacall to their Mazatlán connection, seeking a key of gold bud,
were on spring break from some college in California. They had wandered down the coast, looking for good surfing and party
spots, and they’d made the error of picking the sugar-white beaches outside Tres Camarones for their camp. The locals could
have told them—but didn’ t—that the picturesque beaches belied a brutal drop-off, and the waves hammered against a nearly
vertical wall of underwater mud. Other hazards abounded. The nearest popular beach was called Caimanero because big alligators
lurked in the foul freshwater swamps behind the shore—not a spot for frolic. Portuguese man-of-wars floated onto the beaches
all summer, killing everything they could sting. There was a spoiling porpoise carcass on the sand to bear testimony to their
powers. The safest salt water in that whole region was in the shallow turquoise lagoons where the women went crabbing with
floating straw baskets full of scrabbling jaibas, the big crabs taking their last little sea cruise before landing in the cooking pot. But you couldn’t surf a tranquil lagoon.
It wasn’t like the people hadn’t seen Americanos. Tres Camarones had been beset by tides of missionaries from Southern California.
But the Jesús Es Mi Fiel Amigo Sunday School and the End Times Templo Evangélico had finally closed down for lack of converts.
The “youth center” went back to being a muffler shop that was also closed because its owner had gone to Florida to pick oranges.
For a short while, an ashram run by a Wisconsin woman named Chrystal, who was in constant channeling-contact with the Venusian
UFO-naut P’taak, rose north of town. Several local workers had made good wages working on Chrystal’s pink cement pyramid on
her leased forty acres of scrub and pecan trees. But the local water cut short P’taak’s mission to the world, and Chrystal
rushed back to Sheboygan with typhoid and amebic dysentery. After Chrystal’s personal rapture, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, known
as Los Testigos de Jeová, were forced to leave town when the heroic local bowling champion, Aunt Irma, unleashed her devilish
tongue upon them and christened them Los Testículos de Jeová. The Witnesses, deeply offended, packed up their Spanish editions
of The Watchtower and abandoned the heathens to their grisly fate.
Scarface tossed aside his napkin. The lime juice and Cholula sauce were better when you sucked them off your fingers. The
table was a wasteland of empty plates. He stood.
“Where are these pinches gringos!” he shouted.
The state cop checked his watch, put down his beer bottle, and turned to glare at Tacho as if the proprietor were the surfers’
“We are busy men,” he warned.
“I’ve been here an hour!” Scarface complained.
“You know how Americans are,” he said. “Always late. On their own time.”
Scarface kicked back his chair and grabbed his gun. He held it down by his side, as if deciding whether Tacho and Nayeli needed
shooting. “If the surfos show up, tell them next time we see them, they each get a bullet in the head. Understand? I don’t
like to be kept waiting.”
“Sí, señor,” Nayeli replied.
The bad men strode out and got back into their car. Scarface pulled a fresh cinnamon toothpick out of his breast pocket. He
took off the cellophane wrapper, dropped it on the floor, and popped the toothpick in his mouth. It waggled up and down. “Nice
town,” he said. “No cops.”
He adjusted his lapels.
“No men, did you notice?”
“A vato like me could make a real killing here.”
He wiped his sunglasses on his shirt and put them back on.
“Watch yourselves,” he called out the window.
They drove away without paying.
As the bandidos prowled the town and its outskirts, Tacho and Nayeli went about their day. Mopping the cement floor, sweeping
the sidewalk in front, slicing limes, and peeling mangos. But mostly, they did what Mexicans in every small town in Mexico
did: they circled their own history.
Nayeli was thinking about the missionaries. Well, she was thinking about one of them. The one saint—Missionary Matt.
All of Nayeli’s notorious girlfriends loved Missionary Matt. He was the first blond boy any of them had ever seen in person.
They could claim that the vapid white-boy handsomeness of El Brad Pitt or El Estip McQueen at the cinema didn’t move them,
but up close, it was a different story. A real live blue-eyed white boy was their own romantic freak show. Matt’s nose peeled.
They had never seen a peeling nose. It was precious.
Matt sneaked away from his pastoral duties every night and crept into the Cine Pedro Infante. Nayeli’s girlfriends were not
the only ones who sat in restless groups all around him, tittering over his slightest jest. Even mothers and aunties tittered,
“¡Ay, Mateo!” whenever he said anything.
That boy was movie crazy.
Matt had endeared himself to the many girls in town by writing their names phonetically on four-by-six-inch cards. When he
left, he left behind a hundred broken hearts as he distributed these well-thumbed cards to his sweethearts as farewell gifts,
with his address and phone number written on the back of each.
The card was the closest thing to a love letter Nayeli had ever received. She pulled it out for inspection, the ink a little
diffuse from her sweat. It read:
nah /YELL/ ee
Beneath this, it said:
Then an address and a phone number that started with an 858 prefix.
Love, Nayeli thought. She knew enough English to know that. Love. Was it love-love? Like, LOVE? Or was it just love, like mi-amigo-Mateo-love, like I love my sister or my puppy or peanut
butter cups love?
“Hello?” Tacho said. “Work? Like, sometime today?”
“Oh, you,” she said dreamily.
Tacho raised his hands and seemed to beseech the universe.
Nayeli kept Missionary Matt’s card tucked in her kneesock along with the sole, tattered postcard her father had sent her from
a place called KANKAKEE, ILLINOIS. It showed a wild turkey gazing with deep paranoia out of a row of cornstalks. Before he’d
fled to KANKAKEE, Don Pepe had been the only police officer in Tres Camarones. Mostly, he directed traffic and inspected the
rare car wreck on the eastern road. Nayeli’s father had been gone three years. When it really got hot, and she was sweaty
enough to threaten the ink altogether, she reluctantly tucked the two cards into her mirror at home.
She wandered out on the sidewalk and swept listlessly. The scant heavy river breeze stirred her tiny skirt. Boys used to whistle
at Nayeli when she went by, but she’d been noticing a silence in the streets. Perhaps nineteen was already too old. Everything
was changing for her. There was nowhere for a champion futbolista to go if she was a girl. And it was out of the question
for her to head off to Culiacán or somewhere else expensive to attend the university. Her mother took in laundry—but, really,
all the old women of Tres Camarones took in laundry. It would take many more dirty and lazy people to sustain the home laundry
industry. Fortunately, Nayeli and her mother received some assistance from the formidable Tía Irma—the future Municipal President.
Tía Irma’s pro bowling winnings had been sufficiently vast that she had actually invested most of her money, and she was further
comfortably attended to by monthly retirement checks from her hard years at the canneries. The checks were modest, but she
didn’t need much more than Domino cigarettes, the occasional bottle of rum, and a steady diet of Tacho’s tacos and tortas.
It was Tía Irma, known to the notorious girlfriends as La Osa—the She-Bear—who had pushed Nayeli into fútbol. And it was both
Irma and Don Pepe who had enrolled Nayeli in Dr. Matsuo Grey’s martial arts dojo when the other girls were taking dance lessons
for the various pageants and balls at the Club de Leones. Karate. . .
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