He grew up in San Diego, California, but was born in neighboring Tijuana, Mexico, to a Basque-Mexican father and Irish-American mother.
When he was 3 years old, they relocated to California. He grew up in a San Diego barrio. He has family on both sides of the border. This dual culture was the subject of his memoir, Nobody's Son.
He's also written about the period he did relief work in Tijuana with the garbage pickers who survive on what they can find in the mountainous garbage dumps.
He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his 2004 nonfiction book, The Devil's Highway, about a group of 26 Mexican men who crossed the border illegally, guided by smugglers through the Arizona desert, where they were abandoned by the smugglers. More than half the men died in the desert.
PROF. URREA: And I had gone - I had joined the Boy Scouts. I was instantly an American kid, and I liked it. I thought, OK, Americans have lawns. That's cool. I had not seen lawns until fifth grade -- big green lawns. More + AUDIO