During Luis Alberto Urrea’s senior year of college, his father drove 27 hours to pick up a graduation gift — his life’s savings of $1,000 at his hometown bank.

On the road back from Tijuana, Urrea’s father died at the hands of the Mexican police, he said during a presentation Thursday at the University of Central Florida. 

To ease the pain, Urrea turned to storytelling. Since then, he has become a critically acclaimed and best-selling author of 13 books.

One of his most famous books, “The Devil’s Highway,” is a nonfiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert. The book won the Lannan Literary Award and became a finalist for the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize.

Urrea’s presentation, “The Devil’s Highway: A True Story of Illegal Immigration, Desperation and Greed,” offered background information about his life to explain why he writes about the borders.

The crowd of almost 325 people laughed as Urrea, born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, comically described growing up in a racially mixed family in California. 

The mood suddenly changed as Urrea began to describe his father’s death, a turning point in his life.

Urrea has won numerous awards for his poetry, fiction and essays. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

Urrea’s historical novel, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” tells the story of Teresa Urrea, sometimes known as the Saint of Cabora and the Mexican Joan of Arc. The book, which involved 20 years of research and writing, won the Kiriyama Prize in fiction and, along with “The Devil’s Highway,” was named a best book of the year by many publications.

Urrea’s awards also include an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for best short story “Amapola.” His first book, “Across the Wire,” was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the Christopher Award.

During his visit to Orlando, Urrea also gave several presentations to hundreds of additional attendees at other community events.

In addition to the Global Perspectives Office, sponsors included the UCF’s Political Science Department, UCF’s Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies Program, UCF’s Department of English, UCF’s Hispanic American Student Association, UCF’s International Services Center, Lawrence Chastang and the Chastang Foundation, the Sibille H. Pritchard Global Peace Fellowship program, UCF’s Global Peace and Security Studies Program, UCF LIFE, Orlando Rotary Club and the Global Connections Foundation.