Urrea is the son of a Mexican father and an American mother. He attended the University of California, San Diego, earning an undergraduate degree in writing, and did his graduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
After serving as a relief worker in Tijuana, and a film extra and columnist-editor-cartoonist for several publications, Urrea moved to Boston where he taught expository writing and fiction workshops at Harvard University. He has also taught at Massachusetts Bay Community College, and the University of Colorado, and he was the writer in residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Urrea lives with his family in Naperville, Illinois, where he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In two heavily researched historical novels, The Hummingbird's Daughter and Queen of America, Urrea tells the story of his great-aunt, Teresita Urrea, who was known as "The Saint of Cabora" and "The Mexican Joan of Arc".
The Devil's Highway is his 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert.
Urrea was a speaker at the 2008 Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and the 2008 Banned Books Week Read-Out, Chicago.