Nov 18, 2015

The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea

The two novels by Urrea that I've read were both incredible; his writing is simple yet lyrical, almost prose poetry and weighted delicately with meaning. But Urrea is actually most known for his journalistic nonfiction, and this decade-old tale of illegal immigration is my first foray with him into that genre. I was delighted to find that his writing is exactly as I remembered; it still holds poetry despite its factual basis. Even the description of the body's journey from health to heat death holds a singular allure. That Urrea's subject matter is so tragic makes his language all the more plaintive.

In mid-May of 2001, a large group of Mexican men, mostly from the state of Veracruz, attempted to illegally enter the United States through the desert of Arizona, known as Desolation. Walkers, as they are called (along with other less savory euphemisms), are lead by Coyotes, guides who travel with them into Arizona then go back to Mexico to await assignment to another group. Though Mendez, this particular group's guide, had done so several times before, this time he got lost. Then he got even more lost. It doesn't take long for Desolation to kill you. When even nighttime temperatures hover in the 90s, the sun quickly bakes the moisture out of you and your body soon ceases to function. Twenty-six men entered the U.S. - only twelve made it out of the desert alive, including Mendez but not his two associates. Walkers usually die in twos or threes, making this an unusually large mortality.

Urrea doesn't point fingers or lay blame. The walkers' stories are sometimes wildly different from each others', but since heat causes hallucinations, who can tell which stories are more accurate? Mendez tells his own story, of course, one of innocence and helpfulness, but he suddenly changed his plea to guilty on the day of his sentencing and got jail time instead of the death sentence; he refused to correspond with Urrea at all.

The most interesting part of this book, for me, was Urrea's description of the Border Patrol. The book is ten years out of date, and much has happened regarding immigration control since its publication, so I have no idea how accurate this portrayal remains. But it struck me nonetheless: the BP isn't really there to keep people out - it's there to make sure the people who do come in don't die. Yes, they arrest most walkers and send them all back, but their main concern when finding any is to see to their health. After the Yuma 14 (as the media called the episode), the BP designed and erected a series of towers along the Devil's Highway, the most traveled and deadliest stretch of desert in Desolation. There are signs in English, Spanish, and pictures warning walkers of the danger they are in and presenting them with a big red button. When pressed, this button instantly summons the Border Patrol, who are there in no more than an hour. These towers have already saved lives. And the BP members pay for them OUT OF THEIR OWN POCKETS. I've no doubt things have changed since then, but I cannot help but be moved by these people doing a thankless job who do so mainly to save other people's lives.

I already respected Urrea as a writer of great beauty and subtle humor. Now I know that he couples his wonderful language skills with a powerful journalistic sense for his nonfiction, and will continue reading his work, both fiction and nonfiction, as often as possible.

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