With the recent tribulations of the Iraq handover, the absence of WMD, and the nail-biting prospect of a draft, it has become easy for American domestic issues to fall by the wayside this election season. One of those, which had been a hot-button topic in North America for the greater part of a generation, is what some might term “The Mexican Invasion” or what others might call “The Growing Latino Population.” However it’s described and defined, the growth of illegal immigrants from Mexico poses familiar issues on debate stages across the USA. This issue begs for attention now, and fortunately, journalist Luis Alberto Urrea has offered a book that illuminates the human side of a highly controversial feature of contemporary American life.
The Devil’s Highway describes the deadly journey of 26 Mexicans who, for a variety of compelling reasons, decide to cross the border into one of the most barren and brutal deserts on the continent. This, the Sonoran Desert, is part of Arizona, but might as well be the fiery corner of some shadeless, parched region of Hell. Urrea, a Tijuana-born writer who has dug more deeply into the world of the ruthless coyote guides and vigilante Border Patrolmen than most would dare, writes of the dizzying and fatal hike during which 14 of these men died painful, and preventable, deaths.
Urrea’s narrative, ripe with horrifying descriptions, is nonetheless told with compassion. He begins by describing the tough Wild West mentalities of the Border Patrol, without disregarding their hardships and justifications. A master of dramatic tension, Urrea pinpoints the moment when the surviving dozen men are found, desperate and delirious, begging for water and salvation for those they left behind. A sense of dread overcomes the lawmen, a sentiment these “walkers” have felt for days. At first, the “Yuma-14”, as the dead come to be known, are numbers and statistics, anonymous victims of political policy and climatic circumstance. In a short, powerful section that spans but half a page, Urrea describes what each man carried with him; the lucky spur belt buckle, a note from a waiting chica, one black sock.
The reader then travels back to Mexico, to Veracruz and other ciudades where making a living becomes the greater part of the struggle for a life and family in one of the poorest countries in the world. Childbearing, which is seen as irresponsible excess to Northern environmentalists and Orwellian doomsday tellers, becomes a means for collective survival here. As a consequence, there is always one more mouth to feed. This serves as an example of one of Urrea’s greatest strengths, a journalistic fairness too rarely practiced in the American mass media. He takes great pains to describe the particular circumstances that drive these men to succumb to coyotes, who guide them to the land of opportunity, for a fee. Not one to discount the motivations of the coyotes themselves, who appear like Brooklyn mob bosses except for their colorful clothes, he takes care to mention how an impoverished young brick-maker gets seduced into the lucrative business of guiding walkers. Under these circumstances, an honest living seems quaint when dolares and a better life seem to be at stake.
The greater part of the book follows these men on their unlucky journey through the desert, and how each one is drained of their money, water, hopes, and for some, life. Urrea’s descriptions, which are sometimes so vivid and dramatic that one is left wondering whether he may have been a walker in a past life, leave few details missing. The taste of urine, the sight of mummified corpses, and the anguish of losing one’s son are all strikingly portrayed. I found myself horrified each time death found another victim, someone whom I had begun to know, whose daughter waited in Mexico, who might have a spur for a belt buckle or one colored sock. At the beginning of the book, I found myself skeptical of how listing the possessions of the dead would not turn out as a cheap play for the reader’s emotions, or a knock-off of Tim O’Brien’s seminal short story “The Things They Carried.” Instead, these specifics provide rare emotional responses for readers of nonfiction, a genre too often plagued by dry narratives that fail to motivate hardened, media-saturated readers.
Those who are tired of books that raise provocative questions without any suitable answers will find relief toward the end, when Urrea boldly spells out some of the problems his book so artfully addresses. Problems with US immigration policy, with the capitalistic system, and many of the complex issues that contributed to these deaths are brought to light with confidence. Ultimately, The Devil’s Highway weaves responsible investigative journalism with compelling writing and a clear, intelligent cry for reform. If more people read The Devil’s Highway, such tragic lives might meet the Golden Arches before ending on the hot sand of a desert dune.