The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little Brown 2004)
Reviewed by Chidinma Onuoha
As long as there have been people walking the Devil’s Highway, there have been deaths. It is Desolation. It is a wasteland where any green vegetation is grey and were temperatures rise up to the triple digits. Here, bones pepper the region and Levi jeans last longer than flesh. In this book, Luis Alberto Urrea paints a harrowing true story of twenty-six men who took the forty mile death march across the Arizona desert in hopes of prosperity in the United States. Only twelve made it out.
While Urrea is mostly recognized as a border writer, he’d rather be known as a person who writes “bridges, not borders”. Published in 2004, this book could not be any more timely considering the growing controversy over immigration — though many political issues have changed since Urrea authored The Devil’s Highway, the desperation of those crossing our southern border has, unfortunately, only grown in the decade and a half this book has been in print. Urrea uses this tragedy, which occurred in May 2001, as an example to further explain the socio-political measures that influenced the men’s fate—human smuggling, lack of proper border and immigration reform, and corruption in government. In Urrea’s novel, the Coyotes (aka human smugglers) and the Mexican and United States government are to blame. And unfortunately, everyday people on a desperate quest for financial prosperity were caught in its web.
Urrea portrays the Coyotes (particularly Mendez, who is the villain in this book) as people who exploit immigrants for money; for them, the goal is to get people across the border under whatever conditions are convenient. This includes packaging people in trunks and leading them into hazardous terrain, all while simultaneously extorting most of their money and savings. However, Coyotes convince immigrants to give them the substantial sum by claiming that the journey will benefit them and their family back home in the end. Ultimately, most immigrants can’t find other options, and often have no choice but to trust in the Coyotes to take them to the U.S.
Despite this problem, Urrea states that Mexico did nothing more than provide a sign to discourage walkers from crossing:
“For the Coyotes Your Needs
Are Only A Business And
They Don’t Care About Your Safety
Or the Safety of Your Family.
DON’T PAY THEM OFF WITH YOUR LIVES!!!
The Sasabe sign, which many of the walkers can’t read, is the only thing Mexico is doing to try to stop them from crossing.”
This book educates those who have little to no idea what border crossing entails. It explains the push and pull factors that drives so many Mexican men to find opportunities elsewhere. Men left because children were dying, dengue fever and malaria was spreading, and political violence was still prevalent. These men were subject to Coyotes like Mendez, who would take the walkers money at a ridiculously high interest rate just so they could afford to cross the border. Some Coyotes used new chemicals or cocaine to speed up walkers to get them to their destinations faster. But when Coyotes could sense that the men they were smuggling were at the brink of death, they’d empty the walker’s pockets dry, claiming that they—the Coyotes—were going to use it to buy water and come back with it. Only the money of the dead and dying would be used for personal consumption.
In the desert, men go insane. One man took off all of his clothes and folded them in a neat pile, placing his shoes at the top so that his clothing wouldn’t blow away in the wafting wind. He laid down on his back, on the oven-hot ground—naked—staring up at the sun; he waited for death. Another man smashed his face into a cactus, desperate for water. Another buried himself in the dirt, barely a torso deep; maybe he was trying to get cool, maybe he was seeing a mirage and thought he was swimming in a lake. Who knows. Urrea doesn’t fail to make this as painful to read as it was for the walkers to endure. We know that there were 26 men on the trip and that only 12 survived the death march through the Devil’s Highway. And we have to read every slow agonizing journey of how each man falls, and how the others try to stay alive. Urrea uses different point-of-views in the third-person to heighten this effect. We get to see the viewpoint of the walkers, the Border Patrol and the Coyotes. We see every experience and not just one side of the story—a wonderful journalistic approach. We see that the highway, too, is a living thing and the most prevalent antagonist in the book. We see a sober account of the day in the life of Border Patrols or La Migra, not idolizing them as protectors nor enemies, but putting them on a neutral playing field; even though they steer walkers back to Mexico (the very place walkers are desperate to leave), they are also responsible for recovering the dead in the Arizona desert.
“If it was the Border Patrol’s job to apprehend lawbreakers, it was equally their duty to save the lost and the dying”. But I can’t overlook that they too are responsible for creating mean nicknames like “wets” and “tonks”—a name based on the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head. (16)
Everyone is human in this book. Everyone has a story. Sometimes there are people who commit inhumane crimes and sometimes there are people who do whatever they can to aide walkers. It makes you wonder how good men who wanted nothing more than to provide for their family and taste a bit of the American Dream became victims to their home country’s corruption and the United States’ ineffective border policies. It’s a reality that is beyond the minds of our comfortable first world bubble—most global issues are, unfortunately. But Urrea has done a splendid job of bringing these issues to the forefront.