The Devils Highway – a deadly wasteland in Arizona has claimed innumerable lives through the years. Luis Alberto Urrea writes a captivating, frustrating and sorrowing tale of twenty six men who attempt to enter the United States illegally from Mexico. The book also highlights the US/Mexico border problems and the brutality of various people and organizations that work illegally to profit from it.
In May 2001, twenty six men, allured by the well-paying jobs in the United States, tried to cross the Southern Arizona desert – of these only twelve survived. Urrea describe their extreme suffering by recounting how they were “burned nearly black, their lips huge and cracking…eyes were cloudy with dust, almost too dry to blink up a tear…they were beyond rational thought” (3). Due to the economic and political unrest in Mexico many people like them were compelled to migrate to America in search of a better life. These men had to pay the coyotes – the crossing guides, to reach their desired destination. The author vividly explains their agonizing odyssey and the suffering and misery they went through, as the territory the migrants had to cross was painful, the temperature rose as high as 130 degrees and dropped only as low as 98 degrees.
The area is described as barren, isolated and deadly. Wild creatures such as snakes, scorpions, Gila monsters and killer bees were everywhere (6). Moreover, scarcity of water contributed to the deaths of the fourteen immigrants, to make survival possible, the remaining twelve victims even had to resort to drinking urine. The Devils Highway is an emotional story of hope, bravery, strength and suffering – it is, in the words of Urrea himself, the “catastrophic political malfeasance that forced the walkers to flee their homes and bake to death in the western desert” (33).
Urrea also tells the readers about the frustrating activities of U.S Border Patrol and the dangers they face each day. Without being biased he praises their efforts, showing how tolerant they were towards the Mexicans whom they capture and turn back. The author even spoke to the people on both sides of the border, those favoring immigration and the ones against it. Urrea has undeniably done an in-depth search before presenting the book to the readers.
The story in my view is heartbreaking and tragic; it is unquestionably helpful to those struggling with immigration issues. The writer has done an excellent job of not just highlighting a primary issue, but also simultaneously shed light onto many other minute issues surrounding immigration that usually escape detection. He has interviewed people of both countries and highlighted “the politics of stupidity that rules both sides of the border” (215). During the course of the book we also meet loan swindlers and fixers like Don Moi who lends money to the immigrants with the promise of a better future. I found the entire narration of the clandestine process of transferring immigrants across the border quite riveting. After a large group of migrants is formed, a bus is arranged who takes these desperate men 2,000 miles north where they link to the coyotes who are supposed to guide them throughout their voyage but on the contrary when the going gets tough these men get abandoned by their guides. In the case of Urrea, when the immigrants ran out of water these coyotes went in search of water but never come back.
I felt great compassion toward the twenty-six immigrants who became victims at the hands of the fixers and the guides, who cheat and dump them for their personal profit. By reading the dreadful stories of the immigrants, I found compassion for them in my heart as I realized that their sole purpose and ambition was only to find a better life for themselves and their family.
Though the writer shows his extensive knowledge on the subject, some passages of the book are too intense and shocking to read, especially the account of the different stages of death by heat stroke which left me absolutely out of breath. This passage, for instance, I considered to be not just vivid and evocative, but also extremely bone-chilling and made all the more terrifying simply because it was true: “the desert’s air, like you, is thirsty … sucking up your sweat as fast as you can pump it, so fast that you don’t even know you’re sweating. … Your spit turns to paste. Your mouth tastes nasty” (122). Or possibly this one with its haunting desperation: “You dream of pools, seas, you dream of a lake and you dream of drinking the whole thing dry as you soak” (125).
I think the most heart-rending and pitiful story was that of the death of 15 year old Reymundo and father. Urrea describes it in the most touching words: “When Reymundo died and slid from his father’s arms, his father lurched away into the desert, away from the trees, crying out in despair” (166). “Some of the men said he took the American money he had saved for their trip and tore it into small bits” (167).
One of the final chapters is very useful and informative as it details the effects of the economics of the Mexican incursion. The expenditure is calculated around 55,200 dollars for each individual who makes the crossing.
Urrea artfully informs its readers about the cruelty and indefensible nature of the many obstacles separating the two countries, he describes with clarity the deadly environment of the Arizona wasteland and the way it turns humans into corpses. It serves as a premonition to those wishing to cross the desert in search of a better life. Urrea’s narrative style is unique; the way each individual’s point of view is explained held my interest. The geographical history, the condemnation of immigration policies and economic analysis is well illustrated.
I think The Devils Highway is undoubtedly a wonderful book. It highlights a hot burning issue which the two countries face. Mexico and U.S border policy remains ineffective even today as it does little to stop the flow of immigrants who are killed attempting it. Overall it’s a good read, a rich text with narrative details and for anyone – not just those interested in discussing and understanding immigration policy issues but also common readers like me.
Urrea, Alberto Luis. The Devils Highway. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2005.