Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

Luis Alberto Urrea is another writer coming to Bend for The Nature of Words. His book, The Devil’s Highway, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. It is the true story of a failed attempt by 26 men, referred to as the Wellton 26 in media coverage, to cross from Mexico into the United States in May 2001.

It is a story of the people who try to cross and those who try to stop them. The Border Patrol agents spend their days and nights looking for signs of crossing. “And the dark image of the evil Border Patrol agent dogs every signcutter who goes into the desert in his truck. It’s the tawdry legacy of the human hunt–ill will on all sides. Paranoia. Dread. Loathing. Mexican-American Border Patrol agents are feared even more by the illegals than the gringos, for the Mexicans can only ascribe to them a kind of rabid self-hatred. Still, when the walkers are dying, they pray to be found by the Boys in Green.”

I found this book tough to read. I guess I prefer my hardship tales to be fiction. Urrea includes a rather detailed description of the seven stages of dying of hyperthermia, or what is commonly known as heat stroke. This one short sentence really caught my attention: “In the desert, we are all illegal aliens.” The confusing jurisdiction over this desert area with Border Patrol, Customs, DEA, BLM, and INS as well as military and tribal lands thrown in, was overwhelming. In the end an amazingly poorly organized and badly led attempt to cross into the US ended in tragedy for many families. The author does a remarkable job at getting across the hopes of the men on this journey, and the descriptions of how they were found are distressing.

In this book Urrea mentions two other authors who are also going to be at The Nature of Words. From The Devil’s Highway:
“One writer who has focused on this desert, Craig Childs, tells of a pair of old bullet casings found out there. They were jammed together, and when pried apart, an aged curl of paper fell out. On the paper, someone had written, ‘Was it worth it?’”
“Fifteen hundred walkers a day depart from under the Sasabe sign. The writer Charles Bowden, on a visit to Sasabe in 2003, counted five thousand walkers in one afternoon.”

I would prefer to read more about the high desert near Bend, rather than this brutal desert with all its complications in Arizona.

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