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To Hell and back

In 'The Devil's Highway,' an exploration of the physical and political barriers between Mexico and the US

The Devil's Highway: A True Story
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown, 239 pp., $24.95

Luis Urrea writes about US-Mexican border culture with a tragic and beautiful intimacy that has no equal. Born in Tijuana, to a Mexican father and an Anglo mother, he embodies the cross-cultural complexity he explores. This lends his work a wrenching, disarming honesty. In "Nobody's Son," the last of his trilogy of memoirs about border life, he describes himself as "a son of the border. I had a barbed-wire fence neatly bisecting my heart. The border, in other words, ran through me."

Urrea's uncanny ability to remain perched on the hyphen between two countries/identities as a careful observer of both worlds -- of how they blur and yet remain separate -- is the unique gift of his new book, "The Devil's Highway." The book tells the story of the 26 men who tried to cross from Mexico into Arizona in May 2001. Waterless, disoriented, and abandoned by their coyotes (guides), the lost band of stragglers were baked alive by a merciless sun as they stumbled and crawled toward nowhere, toward what seemed certain death. The event received enormous media attention because 14 of the walkers died.

The case of the "Yuma 14" (from the nearby Yuma, Ariz., Border Patrol station) was "the largest death event in border history." And it renewed outrage over the historic duplicity and misguided economic motivations of US-Mexican border policy.

Urrea first analyzes this paradox through language -- by considering how Mexican immigrants are perceived (named) by those on the other side of the border: "Of course, the illegals have always been called names other than human -- wetback, taco-bender. (A Mexican worker said: 'If I am a wetback because I crossed a river to get here, what are you, who crossed an entire ocean?'). In politically correct times, 'illegal alien' was deemed gauche, so 'undocumented worker' came into favor. Now, however, the term preferred by the Arizona press is 'undocumented entrant.' As if the United States were a militarized beauty pageant."

After a short but compelling overview of the region, Urrea meticulously tracks the journey of the 26 undocumented entrants toward the United States (and the idea of the United States). It is a desperate struggle through a maze of deceit and vicious opportunism: from their recruitment in southern states (Veracruz and Hidalgo), to the elusive network of manipulative guides, to the hell of the crossing itself, to the rescue by the Border Patrol and the resulting court cases.

The book's rare power is that it is both epic in scope -- a trek through the wilderness in search of "the promised land" -- and intensely personal. Also a novelist and poet, Urrea develops the walkers as complex characters in an unfolding drama. Thus, the story feels compassionate in the etymological sense of the word; readers "suffer with" the walkers. They come to know them, and then must watch them die.

The most poignant story may be that of Reymundo Barreda and Reymundo Jr., his 15-year-old son: "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. Some of the men said he took the American money he had saved for their trip and tore it into small bits."

It was Nahum Landa, one of the survivors, who identified both their bodies. In later testimony, Landa described the day they (and others) died:

"I was hiding under that tree. Out there, I saw people in despair. I saw them without water. I don't know why I survived. Maybe it's a miracle. Some of them just died of desperation. Some of them went insane. Some of them lost their minds. You could hear them screaming. Some fell all alone. . . . We were drinking urine. We were ripping open cactus. Some of the boys were saying you could cut the thirst with a cactus. The majority of them died that day."

All the men who made the perilous journey had humble aspirations for their time in the States -- to work hard and earn enough money to send back home to repair their house, or buy furniture, or simply purchase needed medicine or food. They knew others from their pueblos who had made the passage and returned, or had stayed and continued to send money. It was possible. Their "American dream" seems similar to the dream of those who live to the north.

Urrea opines that one of the sources of the ongoing border conflicts is a fundamentally different understanding of the border itself -- partly due to history. The Spanish word for border, "frontera," means frontier, and connotes not just a boundary or a divider, but also an opening. It points less to itself than to what's beyond. This understanding stems in part from the fact that historically in Mexico (a long narrow country that runs vertically rather than horizontally) the "frontier" has always been north (not west, as in America).

The book ends focused not on the death march but on what it symbolizes -- the economic paradox of the border in light of NAFTA and the post-9/11 paranoia. Why do so many US citizens still fear that "undocumented workers" are stealing jobs from "real" Americans? This would make sense, Urrea suggests, "if only toilets would scrub themselves, pants stitch themselves, tuna can themselves, lawns mow themselves! If only robots would slice the throats of cows and grind them into sausage! If only tomatoes and oranges and apples, and cotton, and sugar cane, and peaches, and cherries could be harvested by monkeys! If only we had clones! . . . If only Mexico paid workers a decent wage."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Mexican people and the border, Urrea says finally, is "not how many of Them have come across, but how many of Them have not."

Tom Montgomery-Fate is a professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and the author of "Beyond the White Noise," a book of personal essays.

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