Border Tragedies

Luis Alberto Urrea captures the plight of migrants who die trying to enter the United States along the 'Devil's Highway'

Welcome to Southern Arizona's very own piece of hell--the setting of Luis Alberto Urrea's The Devil's Highway.

We politely debate the chicken-or-the-egg question of Mexican immigration; meanwhile, thousands of pollos (literally "chickens"--smuggled immigrants in border lingo) are out there on the ground and headed north, crossing a border road called El Camino del Diablo, the Devil's Highway. They cross the road for jobs, for a chance to put a roof on the house, to build a tiny concrete room for the baby, to buy furniture for the wife, to feed the family. They come for a shot at survival with dignity. Many die.

El Camino slashes east to west from Northern Sonora across Southwestern Arizona, a wound of dust connecting the Rio Sonoita with Quitobaquito Spring and finally the Tinajas Altas, the High Tanks--the only water for 100 miles southeast of Yuma. It's a desert out there: heat, rocks, dust, dirt, cactus, a few scrubby trees and a vast silence holding little water and less salvation.

In May 2001, a group of 26 men set off across these killing fields of Southern Arizona, headed north. Abandoned by their smugglers, 12 made it out six days later, more dead than alive. The stories of those men and their brave rescuers from the oft-maligned Border Patrol are the subject of Urrea's book.

Urrea relates how the region has been a killing ground for a long time. In 1541, Melchoir Diaz, one of Coronado's men and a fellow participant in the rape that was the European invasion of Mexico, impaled his groin on a lance thrown in anger at a dog. The dying took three long weeks.

The deaths flared again as gold strikes in California lured the greedy and the unwary west across the despoblado. The fear of Apaches along the Gila to the north sometimes outweighed the fear of thirst, and many chose the southern route--the devil's route--a choice that hundreds later regretted.

Later, the dying began anew, this time in earnest. In the 1990s, millions fled Mexico's economic death spiral. Americans in their border cities complained, and the Border Patrol obliged them by closing off the urban crossings. The tidal wave of refugees was forced into ever-more remote areas, like El Camino, as they attempted to slip into the Promised Land. The men who died--the Yuma 14, the Wellton 14, the Tucson 14, whatever they were ultimately called--were part of the latest wave of victims.

The book began, says Urrea, when the executive editor of the Little, Brown and Company publishing house called him out of the blue. They were interested in a "border/men-in-peril" book, a sort of Trojan horse to bring the tragedy of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands to the attention of the American public. Urrea leapt at the chance.

An award-winning essayist, novelist and poet, he has written about the borderlands for years, and he has a shelf of books to his name. Two, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border and By the Lake of Sleeping Children, chronicle the years of his life spent doing missionary work in the dumps of Tijuana. Urrea is a man not only concerned about what's happening in the world around him, but someone who actually does something about it. Here is a man who walks his talk. Thus, this book.

Urrea is a fronterizo, a man of the border, half Mexican and half Anglo. This region is his tierra, his homeland, and the tragedy of these senseless deaths--of Mexicans dying on American soil simply for wanting to feed their kids--has compelled him to action, to tell the story so that these people will not have died in vain and so that their pain will not be forgotten.

The book is a masterstroke, an instant classic of the literature of that brave new world of our future we call la frontera, the border. Urrea writes with wit, passion, skill and love. His is a very human book about a very human tragedy happening every single day in the deserts around us. To ignore this tragedy is to be part of the problem.

In the end, there are no easy answers. Answers require will and political courage and human compassion, of which there is little afoot in our land these days. Perhaps the real lesson of Luis Alberto Urrea's powerful little book is that we all need to be just a little kinder to each other; we need to take care of each other, and help those less fortunate than ourselves. But for the accidental geography of birth, it could be any one of us out there on the hot ground, hoping and looking for a better life along El Camino.