The Devil’s Highway

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea

So many illegal immigrants die in the desert Southwest of the U.S. that only notorious catastrophes make headlines. Urrea reconstructs one such incident in the Sonoran Desert, the ordeal of sun and thirst of two dozen men in May 2001, half of whom suffered excruciating deaths. They came from Vera Cruz; their so-called guide came from Guadalajara. Jesus Lopez Ramos was no master of orienteering, however, just an expendable bottom-feeder in the border’s human-smuggling racket. Tracing their lives and the routes to the border, Urrea adopts a slangy, surreal style in which the desert landscape shimmers and distorts, while in desiccated border settlements criminals, officials, and vigilantes patrol for human cargo such as the men from Vera Cruz. The imaginative license Urrea takes, paralleling the laconic facts of the case that he incorporates into his narrative, produces a powerful, almost diabolical impression of the disaster and the exploitative conditions at the border. Urrea shows immigration policy on the human level.

I first picked up the book because it was on the reading list for a class I wanted to take. On the first day, the professor said we wouldn’t have time for this and another book so we could return them. But I was already looking forward to reading them, so I kept them.

I don’t want this post to dissolve into a discussion about immigration, legal or illegal, nor do I want to discuss my thoughts on the US-Mexico controversy. I have opinions and things to say about that, but I won’t. This is a book blog, not a forum on immigration.

What I really enjoyed about this book was that it was the least non-fictional sounding non-fiction book I’ve ever read. What I mean by that is that it wasn’t dry in the least. Well, the desert was dry, but not Urrea’s writing. It reminds me very much of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, in which a true story is reconstructed and rendered with all of the loving care and details that are normally the province of fiction narratives. I couldn’t stop reading this book, as much for the horror these men endured as for the phenomenal construction of the work. Urrea is a gifted writer and his fiction doesn’t disappoint either (So far, I’ve read the Hummingbird’s Daughter).

I shared this book with my father, who also enjoyed it. This isn’t a novel for people who want a happy ending. It isn’t a novel for people with weak stomachs, constitutions, or minds. Upon completion of the novel, however arduous it was to get through the material, you are left with such a complete sense of what is going on in this US-Mexico immigration “crisis” that one is immediately compelled to seek out more works/information. Residing in San Diego, just north of the border, immigration issues are never far from my mind.

Whatever your stance on the issues, Urrea’s work is notable in that it brings everything down to a human level, transporting us through means of compassion, and understanding of what can be said, in some respects, to constitute a humanitarian crisis.

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