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The Devil's Highway: A True Story    by Luis Alberto Urrea order for
Devil's Highway
by Luis Alberto Urrea
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2004 (2004)

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* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Luis Alberto Urrea writes a powerful, sorrowful account of tragedy. It's a true story about 'undocumented entrants' (the term which has replaced 'illegal aliens'), derived from research into government (Mexico and U.S.) documents, testimonies, and interviews. The author opens the reader's mind and heart to May 2001, when twenty-six men - fathers and sons, brothers and strangers - crossed the Mexican border into southern Arizona.

This desolate and dangerous area is a main avenue for illegal entry into the United States. Of the twenty-six men, only twelve survived the Sonoran desert region known as 'The Devil's Highway' (a.k.a. Bad Medicine). This is the largest known border death event, and five of the twenty-six were never found. Urrea gives vivid descriptions of what these men suffered in the horrendous high desert temperatures. He tells us '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.'

Don Moi Garcia, a.k.a. Uncle Moi, is the 'recruiter' for the northern 'Coyotes', the crossing guides. They hold those who attempt a crossing in low esteem, calling them 'Chickens'. Chickens' minds are filled with stories of the ease of crossing into the United States. Garcia is a Robin Hood figure in Veracruz. He arranges border crossings at a price, reporting to a boss in Hidalgo - the 'jefe'. The price is less (not much) if you choose to be a 'walker', foregoing vehicle transportation.

Loan sharks lend money at a 15% monthly compounded rate, with the borrower's land as collateral for the loan. In this account, the Coyotes were a nineteen-year-old boy named Mendez, an anonymous man, and the 'infamous' leader. American contacts operated out of Phoenix, Arizona. Urrea gives a long-lens view of American Border Patrols, Mexican officials, and 'guides' hired to assist walkers (the corrupt greedy for money at the cost of human life). Once the arrangers get their clients' money, there is no concern as to whether or not a successful crossing is made.

This is a moving account of hope, courage, and suffering. Terrible events turned into grief for crossing participants and the families left behind. The torment of physical agony from very high desert temperatures, insufficient water, leading to dementia and hypothermia is real ... 'Eyeballs scrape across eyeballs dry as pebbles.' I was a tad disappointed in having expected the twenty-one walkers to have had most of the attention in the book. However, I do recommend The Devil's Highway as a good read, vividly alive with rich language and narrative detail.

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