Bookmarks Issue: 

A True Story

A-DevilsHighwayIn May 2001, 21 Mexican men attempted to cross a blistering stretch of Arizona desert nicknamed The Devil’s Highway to find jobs. Challenged by the U.S. border patrol, murderous vigilantes, and, "most lethal of all," the heat, only 12 survived. Mexican-born poet and memoirist Urrea reconstructs their story with exhaustive reporting, complementing his research with his own imaginings. The saga sheds light on the challenges of the Mexican immigrant experience, as well as the ironies and ethical dilemmas of the political and economic systems that oppose them. "In the desert," Urrea concludes, "we are all illegal aliens."
Little, Brown. 256 pages. $24.95.

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"… one of the great surrealistic tragedies of the global age. … Here is the story of a group of migrant workers nobody cared about, but who in death became transnational folk heroes and whom Urrea has speak to us through their body bags, griping about all the fuss made over their humble corpses." Jefferson Cowie

LA Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Urrea brings the considerable powers of a verse maker and a storyteller to what is essentially a courageous work of investigative journalism. … [H]is book rings with the authenticity and authority of an eyewitness." Jonathan Kirsch

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"There can be few harder ways to die than by heat, and the author doesn’t spare us the details. … [H]e molds the material into a terse border epic imaginatively evoking the Mexican and American frontier worlds that melt into one another." Anne Bartlett

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Urrea, a poet, goes further than most previous attempts by journalists of every level of ability who have tackled this subject before. He describes the history of the region, the nature of the Border Patrol’s tracking skills, the hopes and aspirations of the illegal immigrants and their desperate last hours in a serious yet eccentric prose…" Alan Cheuse

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"… a painstaking, unsentimental and oddly lyrical chronology of the traveling party’s horrific trek through the Sonora. … For the most part, Americans have arranged our political life so as to keep the messy, porous and crime-ridden border we share with Mexico out of mind, if not exactly out of sight." Chris Lehmann

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Death and Hope, La Muerte y La Esperanza, prowl the pages of this book like twin wraiths attached at the hip. … Urrea’s passion never flags, but it is a cerebral passion, and I missed the throbbing human heartbeat that drives his earlier, more personal work." Judy Goldstein Botello

Critical Summary

American Book Award winner Urrea dubs the case of the "Wellton 26," as they were later named, "the big die-off, the largest death-event in border history." Their story is a bleak and troubling one. Witness accounts combined with Urrea’s own descriptions of slow deaths from heat exposure offer gruesome details—this book isn’t for the faint of heart. Equally disturbing are the reminders about the state of U.S.-Mexico borderlands, immigration policies, and those who patrol both officially and unofficially. Critics praise Urrea for his thorough reporting, his novelistic approach, and his even-handedness in allowing the sad facts of the case to stand alone. He does not moralize, though readers will find a strong message about politics, globalization, and, most of all, humanity.