Luis Alberto Urrea‘s 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for General Nonfiction reads like a heart-thumping thriller, complete with big cars and big guns, desperate men and boys, waiting women, and an enormous body count. That the story is true instantly turns it into a modern tragedy of epic proportions: keep in mind as you read about what happened in May 2001 that the border wars continue and the death toll keeps ratcheting up and up and up …
With a year’s worth of exhaustive research that filled “four leather-bound notebooks of about 144 pages each,” Urrea reconstructs the brutal odyssey of 26 Mexican men and boys who crossed the border into southern Arizona and got lost in the worst desert region possible. So deadly is the stretch mythologized as the Devil’s Highway that Urrea includes 500 years of its horrific history. Of the original 26, 12 survived (barely).
Detail by gory detail, step by excruciating step, Urrea carefully explains how these 26 sojourners decided to leave their homeland, by what means they arrived at the border, what they sacrificed to get there, the inexperienced still-teenager they relied on to lead their journey, and how they each became a statistic – both dead and alive.
Urrea trails the Coyotes and rides with “La Migra” Border Patrol in their air-conditioned oases through their inferno jurisdiction. He tracks the bodies to the morgue, hospital, prison, and courts. He follows the 14 body bags home – “their first and last trip by airplane” – welcomed with surreal fanfare as returning martyred heroes. He quotes the U.S.-based Mexican consul who accompanies the grisly delivery as she calculates the real cost of the $68,000 spent on the 14 one-way tickets: “What if … somebody had simply invested that amount in their villages to begin with?”
Urrea’s startling etymology lessons alone are a must-read. In Border Patrol lingo, “wets” are “[i]llegal aliens, dying of thirst,” while “tonk” is derived from “calling people a name based on the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head.” How about “pollo” as in “has been cooked” – by the brutal conditions of illegal crossing? Plus, you’ll probably never think of “hilarious Chi-Cago” – as in “”‘Piss.’ And ‘I Sh*t’” – quite the same way again. Leave it to Urrea to entertain, even as he shocks and exposes.
For the full Urrea experience, the audible version is without parallel: Urrea himself reads his revelations, plus you get an additional Q&A with Urrea not available in print. With Urrea turning the harrowing pages, the effect proves ever more eerily absorbing.
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