It’s barely April, but I already have a leading candidate for Writer Working’s discovery of the year–Luis Urrea. Sure, it’s too early to declare, but if anyone overtakes him, it will be not only a surprise, but a potential Nobel winner. That’s how good I think this guy is. If you read what I had to say about The Hummingbird’s Daughter (April 7, 2011), you know I was impressed. After reading The Devil’s Highway, a completely different kind of work–non-fiction prose with all the power of a novel–I think Urrea might be capable of greatness.
He takes a 2001 border incident in which 14 illegal immigrants died trying to cross the U.S. Border and uses it to explore the human, political, and economic dynamics of our shameful inability to solve this set of problems. In November of 2009 (the 20th to be exact) I posted comments on Philip Caputo’s superb novel, Crossers, which explores the same problem from the perspective of the ranchers and the racketeers. Caputo ended up being my 2009 find of the year, and I still insist that Crossers got far less attention that it deserved, not just as a social commentary, but as a truly fine literary work. It would be interesting if Urrea hangs on to win the same honor for 2011. But back to The Devil’s Highway.
The deaths of these immigrants gained great notoriety. They were dubbed the Yuma 14, and their stories were widely covered in the media. Where I was, I don’t know. I recall nothing of the story, but now I know more about it than I’d like to.
Through an incredible amount of research and interviews on both sides of the border, Urrea traces the victims individually from their homes around Vera Cruz, detailing their personal economic situations and how they relate to local and international influences such as NAFTA, which helped collapse the price of the coffee many of the families had depended on. He shows how they make connections with the coyotes, who prey on their poverty, offering great opportunities at great prices, prices which they are glad to advance, to be paid back at loan shark rates once they garner one of those high-paying toilet-scrubbing jobs in El Norte. He shows how the big money people remain entirely anonymous (Crossers shows the same phenomenon) by using disposable cells and multiple aliases.
The rubber meets the sand when some poor Guia (guide), enters the desert with his Pollos (according to Urrea, the most common word for a live chicken in Spanish is galllina. When you talk about pollo, it’s usually been–appropriately for that situation–cooked.) The trips happen mostly at night, of course, and due to stricter border security around such previous centers as Nogales and Tijuana, the trails have shifted to ever more desolate areas. Thus, in May of 2001, Jesus Antonio Lopez Ramos (aka Mendez) steps out with his 26 charges somewhere between Yuma, CA and Tucson, AZ. His partner, who is much more familiar with the territory, never shows. No one ever discovers why. After days of excruciating wandering in temperatures that reached 108 in the daytime and never fell below 90 at night, the group scattered. Mendez took off with most of their money–purportedly to get help and water. Mendez never returned because he was passed out under a saguaro cactus, still lost. Finally, two of the group found a Border Patrolman. He called in helicopters and other agents, and the rescuing, body recovering, and media circus began.
Each of the stories Urrea tells could be a novel in itself. This is not just a diatribe against U.S. immigration policy. He shows many merciful border patrol agents, as interested in saving lives as in arresting people. They understand why they come, these desperate folks. Contrary to popular opinion, you see, they constitute a tiny minority of their people, and they’d really rather stay home if they could only feed themselves there. He talks of greedy employers and politicians on both sides of the border, more interested in cheap labor than in coming up with logical or humane solutions. And he does all this in the most wonderful prose, evocative of Calvin Trillin’s best, describing the stages leading to death by heat exhaustion. Here is step 5:
Syncope is a noun that denotes contraction: In a literary sense, you shorten a word by chopping out letters. Never = ne’er. Ever = e’er.
You can’t remember where you dropped the jug. Dizzy. Where’s the water?
You turn back.
Water’s over here. Where. Is. The. Water.
Oh, well. To hell with the water. I’ll find water. Water. Water. … Where’s my water? …
Desolation has begin to edit you. Erase you.
And we sit around arguing about a 4% tax raise for millionaires. Who the hell are we, anyhow?