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  • by Michael Rickard II

A Real-Life Highway through Hell: Crafting a Mosaic in "The Devil’s Highway"

Copyright (c) 2018 by Michael Rickard II

Editor's Note: Illegal border crossings are more controversial than ever, something discussed in a class I recently took on borderland literature. This real-life story provides insight into authors' thoughts on living between two worlds. Spoilers abound:

Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway shows the many factors at play in illegal entries across the border (“border crossing”) and the reaction in Mexico and the United States to these entries. Urrea collects complex facts and weaves them into a compelling story about border crossings and their impact on both sides of the border. Urrea’s account of actual events not only demonstrates the many issues involved with border crossings, but with the difficulty in understanding the many factors involved in motivating people to cross the border and reactions against them. Ultimately, Urrea’s work is notable for crafting these individual stories, events, and facts into a mosaic that cannot be fully understood unless all of its elements are accounted for. Urrea’s argument is linked with Sandra Cox’ analysis of Stegnerian field imaginary and critical regionalism.

Cox’ discussion of “Stegnerian field imaginary” (the concept of identities being privileged by those living in interior spaces) and “critical regionalism” (the concept of a transnational criticism of Western literature) as defined by Krista Comer shows the storytelling methods available to Urrea. Cox notes Urrea’s initial use of Stegnerian field imaginary and his progression to critical regionalism. As Cox notes, Urrea begins with a Stegnerian narrative then changes::

“In using a pastiche of testimony from heterogeneous perspectives to create a polyphonic perspective embodied in a singular narrator, Urrea sutures these often inconsistent stories into a coherent, if evolving, transnational narrative position by the end of the narrative” (11).

Urrea shows the many components of border crossings, ranging from walkers to guías to organized crime to the border patrol to American citizens and Mexican and American politicians. Each person has an identity and a motivation for dealing with border crossing. For people crossing the border, they want a better economic life. Guías, like some criminals, are motivated by the allure of easy cash. Border patrol agents are tasked with the job of enforcing the border. American citizens see the border crisis as it is presented to them in the media and by their own biases.

There are many factors at play in the issue of border crossing, factors which Urrea carefully collects and examines. For example, Urrea examines life in Veracruz, noting, “In Veracruz, things weren’t going well” (44). Urrea discusses the number of economic factors plaguing Veracruz residents such as:

The people were killing themselves working the ranchos on the outskirts. The fisherman couldn’t catch enough protein in the sea. The cane cutters couldn’t cut enough cane. The small peasant farmers couldn’t get good enough prices to cover the costs of planting and harvesting their coffee. Even the marijuana growers were making meager wages once the narcos took their hit off the top and the cops got their mordidas (bribes).

Urrea’s journalistic skills provide a breakdown of the various components besieging Veracruz’ residents, rendering them incapable of working for a living. Urrea has the option of just noting Veracruz residents had trouble finding work, but he pieces together the complexity of the issue, just as he does with the other factors in the novel leading to border crossings. This collection of facts forms part of the greater mosaic he is building with The Devil’s Highway.

Urrea does not suggest the factors that lead to border crossings are so much difficult to understand as they are to be pieced together and understood. He lays out the factors motivating border crossings on both sides of the border, including economic need by border crossers and people on both sides of the border looking to exploit them. Urrea argues people make it difficult to understand the issue of border crossings because they do not look at the overall picture (the critical regionalism as discussed by Cox) but from the interior, i.e. Stegnerian approach. This is reflected late in the novel when he comments, “Numbers never lie, after all: they simply tell different stories depending on the math of the tellers” (Urrea 214). There is plenty of information concerning the factors involved in the border crossing issue—it is a question of how people assemble and process this information.

While the border presents the potential of confusion, it does not have to be so. During her discussion of The Devil’s Highway, Sandra Cox observes:

The narrative becomes a bridge over the border. It is neither an American story nor a Mexican one, but rather a testimonial rendering of the impossibility of a discrete line in the Sonoran sands separating one culture, nation, and population from another. (13)

I argue this discrete line applies to more than the border. It applies to the many factors compelling people to cross the border and the various reactions from people to this crossing.

Each of the novels read in class have dealt with one or more borderland issues, ranging from identity to marginalization to geography. The Devil’s Highway examines a range of borderland issues and does so well, but its greatest contribution to borderland literature is its ability to get readers to think about the myriad factors playing out in border crossings. Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway is a mosaic from which can be learned if the reader is willing to look at both the individual parts and their collective picture.

Works Cited

Cox, Sandra. "Crossing the divide: geography, subjectivity, and transnationalism in Luis Alberto

Urrea's The Devil's Highway." Southwestern American Literature, vol. 38, no. 1, 2012, p. 8+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.

Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Devil's Highway: A True Story. Back Bay Books, 2014.

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