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FAW Book Reviews

The Devil's Highway: A True Story
By Luis Alberto Urrea

Paperback, 272 page, Little Brown (2004)

Reviewed by Roberta Gates
September, 2017

The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea is a classic, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize when it was published in 2005. Devil's Highway was not just a critical success, but a bestseller that readers applauded for its searing portrayal of what Mexican immigrants face when crossing the border into the United States.

Regardless of your feelings about immigration, Urrea asks you to take a second look at the issue by telling the stories of 26 men and boys who, in May of 2001, attempted to enter the U.S. via the so-called Devil's Highway, a route which crosses the southern Arizona desert, one of the deadliest regions of the continent.

Among those who made the trip were Reymundo Barreda Maruri, the oldest at 56, and his son, Reymundo Jr., who was the youngest at 15; Efraín, Isidro and Mario González Manzano, all brothers from Hildago; José Isidro Colorado and his 16-year-old nephew, Edgar Adrian Martinez; and Mario Castillo Fernandez, a 25-year-old coffee and citrus plantation worker who had previously worked in Galena, Ill.

Their reasons for making the trip varied. Castillo dreamed of opening a bodega in Veracruz. Enrique Landeros García wanted to send his seven-year-old son to school. Julian Ambros Malaga, a former soldier, wanted to build cement walls for his mother's house, while his brother-in-law, Rafael Temich González, a corn farmer, needed money to support an extended family that included his wife, year-old daughter, mother, two sisters and their four daughters.

Luis Alberto Urrea traces the trip these men made beginning with their recruitment by Mexican gangsters who visited their isolated villages. The venture was not cheap, often costing as much as 20,000 pesos, the equivalent of a year's salary. But for those who didn't have the money up front, Don Moi and others like him were happy to arrange the needed loans at a 15% interest rate. Once the group reached the border, three guias, or guides, took over. These guias expected to earn $3,000 from this trip alone, but their incompetence left most of their clients dead.

Reymundo Barreda, whose son, Reymundo Jr., died in his arms, went berserk afterwards, tearing up all the American money he had saved for the trip before dying himself. Sixteen-year-old Edgar Adrian Martinez, who had hoped to work five years in the U.S. so he could return to Mexico to marry his sweetheart, died just as a rescue helicopter was landing. Still others became disoriented or lost.

In the end, only a handful survived, including the brothers Isidro and Mario González, who were lucky enough to find prickly pears whose liquid saved them. The others were rescued by Border Patrol agents who started searching for them as soon as they heard about the first fatalities. But it was a close call even for these survivors. By the time they arrived at Yuma Medical Center, two were in serious condition and one was in critical condition. In addition, all of them suffered from kidney damage.

Luis Alberto Urrea, whose research for this book was extraordinary, writes in an immediate, up-close style that allows the reader not only to know these men and the ordeal they endured, but to experience it with them. Better still, however, he gives us important context, noting for instance that, although Mexican immigrants used about $250 million in social services, such as Medicaid and food stamps, in 2002, and another $31 million in uncompensated health care, they paid a total of $600 million in federal taxes, meaning that they paid in $319 million more than they took out.

But whether you read The Devil's Highway for the story it tells or the way it illuminates an important issue of our time, I can guarantee that this is one book you'll never forget!