The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea: A Discussion

Welcome to our IFN discussion of  The Devil’s Highway:

With the border between the U.S. and Mexico front-and-center in the news under the current administration, an immersive look at life and death in the desert and border towns offers us insights into the actual situation on the ground. The history. The players. The conflicts. And the story of the Yuma 14, men and boys crossing into the United States illegally, and what happens to them.

Urrea captures the story of death and despair in the Arizona desert, and asks how the tragedy of the “biggest die-off” on the border could have been prevented. Here are a few questions to launch our discussion (Feel free to offer up other comments, ideas and questions regarding the book’s language, theme, characterization, structure, pace or flow, etc.:)

  1. How does the landscape–the desert, the Granite Mountains, Sonoita and elsewhere–serve as character(s) in this story? What details or reflections on setting or space offer visual depth and insights into the story itself?
  2. Urrea often uses the vernacular of personas–the Border Control officers; the Coyote/guide, Mendez; Don Moi the ‘godfather;’ and the Mexican immigrants themselves–in various sections where they are introduced. This use of free indirect style (a story told in third person yet in the style of the character) can be tricky. How effective are these shifts? For example, does the harshness of words like “tonks” or “polleros” (p. 60) used on both sides to describe migrants reflect the harshness of border life? Overall, does Urrea still maintain a sense of an omniscient narrator?
  3. Urrea is a strong researcher and, as a novelist, a lyrical writer. List a few passages that reveal either the depth of his reporting, or his mastery of language and compelling images. For example, one powerful line that resonates for me: There are no illegal people on the Earth.
  4. Much of the story is told narrative-style, with the use of flashbacks and flash-forwards. Only at the end does Urrea delve deeper into the chaotic politics and organizational flaws that have led to an untenable situation. Was that approach effective? How would you describe his underlying tone throughout?
  5. How does Trump’s current concept for A Wall fit into this dialogue? (Urrea himself is flummoxed by suggestions to build a similar wall between Honduras and Mexico, for many of the same claimed reasons, jobs, etc.  (p.229). So now what?
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215 thoughts on “The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea: A Discussion

  1. Jessica Liu says:

    The approach that Urrea took, which was mainly narrative-style, was highly effective. The narrative style helped flesh out all characters, making them relatable and more human. This generates empathy from the readers, which makes them more receptive to his overall political message that he puts at the end of the book. People can be callous in regards to policy and politics, but by humanizing the immigrants, Urrea appeals to readers’ sense of morality and compassion.

    • Nina Modanlo says:

      Jessica, I agree with your analysis and also believe he does a great job of creating a sense of empathy in the reader. Specifically, through his personalization of various inanimate objects (i.e. when Urrea says, “the day tormented them”), it shows the men as objects, objects who are continually suffering through their journey.

      Also, the way in which Urrea separates descriptions of each of the men, using seemingly insignificant details to characterize them (for example, using coordinates, contents of packet, clothing to describe each man that died), evokes stronger emotions in the reader. Towards the end, when he describes their final days, he uses time stamps, which I thought was highly effective in dramatizing the situation and making the characters’ story more personal.

    • Minji Kim says:

      I also liked how it was written in a narrative-style. Also liked how he divided into four section. He doesn’t talk a lot about the walkers until the third section. In part one, not much is mentioned about each walker’s personalities or backstories. We get to know more about their stories right before they die, which I thought was effective.

    • Lynn Stanwyck says:

      I also agree with this. I also think that the narrative style made the story very readable and engaging. Had he just stated facts and not followed the characters in every aspect of their journey, the story would have lost power and also lost a lot of the ability to entertain the reader.

    • Fernando Vicente says:

      In addition, the descriptions of the walkers lives before the event and their purpose for the journey also augment the empathy from the readers and further humanizes the storyline.

  2. Nina Modanlo says:

    Hi everyone! In response to Q3, a passage that really stood out to me and pulled me into the story was:

    “experts cant give a definitive schedule of doom. Your own death is largely dictated by factos outside of your control, and beyond accurate prediction. Your own fitness is a factor, your genetics. ….All sources say you will die in a period of time that can vary from hours to days.” (120)

    Urrea goes on to describe the six stages that follow: heat stress, heat fatigue, heat syncope, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke. I really like how they are each separated into individual sections, which builds the suspense and pulls the reader in further.

    Also, the imagery on page 128 – “your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot…proteins are peeling off your dying muscle… Chunks of cooked meat are falling out of your organs” was very vivid. It is as if you are there with the men experiencing their pain and starvation.

    • jcscribe says:

      I agree, and this is one of the most famous passages of the book/ very medical, in a way. Vivid, real and terrifying.

    • Jessica Liu says:

      I agree. The descriptions of people who die from the heat are some of the most chilling imagery in the book. What really stuck out to me was that after Urrea describes the six stages of hyperthermia, he finishes with: “And the men headed deeper into the desert” (129). This feels very understated and really underscores the sense of danger and suspense he builds.

    • Anders Bright says:

      Yeah, I thought his description of the process of slow death in the desert was very powerful.

    • Kvon Shakil says:

      I agree with Nina. I made a note about the passage of heat stress, heat fatigue, heat exhaustion. The passage become informative after chapters of narration.

    • Lynn Stanwyck says:

      This part also had one of my favorite descriptions: “Your options for salvation wisp away like steam” (124). I thought it was especially powerful because the wisping away of steam is exactly what was killing you and it is an easy thing to imagine.

    • Kyoung-A Cho says:

      There were so many lines that stood out to me and the six stages really stood out to me as well! It gave such a vivid description of each. He also included a description that stated “Pale yellow is the Evian of urine.” This single line really stood out to me.

      A few other lines that I really liked were “They were aliens before they ever crossed the line.” pg. 40. It made me question what exactly did Urrea mean?

      Another powerful sentence was “The footprints wrote the story.” pg. 31 as well “on the Devil’s Highway, you had to almost die for anybody to notice your face.” pg. 70. Both of these lines were so poetic and impactful.

      • jcscribe says:

        Hi all. Well we are wrapping up a FABULOUS discussion. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. And we sailed past the previous record in comments!! I’ll send an email later to check in. Again, really great work!!

  3. Sameer Thakker says:

    In regards to question 2, I believe that Urrea’s use of the vernacular is quite beautiful in painting the rich tapestry of suffering that is border-crossing. We are usually told not to use jargon, but in this case the use of perfectly placed words like Coyote add to the intensity of the plot. My question then becomes how do you know when it is ok to use jargon/vs. not?

    • jcscribe says:

      When you are talking about a particular culture that is unique, new and specific words are actually part of that landscape. I think he defines them well enough. What do others thing (p.s. jcscribe is me–joanne cavanaugh simpson.

      • Diego Luy says:

        I believe that these terms are definitely necessary, but sometimes they might carry a negative connotation. For example, on page 206, Urrea talks about the ridiculousness of the US and its citizens, but I felt a little uncomfortable when he used “topless gringas.” In my opinion, “gringo” is almost always used derogatively, and throwing that onto topless girls instead of just describing them as girls or ladies, comes off negatively.

      • jcscribe says:

        yes, and the description of DEA as “Don’t Expect Anything.” A lot of the characters in a conflict seem to be treated with disrespect. Out of some kind of misguided frustration over a lack of solutions?

    • Anna Gordon says:

      I think that jargon is ok if it is sparse, specific to the story, and defined. It’s one thing to use terms like “coyote” and “pollos” which are relevant to the narrative and another to just bombard your writing with SAT words. For me personally, I actually had a hard time following in the beginning because of the new words but as the story went on I got the hang of it.

      • Kvon Shakil says:

        That is an interesting note. I know a little bit of Spanish so I had no trouble at the beginning understanding the imaginary. I was thinking at the time that it might be harder for people who dont speak Spanish to understand the passages at first

      • Anders Bright says:

        Yeah me too, it took me a couple pages to figure out what a “path cutter” was.

      • jcscribe says:

        I’m still not sure I know exactly. A tracker? And the person who reads the signs of tracking? The fact that one of Mendez’s legs was shorter, so that he veered left, was fascinating and a real clue to what happened…

    • Zane Alpizar says:

      I think that the jargon as its used through the story does a great job at reminding the reader where they are. In this case I think it works well since its constant use is intentional, defined, and becomes natural after awhile.

    • Wendy Yang says:

      I agree with Anna, I think it is hard to avoid these words when you are focusing so closely on a story deeply rooted in its culture. As long as they can be understood by the readers and not overwhelm the story.

    • Kyoung-A Cho says:

      I thought that whenever he used the word “tonk” it was especially impactful. It’s not jargon that is typically used but the meaning was really offensive to even me, that people were reduced to a single noise, so whenever “tonk” was used I thought the sentence was much more effective.

  4. Anna Gordon says:

    One of the things I found the most interesting about his style was the way he used the second person in certain situations like when he describes the daily routine of the border patrol (pg 26) or the stages of death by heat (pg 125). I found those passages particularly effective especially because he used the effect relatively sparingly. Particularly with the death by heat description, I was constantly imagining what I would feel like if i went through that and it made me not only empathize with the walkers, but also feel anxious and worry if they would make it out alive. I felt that the second person narration helped build suspense.

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      I agree with Anna. Along with Urrea’s use of second person, his way of almost tying in social commentary provided an excellent backdrop for the characters of the story. Urrea’s explanation for why people left to go to America, Honduras v. Mexico, and other running themes provide an excellent baseline tension (as we learned from the plot packet), and (in my opinion) heighten the stress of the characters as we begin to understand what is fundamentally driving them to cross.

    • Sera Yoo says:

      I thought it was interesting how he kept using the second person narration too. In a previous class, we talked about whether it is okay to use second person and “you”‘s, and we said that in general, it may cause the reader to not be interested in the reading because it doesn’t seem like it pertains to our lives. But I thought that using “you” in this book was effective in delivering a more impactful message.

    • Fernando Vicente says:

      I actually had a talk point exactly about this! It (2nd person) really does draw you into the story and make you feel the heat of the Devil’s Highway.

  5. Minji Kim says:

    Setting/landscapes mentioned in the book add depth to the overall plot of the story. In the beginning, the readers sense the desperation and helplessness of the walkers through the description of the mountains/deserts they go through.

    • Nina Modanlo says:

      Hi Minji, I agree. The description of the setting in the first part draws the reader in and the details are almost palpable. The reader feels that he/she is there with the Yuma 14. Details like “drink others pee” and the men being drunk from the heat describe the setting well and how this created a painful, horrifying landscape for the Yuma 14.

      Also, in describing southern Arizona and the desert, Urrea says that there were both natural and manmade killers that threatened the life of the “walkers.” The manmade killers resonated with me- I thought of it as an interesting way to describe the inhumane ways in which people like the patrol officers and the air force treated the Mexican immigrants.

  6. Anders Bright says:

    I think the way Urrea incorporated local place names and spanish phrases into his writing was expertly done. It didn’t seem forced, and it adds a veneer of authenticity to his writing.

    • Lynn Stanwyck says:

      I agree, but I thought that it was sometimes too much such as on page 95 when there is a whole conversation in Spanish. You either have to speak a fair amount of Spanish or translate a lot of words to understand what the conversation was about.

      • Anna Gordon says:

        I definitely agree, I had a hard time with that as well. On the other hand though, I guess there’s something to be said for the fact that Americans should know Spanish. Especially considering the fact that we don’t learn a second language in depth like other countries do. Certainly after this I was much more tempted to at least study the basics of the language.

  7. Diego Luy says:

    Also in response to question 3, I think Urrea did a great job at describing the differences in opulence between Mexico and the US. In Ch. 16 pg. 207 he references a note from an interview, “even the gringo trash is better than anything else they can buy.” Having lived in Agua Prieta, Sonora, I can attest to the fact that, in Mexico people don’t just dump things like furniture on the sidewalk to get rid of it. Often people have to work and save for a decent amount of time to even afford second-hand furniture.

    • jcscribe says:

      So true, and power and economic/class issues are central to this book, and the complications of the story. Urrea does a good job, for example, of showing the different levels of power and wealth within the immigrant smuggling business… Don Moi and others up and down the chain.

    • Liz Gee says:

      I agree that his comparisons between economies in Mexico and US were well done. Such a case I found was: “Business-minded fellows could load up at a Texas Goodwill and sell the stuff for twice the price back home… People would spend months’ worth of savings on a small used television or Christmas bike…” Not that other descriptions of poverty and having less weren’t poignant, but I think that emphasizing wealth in a relative way gives a different focus of understanding.

  8. Lynn Stanwyck says:

    Urrea’s characterization and description of Mendez really got my attention. “But the dude was clearly some kind of Coyote Charlie Manson. He was a monster…. Lil’ Rooster Boy was going to be deep friend and served up” (187). This characterized an omnipresent view of Mendez, but it also demonstrates how exaggerated and one-sided the opinions of Mendez were. Urrea does a good job of characterizing the opinion others have of Mendez but also does a good job humanizing him and showing that maybe he didn’t mean to the Yuma 14. He talks about Mendez being one of the youngest in the group and only being 19 as well as the detailed description of Mendez’s hard time in the desert. It makes you unsure if that characterization of Mendez as Charles Manson is really that accurate.

    • Jessica Liu says:

      I agree, and I think that throughout the novel, Urrea tried hard to make all his characters very three-dimensional and relatable. Although some of the people in his story were wildly despised, to themselves they were only doing the rational thing. For example, the Border Patrol was hated by immigrants and coyotes, and there were rumors of beatings and rapes, but the officers themselves felt very human and what they did was definitely heroic.

  9. Sera Yoo says:

    At first, I was slightly confused with the use of free indirect style. Because there are so many people in the book, I was sometimes confused whether the character was a new character or a character Urrea mentioned in previous pages. However, once I understood who these characters were through the stories, it was much easier for the shift from character to the general to occur. I also think that these stories made the book more interesting, so these shifts were very effective.

    Also, the words like “tonks” and “polleros” didn’t seem to reflect the harshness of border life directly, but these words made it sound that the Border Police were de-humanizing these people. According to Urrea, the police considered them aliens, tonks, chickens, Indians, etc. It seems dismissive of the experiences that the illegals have to go through.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, and the guides or Coyotes used pejorative terms as well. Maybe they detached so they could stomach what they were doing or dealing with. They wouldn’t act the same if a migrant was their mother, brother, or friend. What does the role of gallows humor play as well?

      • Sera Yoo says:

        I am not certain, but humor seemed like a way to relieve a lot of the tension in the environment. The illegals probably use humor to deal with the nervousness and the desperation to move to America. The Border Police also may use humor to deal with all of the death that they experience on a day-to-day basis. Do you think that the Border Police is de-humanizing these people, or is humor just a form of therapy? Or is it both?

    • Liz Gee says:

      Speaking of gallows humor, Urrea writes of Yuma-14, “Journalists took them as the hottest story (no pun intended) in many years.” Even though he said no pun intended, it is still a joke. The use of free indirect style confused me at the beginning when the characters were just starting to be introduced so I wasn’t sure if this joke was supposed to be in the voice of himself or another set viewpoint.

    • Kyoung-A Cho says:

      I also became pretty confused by the free indirect style, especially towards the beginning. There were too many stories and characters being introduced that I had a difficult time following, and I wasn’t sure who were the men stranded, because they weren’t heavily introduced until part 3.

      Overall though, I think the different parts was overall put together well. At the end of each section, I knew exactly what the purpose was.

      • jcscribe says:

        Yes, in the end, the feedback I would give for this book would be to strengthen and streamline the opener. I wanted to know more about these men (and boys) as rounded human characters, which would allow readers to be deeply invested in their personal stories. There were some compelling pages in chapter 2 on the father Reymundo Barrero and his son that break one’s heart (p. 51). More of that would have elevated the first chapters, offering a cohesive and tense narrative–the drag-us-over-the-threshold event.

  10. Lynn Stanwyck says:

    “The boys had never been in a parade….The dead were taking their first airplane trip” (197). I think the repeated naming of things that the dead had never been able or would have probably never done had they not died from the terrible situation is very effective and serves to build up to Vargas’s comment “’What if,’ she asked, ‘somebody had simply invested that amount in their villages to begin with’” (199). I think that the building up to that statement and letting the reader almost draw that conclusion before stating it make it very powerful.

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      I agree with Lynn’s comment. I think the use of lists along with the monotone ending (processing death certificates, etc.) provided a very strong tone of apathy and matter of factness. This was shocking to us, but to those crossing the border it was just a fact of life.

      • jcscribe says:

        Good point. The image of the candles, and how he sees that as metaphorical, but they see as practical, is very moving all around.

      • Lynn Stanwyck says:

        I agree. Also repeating elements such as “Reyno Bartolo wore green socks to match his green pants” and “father held up son” helped give the large number of names more context.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, this is an example of magic realism. There are a number of passages where mysticism, myth, or ghostliness of some sort plays into the narrative. The lights the men saw on p. 109, or the land haunted before Melchoir died, and it remained haunted aftereward…

  11. Wendy Yang says:

    Urrea’s narrative throughout the book was filled with horrifying descriptions, yet the story was told with compassion. In a short, powerful section that spans but half a page, Urrea describes what each man carried with him; the lucky spur belt buckle, a note from a waiting chica, one black sock.By pinpointing moments like when the surviving dozen men are found, desperate and delirious, begging for water and salvation for those they left behind. Urrea was able to bring attention to the human faces behind the statistics. “Yuma-14” are not just numbers and anonymous victims of political policy and climatic circumstance.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, and a great reference to The Things They Carried… there is so much we bring with us on any journey, even through our days. A very universal concept.

    • Fernando Vicente says:

      I think this successfully augments the empathy of the readers to the Yuma 14 and further helps in character development of personality (without talking about personality!)

  12. Fernando Vicente says:

    The background on the Devil’s Highway is very powerful. Urrea does a great job setting the tone by providing vivid historical background of the The Devil’s Highway e.g. ”When the Devil’s Highway was a faint scratch of desert bighorn hoof marks, and the first hunters run along it someone died”

    This generates fear, disgust and suspense against such place and thus effectively increases the effect of the incremental perturbations of the Yuma 14 journey towards the desert.

    • Kvon Shakil says:

      Yes. That is true. In particular when you talk about the dessert and the hot temperature. He talks about the dessert so much that I think it can be classified as a theme and he uses great language to describe it.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, that history is amazing. It shows how the Sonora Desert and environs have long been a place of death. A kind of existential threat to humanity. The desert, where early humankind dwelt and fought to survive, offers us inherited primal fear.

    • Lynn Stanwyck says:

      I also like that Urrea had short tales of others how had died in the desert. It really shows his extensive research and solidifies the idea of death in the desert.

  13. Liz Gee says:

    In response to question 3, I think a part that showed mastery in reporting was in section two when Mario considers moving to Florida: “…Florida, where it was warm like home. Pick oranges. How bad could that be? He liked oranges. He wasn’t afraid to work. He added his name to the list.” I found this scene to be quietly devastating and noted how Urrea left it up to the reader to think about the danger and the previous details mentioned such as the black oozing bodies, and other horrors. The reader may also keep in mind that many immigrants will never feel at home in their new country even with all their sacrifices to get there. “Where it was warm like home,” is the part that really gets to me. Urrea’s choice to show what happened without excess commentary trusts in the intelligence of the reader and keeps the knowledge of the consequences of Mario’s decision artfully painful.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, this is especially lovely. Makes him real… as do the sections where some of the men are first introduced in Ch. 2, p. 52. Especially the father who has hopes for his son being a soccer star. The son that accompanies him, and dies as well.

  14. Anders Bright says:

    I though it was interesting how Urrea structured the novel. It kind of hopped around instead of following the perspective of one individual, and switched up chronologically. I thought it showed an incredible dedication to research, when he described the distinct lives of each of the Yuma 14. I thought the most powerful part of the book was when there was one body that no one could even identify.

    • Liz Gee says:

      I agree, that part was devastating. I think that speaks to a universal issue or a mixture of a fear of being forgotten, fear of being meaningless, and sort of an isolation in that no one can recognize, or even further, claim you. Not to mention the basic human dignity of being recognized at death as a human rather than nameless like an object.

      • jcscribe says:

        Beautifully said. What is it to be human? To mean something to someone else..

      • Sera Yoo says:

        I also agree. It just makes the part where Urrea mentions that the funeral is probably their most expensive gift even more upsetting.

  15. Myles Wood says:

    Hey all in response to question 3, I felt that from the beginning Urrea’s knowledge of the indigenous peoples illustrated his strength as a strong researcher. For example, Urrea begins, “The first time the sky and earth came together, Elder brother I’itoi was born. He still resides in a windy cave overlooking the western desert, and he resents uninvited visitors” (Urrea, p.6). The I’itoi is a myth of the Hohokam, who were an ancient native american peoples centered in modern day Arizona.

    • Anna Gordon says:

      I also really liked how he incorporated that. It kind of gave an undertone throughout the whole story that these people have been here since long before the border and added an element of complexity.

      • Sera Yoo says:

        I also liked how he added history and myths in his story. His book had a lot of truths, but it also had a lot of literary components. For example, he talked a lot of ghosts in the Devil Highway. Do you think this blend of fact and literature was effective? Would you have preferred it another way?

  16. Nina Modanlo says:

    Something that really stood out to me in the first part of The Devil’s Highway was Urrea’s portrayal of the CBP officers. He characterizes them as almost sympathetic to the “walkers” in the desert and draws on many common threads between the men crossing the border and the police, such as their mutual hatred of the coyote gangs. In other words, Urrea does not out right condemn the actions of the CBP officers, which shaped my perception of them and gives me more perspective as to the context of this 2001 event.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, and this addresses one of our discussions a week ago. How do you write about people you might see in a negative light? You find out more about them. People are complicated, and their experience is not often our own.

      • Sera Yoo says:

        I especially loved the part when Urrea mentions the painting of the skull, and the police says to not think anything weird and that they didn’t kill the person. It just shows that they also know the stigma against them, and they deliberately try to not agitate the situation more (p.33).

      • jcscribe says:

        Yes, and Urrea’s view of the border patrol officers seems to change through the book.. the relief towers they keep building are and example of what he now knows via immersion and subsequent friendships..

    • Diego Luy says:

      That also stood out to me. How exactly can an organization preventing desperate people from being able to find the means to support their families back home still be seen in a positive light? Sure, the officers seemed caring and heroic when they saved some of the “walkers.” But, what about when their organization stop others closer to the border, after they have already paid vast amounts of money or taken out shady loans? I am not firmly on one side or the other, but this conflict is definitely evident.

      • jcscribe says:

        Yes, and what makes this such an important story. A Greek tragedy, really. With many fatal flaws in characters and the nearly battle-like scenarios.

    • Liz Gee says:

      A quote that stood out to me was “If it was the Border Patrol’s job to apprehend lawbreakers, it was equally their duty to save the lost and the dying.” As soon as I read that I realized that this book was not going to paint the officers as filling the complete role of the villain in this situation, but instead show a more nuanced depiction. The more nuanced something is, the more believable I think it is.

  17. Minji Kim says:

    A motif of this novel was this idea of gambling; the walkers’ decisions are solely based on luck and misplaced trust on the coyotes. Their decision to make the walk and leaving their current lives is gambling that their lives will be better. They gamble that the Coyote can lead them in the right direction and are invested in the safety of their lives. And once a Coyote takes charge, they gamble that he won’t rob him. When they get up every morning, they are gambling that they are physically apt to continue on the journey.

    • jcscribe says:

      Great insight! It is also a very masculine narrative throughout, focused on pride and tests of leadership (failed by Mendez–who is at fault, yet is also just 19 or so). Are there connections to male risk-taking tendencies?

    • Diego Luy says:

      I completely agree. It’s always a gamble. From when one accepts to put their lives and even those of their family’s in the hands of the stranger to when they gamble the uncertainty of what exactly will happen once they’re on the other side. As a child, my parents would tell me stories of how some coyotes have duped and even killed some people. They’ve shared accounts of coyotes murdering people once they were on their trek and stealing their possessions. I’ve also heard of how some would extort these people once they were on US soil, threatening to call Immigration unless a continued payment was made. Also, these coyotes and polleros aren’t ones to give refunds, so if the plan goes unexpectedly south, they might leave the hopeful immigrants and their families of these immigrants in significant debt.

      • jcscribe says:

        Yes, and this is especially dangerous to women, some of whom I know as well. They are threatened with sexual assault, and there are threats to their children as well. The narratives of such stories do accomplish more than political commentary, as some have noted. I think the political reflections, while still helpful as context and broadening themes, might have worked better as an epilogue (or woven here and there gently within, as the history is). The books timelessness is in the stories. Stats can quickly become outdated.

  18. Sameer Thakker says:

    I think that this book has one of the most powerful endings I’ve ever encountered. The contrast of emotion/death/fear with complete lack of emotion and indifference is almost gut wrenching. The reader is almost left without a conclusion to what happens to the men/their families as Urrea goes on to give a description about which Border Patrol group will claim responsibility, government fees, etc. But then I again, I think that’s the point Urrea is trying to drive home. No one cared about preventing this from happening. It was just “another day at work” for the officials.

    • Kvon Shakil says:

      Throughout the book he makes a nominal case that Mexico is not doing enough to offer its people what they need to live; however, in the last chapter I believe Urrrea places the blame more on US
      .

      • Kvon Shakil says:

        He tells us what might have happened if we’d invested the thousands of dollars we spent trying to make things right (for burials and flights) in this one case on making life better in the Mexican villages across the border.

  19. Anna Gordon says:

    Also, in response to question 5, I almost wanted there to be a wall so that people wouldn’t walk into the desert and die. I’m not a Trump supporter by any means but after reading this I was actually much more opposed to the idea of people just walking across the border all the time. At the end of the story, I came away feeling like everything would be different if people could make decent wages in Mexico. Ultimately, we as Americans are dealing with people who aren’t being treated fairly in their own country. Just how much these people are our responsibility is difficult to say. Clearly, we have to do something because people are dying. But at the same time, I don’t think this issue can ever be truly fixed by the United States, it has to be fixed from within Mexico. The Mexican government has to make it so that people want to stay there. At the end of the book when Urrea describes border policy and gets into the policy and politics of it all, I felt like it was kind of out of place. Personally, I feel like every border policy we could make in America would just treat the symptoms of the disease. I thought the book might have been more powerful without those last 10 pages because my opinions about the whole situation were largely formed from the personal narratives of the walkers as opposed to all the facts about policy.

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      I disagree here. I think that Urrea’s analysis heightens a need for policy discussions. At the end of the day, policy has very real impacts on people, and Urrea’s book does a great job of emphasizing that.

    • Minji Kim says:

      I agree with the statement that the book might have been more powerful without those stats/facts. The message Urrea was trying to get across was already clear from the narratives.

    • jcscribe says:

      Great points. And this book is a perspective check, I think. Would a wall save lives? Maybe so, but is it feasible in the long term. When the border was more open, decades ago, people went to work as migrants on farms and returned to their homes in Mexico. Similar labor forces are still utilized today. Would wider temporary work visas work? Other solutions on the Mexican side of the border? Any new ideas from the book?

      • Myles Wood says:

        I also, disagree with this point. People flee Latin America because of drug violence, and extreme poverty. I think Urrea does a great job at illustrating that. The extreme poverty of Latin America, leaves a some with very few alternatives than to cross. If people wish to seek a better life for themselves, or more importantly their family a wall will not stop them as the desert did not stop the “Pollos.”

      • jcscribe says:

        The violence especially makes people more desperate. And there will likely be fewer legal visas granted. It is the intractability of the problem that makes it so challenging–do the Yuma 14 or the Wellton 26 (including the traumatized survivors) exemplify this? Is the main theme, as some have indicated, human vs. human or human vs. the environment?

      • Minji Kim says:

        I also asked myself this question after reading the book. Instead of spending so much money on building a new wall or enforcing new laws on immigration, U.S. should work with Mexico to educate their citizens on potential risks of illegally immigrating and reward those who legally immigrate and help U.S.’s economy.

    • Wendy Yang says:

      I completely understand why you felt this way. I think many of the supporting voices for the wall might be because of similar reasons. But I still believe that the wall is not the best solution to this problem. Many other more humanitarian approaches can be established to reduce the number of border crossing deaths, like setting up a more accessible way of seeking international help or expanding the current US refugee admissions program. The cost of legalizing otherwise illegal immigrants may be actually lower than the current somewhat inefficient way of refugee resettlement.

    • Fernando Vicente says:

      While I agree that the policy and the aftermath narrative arguably seem unnecessary, I believe Urrea’s intention was to display more than just the Yuma’s 14 story, since, as he tells points out, there are many similar ones. Rather he might want to highlight the ‘stupidity that rules both sides of the borders’. He thus discuss both a detailed and focused main story followed by what I believe is an appropriate and accurate bigger picture. He leverages this moment to discuss specific policies and politics that are probable causes of catastrophic events as the one narrated.

  20. Diego Luy says:

    I found Urrea’s writing style both effective at times but bizarre at other times. For example, he is effective in showing both how desperate and dispensable coyotes and polleros are. On page 70, he describes Mendez as “poor, alone, looking for a better life, willing to do what it takes…like them, he was welcome to die for the Cercas brothers. There were so many more of him waiting to take his place. There were so many more of him that he didn’t even exist.” At other times, he is a bit striking and even morbid. On page 69, he hails the death of an “idiot pollero” after he was responsible for the death of innocent people. Urrea writes, “at least the driver of the van had the good taste to die for his sins,” which I found particularly morbid.

    • Anders Bright says:

      Yeah, I agree that his writing style was strange in certain places. He often employed choppy sentence structures.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, I don’t think he really settled on a cohesive voice. And the beginning chapters jump around a bit too much to maintain the narrative. Anecdotes are great, when put into context.

  21. Myles Wood says:

    In response to question 2, Urrea’s depictions of the desert serve to illustrate the landscape as desolate and isolated. However with the coming of a new day Urrea begins, “Dawn came gradually to the Sonoran Desert. …Desert grasshoppers burst into the air with ratcheting machinery roars.” Here in the desert it is evident very few can wonder. The description of grasshoppers making the sound “ratcheting machinery roars” seem to illustrate the loneliness of the desert itself.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, a lovely example of lyricism. The desert is a femme fatal. I am currently out here in Arizona, where my brother is ill. The desert is both forbodeing and beautiful in rare spring bloom.

    • Nina Modanlo says:

      Myles- I agree with your comments on Urrea’s portrayal of the desert. I thought it was very interesting how he shows the desert as being this desolate, eerily quiet place at times and then immediately shifts to a more dramatic, “actionful” depiction of the desert. For example, at the end of part two, the last sentence is “And the men headed deeper into the desert.” The first sentence of the fourth part picks up right where the third part left off, with “And chaos fell upon them.” The juxtaposition of the men heading into this mysterious place and then chaos ensuing is a very effective writing style.

      • Nina Modanlo says:

        And Professor, I like your comment on the desert as “forboding and beautiful.” This duality of the desert makes it a very powerful setting and context in which this story plays out.

      • jcscribe says:

        🙂 I can’t get over how much the desert is in our bones and DNA.

  22. Wendy Yang says:

    In response to Question 5, I think the book brings light to the humanitarian consequences of building the wall. From a public health perspective, refugees are gradually replacing economic migrants. A wall would not prevent the seek for a better life in the US; a longer fence only pushes migrants into still-more dangerous crossing routes. The expected number of border crossing deaths would increase if the wall is built.

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      Yes!! I agree completely. Instead we should be working with Mexico to reduce corruption/provide better opportunities/safely bring immigrants here. Let’s not forget we are a nation of immigrants

    • jcscribe says:

      The situation on the border has changed and some have said Trump is fighting an outdated scenario. The wall is so untenable cost and maintenance wise as well.

  23. Jessica Liu says:

    In regards to question 5, Trump’s call to build a wall seems to ignore the reality that Urrea paints. Urrea writes, “To hear politicians and talk show hosts tell it, the entire population of Mexico is on its way” (215). Indeed, Trump uses the wall as a rallying point, one that is a good sound bite but not anything that makes sense. Fear of immigrants taking jobs has been around for as long as borders have existed, but as Urrea points out, not only do they not steal jobs, immigrants can often generate prosperity for their host country. Overall, the way Trump and Urrea see these immigrants is vastly different: Trump sees them as something to fear, a caricature of what they actually are, whereas Urrea sees them as just humans.

  24. Nina Modanlo says:

    I agree with everyone’s comments on Urrea’s expert reporting and passages that clearly show the extensive research done on the context behind this chilling story. But, I think the part of the book that best indicates Urrea as a reporter and journalist is in part three where he describes the men that died in the desert with such precise details. I was impressed solely by the mention of their names, but he knows so much more. The exact location at which they were found, their background, and everything on their person at the time of their death.

    • Jessica Liu says:

      I agree; it was extremely precise, and it seemed like he made very good use of information gleaned from interviews with the survivors. For example, he writes about how one of the immigrants falls, but then stands up because he hears the voice of his daughter. This is very poignant and helps strengthen the narrative.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes! This is the power of recreating a story that people don’t really know, and sometimes only the writer or journalist can dig deep enough and have the story elling skills to put it all together. I think the book really shoots into high gear in Chapter 11, where the human stories and the drama of the plight and flight come to life.

      • Minji Kim says:

        Agreed. Knowing their names and their stories allowed me to feel their deaths and dislike Lauro and Mendez for abandoning them.

      • jcscribe says:

        Yes, and that reveals the character of those who people this story. What other elements of character work well to demonstrate the conflicts?

  25. Minji Kim says:

    “The heat sizzled at the edges of things, then slammed into them, instant, and profound” (117).

    There were many instances through out the book where heat is portrayed as a living thing. I thought heat portrayed just the lives of the characters in the book. There wasn’t anything that could be done to fight it and people just had to endure the heat. Urrea describes six stages of hypothermia, which I thought was odd. What did you guys think about that section?

    • Lynn Stanwyck says:

      “But the wicked genius of Desolation is that it makes even the young old so that it can kill them more easily” (121). I agree that Urrea does a great job bringing heat and the desert to life.

      I think that passage was very powerful because it painted a vivd picture of how terrible it is to die from hyperthermia. It also does a lot to demonstrate the universal mortality of the desert: “However long it takes you to die, you will pass through six know stages of heat death…and they are the same for everyone” (120).

      • jcscribe says:

        Yes… that is the universality. And tourists out here die all the time. Even now they get lost when depending on modern technology, via a loss of agency and personal resourcefulness and planning. Death by GPS.

  26. Anders Bright says:

    In response to question 5, I guarantee Urrea abhors Trump, and is probably verbally against his proposed wall. I don’t think he is surprised Trump won though. He presents a pessimistic view about Mexico-US relations in the book.

  27. Zane Alpizar says:

    Urrea proves time and again the time and effort he put into researching the various aspects dealing with border issues with his detailed lists of evidence including various facts and statistics. “Seventy-seven hospitals throughout the American Southwest were losing about $190 million in unpaid bills, and tens of millions of these could be attributed to medical attention for illegals, including those dropped off by the Border Patrol. (p. 179)” I found that this effort was highlighted much more by the smaller details he includes about different individuals or groups. This information goes a long way to help illustrate the climate of the situation from a larger perspective, while constantly bringing the reader know these individual places and people more intimately.

  28. Wendy Yang says:

    The book is almost claustrophobic in its oppressive depiction of desperation. Since I knew from the beginning that the trip will fail, the only mysteries are what goes wrong, and which of the walkers will survive. The limited information about each walker makes that process of even harder. All of the walkers are desperate in their own way. What is left is an airless sense that there is no hope for those who walk on the Devil’s Highway. Desperation is also produced by the void and harsh setting of the story. The intense heat of the desert causes horrific physical afflictions: swollen and cracked lips, black urine, organs that “cook” inside bodies. Urrea describes the heat as sizzling “at the edges of things.” The desolation of the deserts translates into the desperation and madness experienced by each walker.

    • Diego Luy says:

      I disagree. Yes, Urrea does use a significant amount of descriptions of pain and despair, but I think its definitely merited and plainly shows how bad the economic opportunities are in Mexico. The majority of these people earn just $10 for a days work, at best. Sure, the cost of living in Mexico is lower than in the US, but even still, people have to have multiple jobs to afford a shed of a home, which is often roofed by metal sheets. Add onto this, there is no thought of retirement either. One works until he/she can’t. Then, the children of these people not only need to provide for their own children but for their parents as well,

    • jcscribe says:

      Well said!! And such claustrophobia and desperation are powerful and terrifying.

  29. Sera Yoo says:

    In a sense, I think Trump’s desire for a wall stems from a lack of knowledge. I don’t know how much he knows about Operation Broken Promises, or the hardships that these people go through to earn “dolores” to support themselves and their family. I actually also thought the same thing as Anna Gordon. What would happen if America did actually build a wall? First of all, I don’t know how feasible that would be. Isn’t the desert a metaphoric wall anyway? How do you wall a wall? Also, these people who are coming north to America are coming to live. Urrea writes, “They were aliens before they ever crossed the line” (p.40). Would a mere wall change anything?
    I also think that if a wall was built, there may actually be benefits. Firstly, there will be so much news coverage. More people will write more, read more, and learn so much more, and maybe they will realize that building a wall was a TERRIBLE idea. When the wall is completely built and people still cross the wall, Americans will realize that the wall is useless. And when the wall comes down, Americans may have a different perspective of illegal Mexicans. I am imagining celebrations, just like the story we read when the Berlin Wall came down. Maybe the wall will create equality? But then again, it brings forth the question in the beginning of the book: “Was it worth it?” (p.12)

    • jcscribe says:

      The Berlin Wall is a great example. A wall can be breached, and must be guarded. Trying to do all that helped lead to the fall of the Roman Empire. Where is the logos in this pathos?

  30. Sameer Thakker says:

    Going off of everyone’s comments, I think Urrea does a great job of raising the question: who is the antagonist? Is it the gov? The desert? Heat? The coyotes? I think the lack of a clear antagonist makes the book more powerful as we get to see how each one of the above mentioned factors plays of one another to create a combined effect. What are your thoughts on the presence of clear protagonists/antagonists?

    • Anna Gordon says:

      I agree and I also thought this might be a way nonfiction differs from fiction. In fiction you can channel all of the opposing forces through one character but in real life it’s often way more complicated than that.

      • jcscribe says:

        Good point! Nonfiction, like life, is messy and complex. But more compelling ins some ways with its realities.

    • Diego Luy says:

      The most clear protangonists in these stories are the immigrants. Their main goal is to provide for their families, and they are more than willing to risk their lives to do so, which is inherently admirable. So far as a clear antagonists, none really stand out. At most, Mendez and his ignorance can be seen as the villain, but even still, Urrea counteracts this by bridging the gap between him and the “pollos.” They’re all just working for a better life.

    • Jessica Liu says:

      I agree; that’s a very good point. The sun might be the best antagonist in the story; however, since it’s inanimate, that’s hard to say. It’s unclear if the coyotes are antagonists because there is doubt about whether Mendez was intentionally trying to kill the walkers. Likewise, an argument could be made for all the other possible antagonists in the story. I think this serves the make the story more realistic; in life, a lot of things happen not because there is an antagonist, but because it is just how things happened to play out. This ambiguity makes things more nuanced.

    • Sera Yoo says:

      I don’t think there is a clear answer. Many Americans portray the illegals to be evil and “antagonists” of the American story. Yet, in the story, Urrea portrays these people as protagonists. The Border Police also has two roles- to make sure they don’t enter America and to keep them alive. Also at first glance, the desert seems like the antagonist. But the way Urrea portrays it to be both beautiful and terrifying makes me also think that the desert can also be a protagonist. These dualities of these characters make the story so much more complex, but also so much more interesting.

      • jcscribe says:

        Yes, the complex role of the Border Guard might be the most compelling element that is unique to this book. What if Urrea had spent more time with Coyotes? How would the focus of the book change I wonder … (It’s hard to find too much empathy for them in the real-lifeness of this, though their role stems from poverty as well)..

    • Lynn Stanwyck says:

      I think that he leaves it vague because there is no clear antagonist in the story. There are issues in many places and no single one is to blame, and by not having a clear antagonist, Urrea is able to covey this.

    • jcscribe says:

      Wow! That is indeed true. Everyone is at fault? It can’t be no one… How could they possibly get together?

    • Nina Modanlo says:

      Hi Sameer- I think you raise a very good point and this is something that also made me question if there is one real antagonist. I think it is evident who the protagonists are – the men of the Yuma 14 – but the antagonist is, as you say, left up to the reader. Indeed, would be factually inaccurate to claim that the government is solely responsible, or the coyotes, of whoever you choose. And this uncertainty creates more suspense and drama and makes the reader empathisize more with each of the individuals who went on this journey in 2001. Also, by depicting such antagonists like the CBP officers in a positive light in some instances, Urrea makes it evident that each of the institutions/individuals who could be portrayed as an antagonist has their own unique story and is not completely at fault.

    • Zane Alpizar says:

      Urrea attempts to give the reader information on all of the angles around the problems concerning the border. He displays circumstances of each individual and group, illustrating how they clash and influence one another. This is done in part to explain why the situations happen in the first place. It does become evident that there isn’t a clear antagonist, in part because he does flush through the different perspectives from all of the sides. It becomes more of the readers decision about what to make of it and do about it, even though Urrea’s voice/opinion does occasionally interject.

      • jcscribe says:

        True, and this speaks to what the writer can do about a problem. Let people know what is going on, from on-the-ground. That is a start. Anyone who is more informed about the actualities has a better shot at doing something that makes sense..

    • Liz Gee says:

      I agree that an unclear or specific antagonist made this story realistic. I think that this isnt a way that nonfiction differs from fiction, or at least it doesn’t have to be. I think in the best fiction works, you feel bad even when the antagonist is served “justice”. In such pieces, there are seemingly two ways in which the story can develop- either the protagonist wins or the antagonist wins, but you are left feeling dissatisfied with both options.

  31. Nina Modanlo says:

    As I read The Devil’s Highway, I found myself constantly thinking about the underlying purpose and intent of Urrea in writing about the Yuma 14. It is clear that Urrea writes about this horrifying event to make sure that such tragedy does not occur again. But, I wonder if this book is more about making a political statement as an expose on the issues and ineffectiveness of border control. Any thoughts?

    • Lynn Stanwyck says:

      Throughout the book Urrea also dives into other people who have died in the dessert: both illegal immigrants and tourists. I think this is done to broaden the content and help expose underlying issues. He even says “The Yuma 14 changed nothing, and they changed everything” (211). This shows that while some things were changed, there are bigger overall issues that need to be addressed.

  32. Lynn Stanwyck says:

    I really like that Urrea only delves deeper into chaotic politics and organizational flaws at the end. He demonstrated the issues with examples before giving into a discussion of politics. It makes you feel educated about the issue enough to be able to understand the politics and organization flaws.

    • Anders Bright says:

      I agree with you. I think he also does a good job being somewhat politically neutral in his presentation of the situation on the border. Although he is critical of both the US and Mexican authorities, hr makes sure to back up what he’s saying with evidence.

  33. Wendy Yang says:

    In response to question 1 and Sameer’s earlier comment, I think the setting itself – the desert – serves as one of the antagonists of the story. It may not be the root of the problem, but it is one of the most immediate killers of the walkers. When the book begins, I immediately sensed the desperation, confusion, and utter helplessness of five men who stumble out of a mountain pass near Interstate 8 in Arizona. These men have just emerged from the intense desert sun and heat. They are burned black and their lips are cracking and huge. Dust has settled into their eyes. Their dehydration has shriveled organs inside of their bodies.

    The setting also has a hallucination effect. Urrea describes the walkers’ uncertain eyesight, sights of God or the devil, poisonous systems from ingesting their own urine, and utter madness.

  34. Kvon Shakil says:

    Its a difficult question. I think it is people like Don Moi Garcia. The people who are recruiters. They are taking advantage of the situation.

  35. Liz Gee says:

    I wondered what people thought about Urrea’s handling of dialogue. I thought that it was refreshingly realistic. One example is “Is he here? “”Did he cross with you?” “My brother? I grew up with him.” And also: “What’s that supposed to mean?” “What?” “The rabbit.” “The tattoo?” “Yes, the tattoo. What does the rabbit tattoo signify?” “Nothing.” I think that in both cases the conversations are disjointed. Dialogue that isn’t realistic is more linear, stay on topic, and questions are answered immediately. If this wasn’t done as well the conversation might have gone like: “What’s that supposed to mean?”, he asks pointing to the rabbit tattoo. “Nothing, I just like rabbits.”

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      I completely agree. It’s very refreshing to see dialogue that may not have a purpose (in the sense of an immediate answer). It adds a more human touch. Humans don’t always have the most sensible things to say every time they speak.

    • Sera Yoo says:

      I also really liked the way he used dialogue. I’m pretty sure this is how I sometimes talk too. The dialogue is not only short and simple, but also indicative of the personalities of these people. It is also funny, which keeps the mood a bit uplifting, seeing that this book is so depressing.

    • Jessica Liu says:

      Yes, I also thought that his dialogue was very true to life. This kind of dialogue is also captivating because it drags the reader through it, whereas dialogue that is interspersed with a lot of “stage directions” (for lack of a better term) feels slower and is less interesting.

    • Wendy Yang says:

      I liked how he crafted the dialogues and it somewhat reminds of Hemingway’s iceberg theory that the readers understand more than the writers expect and the story can be conveyed through only simple dialogue. In this case, the fragmented questions also align with their mental and physical state. They may be too physically and emotionally strained to speak in a focused and sensible way.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes! you will notice he does not use quote marks with recreated dialogue, when he seems to bring in as what was likely said, based on the character. There is an interesting exchange with Mendez as he is considering being a guide. I think this works well. And the passage later in the book, where he lists the different perspectives of who said what when during the tragic trek, show a great way to handle various testimonies to the same event..

    • Anders Bright says:

      Yeah, I like how he left out routinely used signifiers, and just allowed the readers to figure out who was saying what.

  36. Zane Alpizar says:

    Exactly, when people communicate, it’s an active process of back and forth that doesn’t always yield immediate or focused answers. These touches of extra realism help to anchor the story back to the fact that real people are involved, even if it might seem like a more abstract or complex issue.

    • Zane Alpizar says:

      as a response to Liz’s comment on dialogue

    • jcscribe says:

      Another issue I found interesting what Urrea’s sources for all this material. Some of it came from reports. Piecing this all together is an extreme challenge–and requires a vision and level of obsessiveness required to accomplish a book. Were his sources evident in the writing? There were a few areas where he weaves in briefly, like on p. 152, where he mentions service reports. Urrea would need to request some of these under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or have reports passed to him surreptitiously. I would like to have seen a few more woven in references, J___ later told investigators. Just a sprinkling? Did other feel his narrative was authentic and well researched? Especially without endnotes or footnotes…

  37. Nina Modanlo says:

    The majority of the text focuses on the plight of the Yuma 14 and the details behind their famous journey into the US. But, Urrea does explicitly and implicitly devote some of the text to policy in the US and Mexico. He especially makes it clear that the US financially benefits from Mexicans coming to the US, getting a job, purchasing commodities, paying taxes, etc. They add lots of money to the US’ GDP. I believe that Urrea delves into this area – one clouded by such chaotic politics between the US and Mexico – in order to show how senseless the policy.

    His point is well shown when he says “it isn’t the desert that kills immigrants. It isn’t coyotes…What kills the people is the politics of stupidity that rules both sides of the border.”

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      I’m a little confused here. I think Urrea’s book does an excellent job in showing how idiotic politics can be and the very detrimental impact they can have. At the same time if it were that easy, then why are we having a discussion on immigration politics? Surely there has to be some other side. I mean we aren’t that cruel are we? Maybe I’m just naive and/or very ill informed on the issue. What are your thoughts to there being more than one side of the story/is there more than one side or are we just plain wrong?

      • Jessica Liu says:

        I think that you’re right, it’s not really that easy. A lot of the anti-immigration sentiment has basis in human psychology (in-group vs out-group). Lots of experiments have shown that this is basically hard-wired into our brain. When competition is tough, in-group vs out-group hostility increases, so a lot of social psychologists think this is why people are quick to blame immigrants for stealing jobs when they are in tough economical situations. However, paper after paper have shown that immigrants have no detrimental effect on their host countries. (I wrote a research paper on this, and I actually could not find a single paper that said that immigrants were bad for countries.) In my opinion, the reason why this is not more publicized is because it doesn’t make a good talking point. Politicians, a lot of the time, capitalize on people’s fears, rational or otherwise.

      • jcscribe says:

        Very true! And the power of this book is that it brings the us-vs.-other to life—-oddly enough via an incident that appalled people on all sides of the issue. I think it would have been good for Urrea to show more examples of that communal mourning. People really came together over this loss of life–it was a scandal and a tragedy. The fact that the border patrol investigation was called “Operation Broken Promise” speaks volumes.

        Where could this story be told again today so people would care about other human tragedies? In the cramped shipping containers of refugee camps in Hungary? In Aleppo? This is what foreign correspondents do–make these stories real. Still, in those cases, it seems readers feel helpless. How could that change, I wonder?

      • jcscribe says:

        It seems that people are overwhelmed and can mostly see just what is in front of them? There is a sense of hopelessness all around and so many moving parts. The policies can be particularly idiotic though. That is the nature of bureaucracy. Seems more actual examples of this might work better than Urrea’s generalization in the end..

    • Diego Luy says:

      I agree with Sameer that if it were that easy to fix the problem, it would have been fixed by now. At the same time, I think the main solution would be focusing on a faster and longer-lasting work visa program. I believe the bureacracies and confusion that come from the institutions are what drive these immigrants to place their trust in more questionable hands. It’s obvious that if going the “right” way and taking out a work visa or applying for immigration were easier, these people wouldn’t opt for traversing dangerous landscapes.

      • Myles Wood says:

        I also agree with Diego. The absurdities of the immigration policy seem lie principally with their failure to have a long term solution. Visas can take up to ten years, to receive. This is what drives many to not take the “right” path.

      • Nina Modanlo says:

        Diego and Sameer- I agree that this is a very complex issue and one without a clear solution. In regards to work visas, I wonder why the US government hasnt done more to create some kind of visa permit. This would substantially bring down the costs associated with illegal immigration (ie hospital bills for injured immigrants crossing the border). It is clear that this would be beneficial for the US. But, perhaps the US is hesitant to do so because the current policies allow them to take advantage of illegal immigrants – they do not have health insurance, they likely do not earn minimum wage, etc. What do you think about this?

      • Myles Wood says:

        Hey Nina I, also, do believe that immigration policy is the consequence of a much larger issue. The agricultural industry is, perhaps, the best example. People are usually paid in wage(s) and because they are not fully employed it is cheaper to higher undocumented workers than a worker that demands a fair wage.

  38. Lynn Stanwyck says:

    I really like the mixture of sentence lengths and paragraph lengths that Urrea uses. An good example of this, as well as repetition is on page 134. There are two paragraph that are just “Walking” and then longer paragraphs about the inner thoughts of the walkers. The word walking breaks up these wander thoughts and reminds you that they are still walking.

    • Zane Alpizar says:

      I agree, Urrea does like to mix up the pace at different points and I think it does a good job to keep the reader feeling refreshed almost.

    • Nina Modanlo says:

      Yes, I agree and this is something that I noticed again and again. By breaking up actions into separate thoughts and making a list out of them, Urrea places more emphasis on what they are doing in that moment and helps pull the reader more into the story. Also, on page 169, Urrea uses short sentences to describe the exhaustion of the characters – “Mendez and Laura stumbled. Laura was sick. He kept muttering that he couldn’t go on…” This creates a more detached narration of events, while it also serves to connect everything in a very powerful way.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, he is a master of rhythm. One can see that throughout. Especially the opening line of the book.

  39. Jessica Liu says:

    Focusing on Urrea’s use of free indirect style, I thought it was interesting how he would make some kind of observation, but sometimes it was not from the perspective of a specific character, but rather a general one. For instance, when describing what cutters do, Urrea writes, “If an Oscar bleeps and no cutter is nearby, they know somebody done snuck into the country” (30). It is clear that this is vernacular, so someone said it (or thought it), but there is no single character that Urrea is focusing on. I thought this was meant to be from the perspective of the cutters in general, which is interesting and raises questions about if these are paraphrased quotes or if Urrea made them up. Thoughts?

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, there are lot of areas like that, where he slips into cop-speak or offers general description in local lingo.. some of the descriptions of Sonoito for example..

    • Zane Alpizar says:

      I think it can sometimes be confusing, especially when he says something from a separate perspective almost sarcastically. I think that sometimes its his own, but the perspective in these moments constantly switches to those of different groups depending on the topic hes on, though its more explicitly noted here
      “UCLA’s North American Integration and Development Center (you can hear talk radio hosts protesting already—UCLA! Commie bastards!)(p.217)”, probably because its a more obscure perspective to note in the first place. I often got the impression that he probably did here some of the more “out of place” quotes from actual people.

      • jcscribe says:

        Good point. That was confusing to me too. He does convey a tone of quiet anger underneath throughout I think…

  40. Kvon Shakil says:

    In regards to question number 3. I really liked how Urrea portrays the powerful sun and how people flock to the trees. “It was a hurricane of sunlight, and like storm victims, the men hugged the hot trunks, clutched the trees to keep out the killer sun, even tied themselves to the trees pg 162.

    Another line that I liked was when he described Roster Boy. “He wore his hair in a silly punk- rock style, cut short all around, with a red-dyed forelock hanging over his eye. He liked to flick it back over his head like any enemy’s scalp plopped on his skull. Some survivors said the hair was orange, or blonde. To them, anything not black was blonde pg. 68

    • Lynn Stanwyck says:

      I liked that the red forelock what a characteristic of Mendez that kept reappearing over and over. Clearly it was a striking characteristic that people noticed and commonly commented on.

    • Liz Gee says:

      I also liked that description of Rooster Boy. I thought that at some times descriptions of characters were a little extreme or maybe cartoonish but not in a way that was stereotypical, so it worked. And it gave these people their own distinct and distinguishable characters. I also liked the bit where he describes the survivors’ was wearing “ridiculous flowered hospital gowns”. I found that to be unique and fresh.

      • jcscribe says:

        Yes, the descriptions were mostly fresh. But in some areas, there was a sense of the stereotypical. Is this because it was what Urrea actually saw, or just a quick shorthand that could have been reworked via closer observation…

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, the description of Mendez’ hair was truly bizarre, and noticed by many. Great examples of vivid writing too.

  41. Fernando Vicente says:

    Along with Gambling and Desperation as major themes, I believe Betrayal is almost a major aspect of this novel. If I’m not mistaken, Urrea says that the first Veracruz once flourished with tourism and happy workers. However, as in most countries (particularly developing), the capital tends to outgrowth the outskirts. Politics then reflect the interests of highly populated cities. Slowly cities the prosperity of cities like Veracruz diminishes and people start migrating for better opportunities. This explains the feeling of betrayal of Yuma 14 throughout their journey.

    Moreover this betrayal also develops from the recruiters of immigrants who extort the walkers, the guides who might desert them at any time, and the country of destination which is never reached.

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      I agree with Fernando. Betrayal is a major theme, but I think that betrayal is offset by necessity. As Urrea mentions, everyone is just trying to do what they have to do so that they can get by.

    • Lynn Stanwyck says:

      I agree. Another example of betrayal is America. America seems so promising and like a whole new world to the immigrants. But when they arrive, they find that America is not what they expected and are disappointed by it: “That’s it? That’s the border? This is North America? It don’t look like much!” (103).

      • Sera Yoo says:

        I would also like to give another quote, “Mexico loves a martyr, perhaps as much as it dislikes confronting the catastrophe political malfeasance that forced the walkers to flee their homes and bake to death in the western desert.” (p.33)

      • jcscribe says:

        yes, and fiction that brings that to life is Gabriel Garcia Marquez'”The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”

    • Jessica Liu says:

      I think betrayal is definitely a theme. One of the main points of contention was if Mendez had betrayed the walkers by taking their money and seemingly leaving them to die. While the justice system ruled that Mendez was guilty, Urrea seems to make it much less clear whether this betrayal really did happen.

    • Diego Luy says:

      I agree that the capital might grow, but this does not hide the fact that the economic possibilities are bad, to say the least. Mexico, itself, is very socially driven. There are national education and healthcare programs in place, but the main problem is a total lack of resources and the ever present corruption at the municipal, state, and federal level. Policies, therefore, may reflect the interests of the people, mostly the working class, but this does little to help Mexican citizens if government officials pocket these gains for themselves. I think this is also ties into your theme of betrayal, though. In my opinion, the Mexican government fears this “betrayal” by their citizens. If they leave to work elsewhere, the government will not be able to tax their wages to their desires.

      • jcscribe says:

        Thoughtful and insightful. It seems that corruption–like betrayal–is at the heart of this story. Lots of the people involved are indeed out for themselves. There is a corruption of the soul. That fact that people at the time were moved by these deaths was a momentary moment of relief in this paradigm (though the corruption didn’t exactly go away. The female investigator, whose name is escaping me at this second, was a truly heroic figure. She was searching for The Truth.

    • Minji Kim says:

      I agree with Fernando and Sameer. Lauro and Mendez abandoning the walkers isn’t justifiable but they had to do what they had to do.

      • jcscribe says:

        Maybe. This seems their greatest flaw and reveals a kind of cowardice. Why not take someone else with them?

  42. Kvon Shakil says:

    For me identifying the climax was difficult. The Devil’s Highway is told in a kind of flashback. For example, chapter one says five men come out of the desert and are found by a Border Patrol agent; then it backtracks to how they arrived and we meet those five men again in chapter 14. It is also difficult because this is a story of a series of tragedies and missteps, some deliberate and some accidental. If the climax is defined as the moment when everything changes, the author himself says it is when some immigration or other vehicle shines its lights on the nearly exhausted group near Bluebird Pass and they scatter (chapter 8). For me the climax is two chapters later, when their Coyote guide Mendez starts to lose his own reasoning power, collects (perhaps by force) the men’s money, and then walks away, promising to return for his group. Of course he had no intention of doing so, and this act clearly marks the beginning of the men’s death march.
    What to you guys think?

    • jcscribe says:

      Could a climax be when the call goes out to authorities / they are discovered? Some rescued, others found? Great question… maybe the manhunt for Mendez–which brought in all sorts of characters including privateers–to track him down? The view of the migrants themselves changed for that moment–they were not antagonists, but victims. What do others think?

  43. Jessica Liu says:

    Urrea explicitly used a lot of biblical imagery throughout the novel. For instance, one of the chapter titles was, “Jesus Walks Among Us.” Urrea also writes of Mendez, “This is his true name: Jesus. Jesus led the walkers gathered by Moses into the desert called Desolation” (68). Does this strengthen the magical realism in the story, or was Urrea using this for another purpose?

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      I think that it heightens the salvation-ism that is expected of the USA. Jesus is leading them to the promise land. They put so much faith in the guide and are expecting a miracle land on the other side. I think Urrea uses the magical realism to heighten the fantastical dreams that they had about the USA.

      • jcscribe says:

        Yes, and sometimes life IS magic realism. Truth stranger than fiction and all. The writer ‘sees’ these things and knows enough to understand their significance. Sometimes they can be too perfect, but if real…

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, great eye! I saw that too. I think it speaks to a form of mysticism and allegory and biblical themes of right and wrong..

    • Minji Kim says:

      “Mendez walked and his herd followed” (139). This reminded me of a shepherd in the bible, which is often used to symbolize Jesus.

      US = promise land for the walkers

  44. Liz Gee says:

    I was wondering if there were certain sections that made people feel a sort of guilt? One section for me was: “Rural Mexicans don’t have the spare money to drown their food in melted cheese. They don’t smother their food in mounds of sour cream. Who would pay for it? They have never seen ”nachos”. I think that showing something we think of as being cheap and something we take for granted like nachos to be somewhat of a luxury was a little embarrassing. I feel that using food as a depiction of indulgence is extremely effective.

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      I agree. Holy crap did i feel like shit when I read that.

    • Nina Modanlo says:

      Yes!! Well said. This image brought to mind many occasions of me stuffing my mouth with nachos and I immediately felt ashamed and guilty. I think using food to generate such emotions in the reader is so powerful because food is a universal symbol of culture and something everyone can relate to.

    • jcscribe says:

      Good point. And a place where our assumptions are wrong. Food is central to a culture. Yet what many think of as Mexican food — at least at Taco Bell (whatever that means) — is really Americanized Mexican food.

  45. Kyoung-A Cho says:

    Hi! Sorry I just got on! Lemme read everything and catch up for a second.

  46. Nina Modanlo says:

    Another recurring theme is the idea of humanity. Each of the characters in the books – from the border patrol officers to the coyote to the men of Yuma 14 – are all driven by a universal desire to achieve success and happiness. The border police, despite being disparaged and knocked down by many people, do their job because they find it fulfilling and out of respect and love for their country ( “you love your country, you love your job, and though you would never admit it, you love your fellow officers”). The coyote, similarly, serve as guides to attain this machismo that Urrea comments on. And the immigrants cross the border in search of a more successful and rewarding life. Although there are many people in this book who come into conflict and despise each other, everyone is a human and we all ultimately aspire for the same things.

    • Jessica Liu says:

      I agree. I think Urrea did a good job of showing all of the characters as complex and nuanced. Even Mendez, for example, who is seen as an antagonist by the walkers, is an understandable character. Urrea achieves this by exploring his drives, his life, and why he does what he does. A lot of what Mendez did is even relatable, like becoming a guide in the hopes of having a better future.

      • Minji Kim says:

        Yes!! What Mendez did was relatable. My feelings towards Mendez changed through out the story.

      • Fernando Vicente says:

        Agreed! Mendez story was just as inspiring as those of the other walkers. His decisions on the journey put the reader in a difficult situation in deciding good vs bad guy

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes, Nina. That says it so beautifully. And it seems that is what is at the heart of the empathy Urrea inevitably brings to this tale.

  47. Lynn Stanwyck says:

    He also talks about American tourist in Mexico: “They watch drunk and disorderly teens vomit in the street os Spring-Break-Atlan…. Topless gringas pout on their beaches, where they are not welcome unless they’re sweeping up cigarette butts” (206). The fact that they are not welcome somewhere in their own country is heartwrenching.

    • Lynn Stanwyck says:

      Meant to be in response to Liz’s comment on the melted cheese passage.

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      I agree. I think this does a great job of re-inforcing the hypocrisy that americans have towards Mexico. It’s ok if we go and trash their country, but god forbid they come into ours. This scene also does a great job of re-inforcing the subtly racist attitudes that Americans project toward Mexicans (“unless they’re sweeping up cigarette buts” – are they only capable of shitty jobs? surely not. it’s just the fact that we think so).

  48. Fernando Vicente says:

    Another noteworthy motif is the evil entity of the Devil’s Highway. From the first death in 1541 to the “desert spirits and mysterious natures”. It reflects Mexican/Hispanic culture of traditional mystical stories with a more tangible evil that causes the tragedies of many migrants families.

    • Jessica Liu says:

      Definitely. It ties into the magical realism, and makes you wonder if so many people died on the Devil’s Highway just because of its location on the border, or if there is a supernatural element to it that drew the people there.

    • jcscribe says:

      Yes! And one detail of that history I found compelling: The first section of the current border fence (p. 227) went up in San Diego. And it was built mostly by undocumented immigrants. That is great irony of course. Who do we think would build Trump’s Wall?

  49. Diego Luy says:

    I think Urrea is more pointing to the fact that, in the USA, we take basic things like food and shelter for granted. People in Mexico do not have the luxury to travel to foreign countries and act belligerently like some tourists, not limited to Americans. These tourists are more seen as source of annoyance since they solely contribute to the country in the form of littering beaches.

  50. Anna Gordon says:

    Another thing I found interesting was the character of Mendez. Urrea tried to portray him very objectively and he did a good job of showing that behind it all he was a human being. He did a good job of showing how Mendez was hated by everyone, both the walkers and the U.S. government mainly because they needed people to blame. He wasn’t the person who invented this scheming operation. I don’t think Mendez ever intended to really hurt anybody and I think he was a victim of circumstance. Did he do bad things? Yes. Did he deserve 16 years? No.

    • Sameer Thakker says:

      I recently read an article about pledging in Fraternities. (By no means am I comparing the horrors experiences in crossing to fraternities). But the thing that struck me most is that people want to do it in both cases. There is a perceived value in crossing (in both instances) and most of the time people are aware of the risks and decide to do it anyway – because they feel that they have no choice.

      I think Urrea does a great job of painting this “stay here and die or go to America and live” ultimatum that the characters face at the beginning of the book.

    • Kyoung-A Cho says:

      This is a great point! I thought it was interesting when they first introduced Mendez, since he introduced him as “Jesus” as well. It’s a hard distinction between humanizing a man who left so many people to die. There were points when he said such harsh things, such as when he left some of the “walkers” to die and he said “Those guys were dumb assholes before they ever came out here. If they’re lost, that’s their problem. Not mine.” He sounds so cold hearted, but then we do also have to remember that he is young and grew up with a difficult childhood, which was how he was first introduced.

      • jcscribe says:

        One last thought for now: Good point here too. Anger and betrayal leads people to say and think harsh things. I hope people can learn from this in the end.

  51. jcscribe says:

    Thanks again for a GREAT discussion!!!! A record 213! Feel free to add a couple more thoughts if they come to you or check in. I will check in one more time tomorrow 🙂

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