Luis Alberto Urrea


"Devil's Highway"

(reviewed by Sebastian Fernandez JUL 3, 2004)

"They came to the broken place of the world, and taken all together, they did not have enough items to fill a carry-on bag."

This book is based on the true story of the Yuma 14, or as some call them the Welton 26. The first denomination refers to the fourteen Mexicans that tried to cross the border and enter the US illegally through the Arizona desert and succumbed in the attempt. The second name is the one used by the people working in the Welton Border Patrol, since for them the twelve men that survived are also victims.

Urrea is not only describing events in this book, but also trying to hammer a point home. He presents the facts so efficiently and fundaments his conclusions in such a proficient manner, that it is not even necessary for him to tell the reader what this point is: Mexicans trying to cross the border are human beings like everyone else that has had the bad fortune of facing tough economic conditions; they should be respected. The author describes the conditions and historic events that lead to the beginning of the illegal immigration into the US. In the origins, it was the Chinese people coming from Mexico to work on the railroad; they were needed, but some people chased and deported them. The parallelism with our times is obvious, there are several tasks in the US that Americans are reluctant to do, or at least, there are not enough Americans willing to do them. Ergo, the illegal immigrants are needed for the Economy.

For a long time Mexico, and particularly places like Veracruz were prosperous and started receiving illegal immigrants themselves from countries like El Salvador and Guatemala. Families started growing fast and adverse economic conditions, due to price changes in international markets, made it difficult for these people to feed their kids and themselves. Some Mexicans decided to come to the US and led a comfortable life, so when others found out, a growing interest in crossing the border developed.

Now there was demand for a "service" to help illegals to get into the US, so people like the coyote Don Moi, started fulfilling this demand and a special kind of mafia emerged. These individuals started organizing themselves and creating different layers of power and responsibilities. The descriptions Urrea portrays of how these organizations work make me think of the drug lords and their groups. Of course, the coyotes are only interested in profit, so the poor individuals that decide to hire their services have to succeed against the heat, thirst, exhaustion, "la migra" (Border Patrol) and the coyotes themselves.

To make matters even more difficult, the control at the border has intensified throughout the last years, so the groups attempting the feat of entering into the US have to go through more dangerous paths each time. In the case of the Welton 26, the point of entry was the Devil's Highway, a deadly desert in Arizona that has claimed numerous victims through the years. The group entered the desert with three guides and after some problems, ended up lost and walking aimlessly, getting closer and closer to death.

Urrea shows his outstanding knowledge of the topic in question and uses this in his descriptions with no holds barred. One of the most shocking passages of the book was the explanation of the different stages of death by heat, which go from Heat Stress to Heat Stroke. The realism and brutality of this account left me absolutely breathless. The author also goes through great lengths to make the victims of these events more human to the reader. He does this by giving them names, telling their personal stories and describing the motivations each one had for risking their lives in this way, listing the few possessions they had in this life and sharing a glimpse of their hopes.

Overall, the quality of the book is outstanding and even though it is a tough read at some points, in the end it is extremely satisfying and enlightening. The hardship that some of the immigrants that currently live in the US went through to get here is so vividly described, that everyone that reads this will find increased sympathy for these people and will probably regard them with newfound respect.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 57 reviews

 

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"Six Kinds of Sky: A Collection of Short Fiction"

(Reviewed by April Chase APR 20, 2003)

This collection of short stories by one of the most promising young Latino writers around today is a true pleasure to read. Short stories, done badly, can often seem choppy, unfinished somehow. But there is none of that feeling in this collection of superbly crafted tales.

There are six stories in the book, and each story features a different sky, overlooking the action below. Hence the name; the sky is a connecting theme throughout. The settings vary from the small Mexican town of Rosario, where we meet the prophetic and opinionated Mr. Mendoza in "Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush," to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where "Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses" takes place.

The stories are about everything. The full gamut of human condition and emotion is covered, from forbidden love ("First Light") to lost love ("Bid Farewell To Her Many Horses"); love gone bad ("Taped To The Sky") and death ("Father Returns from The Mountain"); the trials of everyday life ("A Day in the Life") and the magic of eccentricity ("Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush"). Although several of the stories are set in Mexico, dotted with Spanish words, and in the magical realism style so prevalent amongst Latino authors, they are universal in appeal.

The two best stories in the collection are "A Day In The Life" and "Father Returns From The Mountain." Although all of the selections are good, these two capture their specific moments in time perfectly. "A Day In The Life" describes one day in the world of Dona Juana, Don Manuel, and their extended family, living in a small house near the great dump of Tijuana, where they work as trash-pickers. Their lives are hard, but they view their meager lots with humor and good will. Even in the face of disaster - a house fire - they carry on, knowing that after all, there is not much else they can do. It is interesting to note that Urrea has written a book about life on the edges of this dump in his first two "trilogy" books. Clearly, this a subject he understands, and his knowledge makes for a very convincing tale.

"Father Returns From The Mountain" is a short work written in a very fantastical, almost stream-of-conscious manner. It is also (fair warning here) a tearjerker, the semi-autobiographical tale of the death of Urrea's father. In the final section of the book, a seventeen-and-a-half page essay on his life and how he decided to become a writer, Urrea writes, "After he died, my dad made a series of appearances. He appeared to all kinds of people, even people I would not have allowed him to visit if I'd been writing the script. I put those visits in the story. They took the form of strange dreams. I reported them as narrative fact." This story was, he notes, his first sale, appearing originally in an anthology published years ago; it is still simply excellent today.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

The Border Trilogy Memoirs:

More Nonfiction:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Luis Alberto UrreaLuis Alberto Urrea (oo-RAY-ah) was born in Tijuana, Mexico in 1955. His farther, Alberto, was from Rosario, Sinaloa and his mother, Phyllis, was from New York. They moved to San Diego when he was three years old and then in fifth grade they moved to Clairemont, where he graduated from high school in 1973. He also published his first book called I See the Wind, The Blindman Cried. His book Nobody's Son goes into detail of these years.

He went to the University of California at San Diego from 1973 to 1977 where he started as Drama major and then switched to Writing and graduated with honors. He published his second book (Frozen Moments) as part of his graduation project. In 1977, his father was killed in a car wreck in Mexico. After college he knocked around a bit writing song lyrics and playing extras in movies. He became a bilingual TA and tutor the Chicano Studies program at Mesa College. Although he had written two earlier books (one in high school and another for college), his first real break came in 1980 when Ursula LeGuin included his story, "Father Returns from the Mountain" in an anthology. Part of this time he works for a mission in Mexico. His books Across the Wire and By the Lake of Sleeping Children go into more detail on this period in his life. In the summer 1982, he was hired by Harvard to teach Expository Writing and Fiction workshops.

He married his first wife in 1987. They decide to attend graduate school in Colorado. But five years later his marriage ended. He did not complete his masters for another five years.

In 1996 he met his second wife, Cindy, and married her soon after. He also accepted the Writer in Residence position at USI in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Urrea has been heralded as one of the most talented writers of his generation. In poems, novels, and nonfiction, he has explored issues of family, race, language, and poverty with candor, compassion, and often astonishing power. He is a winner of the American Book Award and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame. He is currently working on novel based on the life of his great-aunt, Saint Teresita of Cagora.

Cindy (or Cinderella as he calls her) and Luis have three children. He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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