One of my 2020 reading goals is to read more diversely – across genres, authors, and subject matters. One subject matter I haven’t read about in ages is the topic of immigration. So, at the recommendation of many Latinx bookstagrammers, I picked up “The Devil’s Highway” by Luis Alberto Urrea on the plane home from our recent London trip. Spoiler: I loved it! I wanted to take some time to really pause and collect my thoughts, but I’m now ready to share my Devil’s Highway review.
The Devil’s Highway tells the true story of a group of men who attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona in 2001. The group trekked through the deadliest region of the continent, the “Devil’s Highway” – named aptly for the wicked nature of the heat and terrain, where the sun is so intense that it’s still 97 degrees at midnight.
26 men entered the desert. Only 12 would survive. Those that didn’t suffered excruciating deaths of dehydration, hypothermia, and sunburn – and readers bear witness to them all. Luis Alberto Urrea takes us through small towns and cities south of the border. We grow to understand why the poor men – who are simply searching for ways to make life better for their families: money for their children’s school clothes, a new cinder block wall for their home – fall captive to the promises of Coyotes (smugglers). Why they pay them large sums to lead them across the desert, despite knowing little about them. Why they continue to trust them when they’re told their end destination is “only two more hours further,” again and again, as the water runs out and the desert grows larger.
We get an intimate look into the lives and backgrounds of each man attempting to cross the border, the coyotes leading them, and the border patrol agents who ultimately save their lives as Urrea tells a story we can’t – and shouldn’t – put down or look away from.
What I thought: This book was one of the swiftest 5 star ratings I’ve ever given. I couldn’t put it down, even when it was hard to bear witness to the reality of what I was reading. I’ve been paying attention to what’s happening in present day at our border, but it’s a very complex situation – and this book highlights the complexities even further. The writing is outstanding – it’s poetic, it’s descriptive, and it’s honest. I forgot many times that I was reading a nonfictional account – which is the best nonfiction to me. I am going to add more of Luis Alberto Urrea’s books and poetry to my “to-read” list, because he’s absolutely stellar.
How I felt: I learned a lot. I cried. I felt visceral anger towards many places: the systemic failures by our government and the Mexican government, our border policies, the people who try to dehumanize these men, women, and children, and more.
Mostly, I felt empathy towards these men who decided to seek out better economic opportunity – something as simple as enough money to put a new roof on their home, buy school uniforms and supplies for their children, buy new furniture for their wife – and paid for it with their lives.
I feel this book should be required reading for every U.S. citizen who thinks they have any notion about what immigration is or should be. Every page, through the afterward and clear to the end. It will punch you in the gut, over and over again, but you will walk away with such a better understanding, and hopefully – more empathy than you had when you started.