OK, so if you read my earlier post today, you know I was on my way to Urrea's reading from his new book, The Devil's Highway. The Devil's Highway is an actual area of land, located between Tucson and Yuma in southwestern Arizona, and is a loose network of old cattle and wagon trails leading from the Mexican border town of Sonoyta through the desert to Ajo, a town 30 miles inside Arizona, and then heading West. Luis Alberto Urrea (who happens to look a lot like the director, Kevin Smith), is an amazing and funny guy, brimming over with profound and devastating stories. He described what it was like getting started on the research for the book ~ he began at the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, AZ. At first, the Consul General was antagonistic towards Urrea because the tragedy was getting so much attention when in fact Mexicans die every day crossing the border. (In fact, one of the Border Patrol Agents noted angrily that, "Nobody wanted them when they were alive and now look -- everbody wants to own them.") Urrea convinced the Consul General that if people can read about the "big tragedy," then they can start discovering the reality of the daily, "routine" border tragedies. After Urrea gained access to the Consulate's archives, it took the employees quite a long time to find the "Yuma 14" files ~ the 14 files on the men who died in the desert in May 2001. Why did it take so long? Because they had to look in a room filled with such files ~ literally, hundreds and hundreds of files on all the immigrants who had died crossing the border near Yuma. Urrea described what the files were like: each one is a manilla "accordion" file and inside is the Border Patrol Report, the Autopsy Report, photos of the autopsy on disk and in prints, and a ziploc baggie containing whatever possessions were found on or around the body that might be returned to the family or used to identify the body. He described how some baggies contained only a comb or a wallet ~ or one had a Catholic scapular with a picture of the Virgin Mary that had baked into the person's chest. So, Urrea started opening one of the baggies, and the women employees in the room began lighting candles. Urrea thought, oh how touching, you know a religious moment, they're lighting candles for the dead. But in fact, the women were lighting the candles to mask the smell of death that would rise up as the baggie was opened. And so it began, Urrea described to us, his research into the lives, and harrowing deaths of these men.
You know, people complain about the "Browning of America" or that "illegals" are taking our jobs (um, how many people do you know who want to pick lettuce in the deadly heat?). But Mexicans (and other groups who emigrate to the U.S. through Mexico) aren't planning some vast conspiracy to deprive American citizens of their livelihoods. These men in particular, the ones you'll learn about in "The Devil's Highway," were from Veracruz ~ almost all of them had been coffee farmers and one worked at the Pepsi factory. When coffee prices dropped, the men could no longer make ends meet. That's when the coyote came into town, the man who would offer to smuggle them into the United States. His name, ironically, was Moises (Moses). The coyote told the men that he had work for them in Florida ~ he promised them easy work in orange groves and told them they could work one summer and probably save enough money to come back home. But, he went on, the price would be about $1,700 each to cross the border. Well, the men told the Coyote, if we had $1,700 don't you think we'd just stay here and support our families? They didn't have the money. So, the Coyote "made a few calls," and told the men that, since he liked them, he would do it "like a credit card" for them. The men would not have to pay anything up front ~ and the interest would just be 15%......compounded monthly. Moises would later deliver the group of men to the desert and turn them over to another coyote....named Jésus. Ok, can you believe that? The irony. And Jésus' birthday? Yep, December 25. Truth is stranger than fiction.
The men from Veracruz, and I am sure hundreds of other immigrants, aren't sneaking into this country to steal your job, man. They're being lured here by false promises, and their home country allows them to leave because remittances from the U.S. to Mexico are big business, ese. Once walkers (as these border-crossers are called) make it into the U.S. and begin working, most of them send the money back home. Why would Mexico want to stop that? Urrea described how entire villages in Mexico have been decimated ~ most of the men and strongest women from the village heading north, in hopes of earning money to send back home. Urrea eerily described the Border as the epitome of Social Darwinism ~ clearly, only the strongest survive.
Urrea told us other stories of what he learned from the Border Patrol Agents ~ some disturbing, others funny: their word for a Mexican is "tonk".....the name based on the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head; DEA stands for "Don't Expect Anything"; guias now give their walkers cocaine to make them walk faster and longer ~ of course cocaine helps their hearts explode, too; the Agents explain that they don't enforce federal law, they enforce whatever policy is being handed down to them ~ the Clinton Border Policy was different than the Bush Border Policy, and the next one will be different as well; when farms in the Imperial Valley need extra pickers and workers, the Border Patrol is ordered not to catch crossing immigrants ~~ they let them enter the U.S. until the farms have enough workers, and then they bear down again when they are told to do so. The hypocrisy is maddening.
At least two people per day die while trying to cross the border. If the Border Agents find a body with no identification, the unofficial policy is to let the body "rest in peace where it fell". The truth behind the policy is that each body requires paperwork, and a body with no identification will represent a case that can't be "closed" ~ who wants more paperwork and open cases? Right? So, they leave a lot of bodies out in the desert or the wilderness. Even so, the numbers of bodies with identification, the ones who do get collected and brought in and have a file opened, are astounding. In the five years before the Yuma 14 tragedy, more than 2,000 people died along the border.
But there were also stories of humanity that Urrea told us about the Border Patrol Agents. In Yuma, the agents constructed a life-saving "panic tower" that can be seen from miles away, with water and a panic button, and a sign in Spanish, informing walkers that the next town or tower is miles away and if they can't make it, they should just push the panic button and help will arrive within an hour. The conservative talk shows and far-right commentators had a field day with this, arguing that tax dollars were being spent on helping illegal immigrants. In fact, the towers, which cost about $6,000 each, are paid for out of the salaries of the Border Patrol Agents. After the tower was built, there were only two reported deaths in Yuma. Yes, the towers also make it easy for the Agents to arrest some immigrants, but the point is to keep them alive.
I could go on and on ~ Urrea is fascinating and funny and poignant in person, as well as in his writing. He read us a passage from his book and his prose is profound, intense, vivid ~ Read his books. All of them.