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In Print: riding shotgun with the border patrol

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In early April, Luis Alberto Urrea read from his new book, The Devil's Highway, at Anderson's Bookshop in his hometown of Naperville. The true story of 14 Mexican migrants who died while crossing the Arizona desert in 2001--and the 12 who survived--the book took Urrea a year to research, including a week riding shotgun with the U.S. Border Patrol, learning the inscrutable art of tracking walkers through desert sand. One of his many sources, a former BP agent he called "Warrior" and had only corresponded with by e-mail, was in the crowd. After the reading Warrior stunned Urrea by presenting him with the medal the Border Patrol gave agents to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 1999.

"I was blown away," Urrea says. "It was a shock, you know, because it was hard to get access to the Border Patrol, and I had some pretty critical feelings about those guys to begin with. They've been very supportive and loyal, which really surprised me. . . . I tried to give it back. I said, 'I can't take it.' And he said, 'Your writing changed my life, you've got to take it.'"

That a shaggy, left-leaning Mexican-American was able to find common ground with the crew-cut cowboys of la migra, who have a nasty habit of calling the migrants "tonks"--"a name based on the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head"--is less surprising after reading his portrait of the Mexico-Arizona border, a complex, contradictory world where the same officials who hunt illegals as criminals are also responsible for saving their lives.

A creative writing professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Urrea has written about the border before, earning critical accolades for poetry, fiction, and nonfictional works like Across the Wire (1993), an unflinching look at the squalor of Tijuana, where he was born, and the American Book Award-winning Nobody's Son (1998), his memoir of growing up with a Mexican father and an American mother in the barrios of San Diego.

But the dynamic of the border has changed since the late 90s, when beefed-up security in urban centers began forcing prospective migrants into rural areas like the unforgiving stretch of desert that gives the book its name. The "Yuma 14" are only a handful of the hundreds who die crossing over every year, most during the May to July harvest season (what Mexican consulate workers call "death season") when migrants flock to the U.S. to pick crops and temperatures start to soar.

Sales of The Devil's Highway have been brisk--the book sold out its first two printings in less than a week--and director Rudy Joffroy, of the Tucson-based movie company Creative Dreams, will start shooting a film version in the desert near Nogales, Mexico, in October. Urrea hopes the high profile of the book will open eyes not just in the U.S., but in the Mexican interior, where, he says, people are just as ignorant about the border.

"If my stuff can stop a walker from coming here and dying, that would make me very happy," says Urrea. "To warn them, 'it's not what you think.' A lot of the myth of the border is a myth that's five years old, ten years old, even just three years old, and it's changed radically. They come up and they know that Uncle Pepe crossed in El Paso, and it wasn't that hard to get from Juarez to El Paso. Well that's completely sealed now. They get here and find out they've got to go to some wilderness."

Urrea lived in Tucson for a year and a half, and his book paints a grim picture of the surrounding desert as a violent, haunted landscape, a place where lost souls, "drunk from having their brains baked in the pan," see images of gods and devils, and where the bones of migrants mix with bones that are hundreds of years old. But through details like lists of the dead men's personal effects--"green socks," "letter in right front pocket"--and modest economic goals, Urrea puts a human face on the horror. He traces the men back to small villages in the southern state of Veracruz and finds "no terrorists, ex-cons, or drug mules. Mostly small-plot farmers, coffee growers, a schoolboy and his dad." In addition, with the help of his wife, Cinderella, an investigative journalist, Urrea is able to detail the hierarchy of the coyote gang that smuggled the men over the line--from the shadowy top bosses down to Mendez, the blustery young guide who got them lost in the desert and then left them to die.

Urrea plans to donate some of the proceeds from his book to Humane Borders, a group that establishes and maintains water stations in the desert. Currently on a national book tour, he's also polishing the final draft of his magnum opus, The Hummingbird's Daughter, a sprawling novel based on his great-aunt Teresita, a Yaqui Indian mystic known as the Saint of Cabora, that he's been researching for 20 years. It's slated to be published by Little, Brown in 2005.

He'll be back in Chicago on Wednesday, April 28, to read as part of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum's Del Corazon Festival. The reading starts at 7 PM at the museum, 1852 W. 19th, and it's free. Call 312-738-1503.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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