July 22, 2005

Embodiment of Norteño Landscapes

Review of The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

By Elena Espinoza

The Devil’s Highway (2004) by Luis Alberto Urrea, is a true story that uncovers the multi-varied systems of corruption that sustains the machiavellian nature of the United States present immigration policies. It is the story of 26 men that travel from the interior of Mexico in search of the green gold with the aid of shark loans-enganchadores, displaced truths fed by the media-coyotes, and labor systems-meatpacking plants that assist in the importation and exportation of human labor.

The Devil’s Highway is divided into four main sections: “Cutting the Drag”, “Dead Man’s Sign”, “In Desolation” and “Aftermath”. The first two sections provide the background of the physical space of the Arizona desert where this tragedy unfolds through a sort of mythic-histórico reading. The third part concerns itself with the actual stories of the men involved in the pilgrimage, including the coyotes, guías and enganchandores- who they were and why they walked. For ‘cultural Catholics’, the religious allusions abound: epiphanies in the desert led by Jesús; of the 40 days condensed to a week; the last viscereal visions of the walkers. In “The Aftermath”, Urrea talks about the media coverage and attention that the survivors received citing the polemic around the cost and benefits of illegal immigration to the U.S.A. Here the coyote, Jesús, is crucified and solely held accountable for the deaths of 14 men while the Border/INS patrol, big businesses, and U.S./Mexican politicians all take credit for being the saviors of the 12 remaining walkers. Like the Last Supper figures, the multiple Judas’ must present themselves as innocent even in the face of sponsored global massacres.

As a Chicana with Sinaloense roots, something that stood out for me in the novel, was the embodiment of multiple Norteño landscapes: cities, valles, deserts. Cultural border critic Eduardo Barrera, suggests that the preferred representation of northern Mexico is that of a ‘wasteland’ in the popular imagination of Mexican folklore. Mexican purists, however, claim that ‘true culture’ is to be found in the center of the country. For those of us who claim roots to the Tarahumara, the Yaqui, to Chalino and banda/norteño/nortek music, Nothern México is a living and breathing space that is not simply reactive to that center, but is an active creator of cultural geographies and physical morphologies. The Devil’s Highway takes us to the very intersection of these two. La Frontera holds us captive and fearful exactly because it refuses to be caught in any one reading. It is present in corridos and in the vaquero movies, in the late night ruminations of my father’s memory and in the story of every saguaro, bird and walker that has passed through.

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