The Devil’s Highway

The Devil’s Highway Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Luis Alberto Urrea's The Devil’s Highway. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Luis Alberto Urrea

A 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction (for The Devil’s Highway) and a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of Chicago, Luís Alberto Urrea was born in Tijuana in 1955 to a Mexican father and an American mother. Urrea holds degrees from the University of California San Diego and the University of Colorado Boulder, and has worked as a relief worker in Tijuana, a columnist, editor, cartoonist, and a professor at Harvard and the University of Louisiana Lafayette. He is the author of sixteen books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry, Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, and several collections of fiction and nonfiction writing about the American West and Latino identity.
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Historical Context of The Devil’s Highway

The horror of the Wellton 26 incident, which many local officials still refer to as “the thing that happened,” promised the possibility of meaningful reform of immigration policy between the U.S. and Mexico. However, when the 9/11 attacks rocked America just four months after the deaths of the Yuma 14, the idea of creating an open border suddenly seemed a political impossibility. In the wake of 9/11, hundreds of Border Patrol agents enlisted as air marshals, and human trafficking operations expanded all along the U.S.-Mexico border. The tension, red tape, and dehumanizing rhetoric of “illegality” only swelled after 9/11, and today the issue remains a fraught and unresolved issue marked by racism, desperation, violence, and a reluctance on both sides to consider meaningful policy changes.

Other Books Related to The Devil’s Highway

Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexican Border by Ken Ellingwood, Coyotes by Ted Conover, and Dead in Their Tracks by John Annerino are all texts recommended by Urrea himself as complements to the story he tells in his own book. These texts offer similarly honest accounts of the lives of coyotes, “walkers,” and Border Patrol agents. Annerino, a photojournalist on assignment for Newsweek, made the trek through the Mexico-Arizona desert with four Mexican immigrants in an attempt to document not the deaths but the lives of the walkers who risk everything to make it to America, while Conover posed as an immigrant and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border twice in order to observe firsthand the Coyotes and their “pollos.” Ellingwood’s book Hard Line features reporting directly inspired by the tragedy of the Yuma 14, and was published around the same time as The Devil’s Highway. Ellingwood examines the banality of tragedy along the U.S.-Mexico border by interviewing border agents, “angry ranchers,” and Native locals whose lives are impacted daily by the danger and divisions that the border creates. 
Key Facts about The Devil’s Highway
  • Full Title: The Devil’s Highway 
  • When Written: Early 2000s
  • When Published: 2004
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Nonfiction; investigative reporting
  • Setting: Veracruz and Sonora (México) and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona
  • Climax: The surviving members of the Wellton 26 are rescued by Border Patrol agents on the fourth day of being lost in the desert
  • Antagonist: Jesús Lopez Ramos, aka “Mendez”; the US-Mexico border itself
  • Point of View: Third-person

Extra Credit for The Devil’s Highway

The Aftermath. On his website, Urrea has posted a poem describing his experience of writing about such a harrowing tale. He describes the book as his “heavy metal album,” and says it is “almost impossible to discuss anymore.”