The Devil’s Highway

Luís Alberto Urrea Character Analysis

The author of The Devil’s Highway, Luís Alberto Urrea was himself born along the U.S.-Mexico border in 1955. In writing The Devil’s Highway—originally a project given to him on assignment by an editor—Urrea sought to “bear witness” to the lives and struggles of smugglers, immigrants, and Border Patrol agents alike. The story of The Devil’s Highway is filled with firsthand accounts taken from survivors and rescuers, but Urrea also spends a good deal of the text imagining and recreating interactions, situations, conversations, and even the ancient history of the Sonora desert itself. Urrea is an empathetic and involved narrator throughout the text whose goal is to bear witness to all sides of this story—not just the lives of the Wellton 26, but of their polleros (most notably Jesús “Mendez” Lopez Ramos), and the Border Patrol agents who rescued them.

Luís Alberto Urrea Quotes in The Devil’s Highway

The The Devil’s Highway quotes below are all either spoken by Luís Alberto Urrea or refer to Luís Alberto Urrea. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Desolation and Desperation Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Little, Brown and Company edition of The Devil’s Highway published in 2004.
Chapter 1 Quotes

They came down out of the screaming sun and broke onto the rough plains of the Cabeza Prieta wilderness, where the sun recommenced its burning. Cutting through this region, and lending its name to the terrible landscape, was the Devil’s Highway, more death, another desert. They were in a vast trickery of sand. In many ancient religious texts, fallen angels were bound in chains and buried beneath a desert known only as Desolation. This could be the place.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Related Symbols: La Cabeza Prieta
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:
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If the North American continent was broad (“high, wide, and lonesome”), then Mexico was tall. High, narrow, and lonesome. Europeans conquering North America hustled west, where the open land lay. And the Europeans settling Mexico hustled north. Where the open land was. Immigration, the drive northward, is a white phenomenon. White Europeans conceived of and launched El Norte mania, just as white Europeans inhabiting the United States today bemoan it.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
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“Getting bodies,” in Border Patrol lingo, didn’t necessarily mean collecting corpses. Bodies were living people. “Bodies” was one of the many names for them. Illegal aliens, dying of thirst more often than not, are called “wets” by agents. “Five wets” might have slipped out. “Wets” are also called “tonks,” but the Border Patrol tries hard to keep that bon mot from civilians. It’s a nasty habit in the ranks. Only a fellow border cop could appreciate the humor of calling people a name based on the stark sound of a flashlight breaking over a human head.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:
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You’d be hard pressed to meet a Border Patrol agent in either southern Arizona sector who had not encountered death. All the agents seem to agree that the worst deaths are the young women and the children. The deaths, however, that fill the agents with the deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Related Symbols: Coyotes and Chickens
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:
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Somebody had to follow the tracks. They told the story. They went down into Mexico, back in time, and ahead into pauper’s graves. Before the Yuma 14, there were the smugglers. Before the smugglers, there was the Border Patrol. Before the Border Patrol, there was the border conflict, before them all was Desolation itself.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Related Symbols: La Cabeza Prieta
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 3 Quotes

From El Papalote, it seems like the myth of the big bad border is just a fairy tale. One step, and presto! You're in the EEUU. Los Estados Unidos. There's nothing there. No helicopters, no trucks, no soldiers. There's a tarantula, a creosote bush, a couple of beat saguaros dying of dry rot, some scattered bits of trash, old human and coyote turds in the bushes now mummified into little coal nuggets. Nothing. The smugglers tell the walkers it’s just a day’s walk to their pickup point. How bad can it be? A day of thirst, some physical struggle- they've lived like that all their lives.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Related Symbols: Coyotes and Chickens
Page Number: 57-58
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Mexican government’s border sign near Sasabe doesn’t actually say “Coyotes.” It uses the hipper slang of the border. It says, “Los Polleros.” A pollero would be a chicken-wrangler. The level of esteem the smugglers hold for their charges is stated plainly. They’re simply chickens. Of course, if you know Spanish, you know that the word for “chicken” is gallina. “Pollo” is usually reserved for something else. A pollo, as in arroz con pollo, has been cooked.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Related Symbols: Coyotes and Chickens
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 8 Quotes

The cutters know many things about a person by the nature of his tracks… The men shuffled and stumbled along, wandering off path and straggling, but generally moving ahead. The knee scuff where a man fell, and the smeared tracks of the two companions who helped him up. Once the trackers got the tread marks of each shoe, they could follow the ever more delirious steps right up to the feet of each dead body. The sign told them much about each man. This guy walked alone the whole time. This guy walked with his brothers. This guy had his arm around his son some of the time their tracks interwove and braided together as they wandered. This guy tried to eat a cactus.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Page Number: 112-113
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Chapter 12 Quotes

They agreed to stick together and walk north. All of them. It had to be north. Mendez had gone north, the bastard, and he was saving himself. They’d follow Mendez. Once more, the men stood, and they walked. Now the illegals were cutting for sign.

Related Symbols: La Cabeza Prieta
Page Number: 158-159
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 14 Quotes

It is important to note that within ten minutes of finding the lost men, the Migra was already fully engaged in rescue. While Mike F. cut for more sign, the old boys were kicking off their desert race. The Border Patrol sped there so fast, with so many vehicles, over such vicious terrain, that they suffered twenty-six flat tires. Some agents drove on rims to get there.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker), Mike F.
Related Symbols: La Cabeza Prieta
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 15 Quotes

The survivors were suddenly paid professional narrators. At the beginning of their federal jobs, they were paid in room and board. They got cheap shoes and pants. T-shirts. As they sang, they learned they could get job advancement. Even a substantial raise. Like all good bards, they embellished and expanded their narratives. As long as they told their stories, they stayed. As long as they stayed, they had a chance to stay longer. Soon, they would surely earn money. It was the new millennium’s edition of the American Dream.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker), Nahum Landa
Page Number: 188
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Chapter 16 Quotes

Since that May of 2001, the filth and depravity of the border churns ahead in a parade of horrors. The slaughtered dead turn to leather on the Devil's Highway, and their brothers and sisters rot to sludge tucked in car trunks and sealed in railroad cars. The big beasts and the little predators continue to feed on the poor and innocent. Hope began to glimmer for a short period as presidents Fox and Bush courted each other. A kind of border accord loomed, and the sacrifice of the Yuma 14 helped stir the leaders of each nation to pity. But the atrocities of 9/11 killed Border Perestroika. An open border suddenly seemed like an act of war or a flagrant display of foolishness.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:
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In ancient days, the Rain God was fed by the tears of the innocent. For any rain to fall now, it will take gallons of tears, rivers. In the desert, the drops evaporate before they hit the ground.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:
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“Five miles from the border, nobody knows. Nobody cares. Nobody understands. They don’t want to know.”

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea
Related Symbols: La Cabeza Prieta
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:
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Afterword Quotes

Part of the idea was to foment discussion. Make us think a little about those people who are “like, illegal.” But the deeper idea was to bear witness—we saw an exodus straight from the biblical template, and it felt that no one was paying attention. As I started the work, I will confess, it was all about the good men who died. But it didn’t take long to see that the story was really about all humans—all of us in those ancient deserts are lost wanderers.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Related Symbols: La Cabeza Prieta
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:
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Every week, in some motel, in the back of some burger joint, in some brothel or in some field, a woman is weeping in a horror we cannot comprehend because we aren’t listening. After all, she’s “illegal.” Not even human.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:
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Item: a Mexican Beta Group immigration cop asked me if the situation in the U.S.—the suffering of the undocumented—would be improved if we called them by other terms. What if they are called “refugees”? “Pilgrims”? He was a philosopher. “In God’s world,” he said, “no man is illegal.” Every night, he locked himself inside the police station so the cocaine cowboys from the desert couldn’t kill him.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:
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The border makes me happy. Hard to believe. But, after all, I’m from there. Is the border all hate and fear and bad craziness? No. Of course not. Just like the Border Patrol agents aren’t all racist monsters looking to crack beaner heads. Just like the smugglers aren’t all savage beasts looking to slaughter innocents for filthy lucre…well, not all of them. Just like the walkers aren’t slobbering rapists and murderers—in spite of the blazing sign we float over their heads: ILLEGAL.

Related Characters: Luís Alberto Urrea (speaker)
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:
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Luís Alberto Urrea Character Timeline in The Devil’s Highway

The timeline below shows where the character Luís Alberto Urrea appears in The Devil’s Highway. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: The Rules of the Game
Desolation and Desperation Theme Icon
Myth, Religion, and The Spirit World Theme Icon
...“terrible” stretch of desert cuts through the Cabeza Prieta—the Devil’s Highway. The narrator, Luís Alberto Urrea, notes that in ancient religious texts, “fallen angels were bound in chains and buried beneath... (full context)
Desolation and Desperation Theme Icon
Myth, Religion, and The Spirit World Theme Icon
The first white man known to die on the Devil’s Highway, Urrea writes, died on January 18th, 1541, though “as long as there have been people, there... (full context)
Desolation and Desperation Theme Icon
Myth, Religion, and The Spirit World Theme Icon
Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
Urrea recounts the myths of the people native to this land—the Tohono O’Odham tribe. Their creation... (full context)
Desolation and Desperation Theme Icon
The landscape and wildlife are “noxious,” Urrea writes. What few plants live in the desert are spiked and dangerous, and the “poisonous... (full context)
Myth, Religion, and The Spirit World Theme Icon
Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
The North American continent is broad, Urrea writes, and those who sought to conquer it moved west toward open land. In Mexico,... (full context)
Desolation and Desperation Theme Icon
Myth, Religion, and The Spirit World Theme Icon
Urrea travels back in time to the Sonoita (in Spanish, spelled Sonoyta) of 1541, which, even... (full context)
Desolation and Desperation Theme Icon
Myth, Religion, and The Spirit World Theme Icon
Bearing Witness Theme Icon
The land was haunted before Díaz’s death, Urrea writes, and continued to be haunted afterward by “Catholic apparitions” that plagued the tribes. As... (full context)
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Urrea describes how “a source close to this story” once observed the titular Cabeza Prieta itself... (full context)
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Urrea returns to his description of the five men lost in the desert. As they come... (full context)
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Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
Bearing Witness Theme Icon
...handcuff the “illegals” they find and toss them into irrigation canals to drown. To immigrants, Urrea notes, there is no difference between the Border Patrol, the Rangers, and any other “hunt... (full context)
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Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
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Southern Arizona, Urrea writes, has been divided into two Border Patrol sections. Fifteen hundred agents patrol the eastern... (full context)
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Urrea writes that it would be difficult to find a Border Patrol agent in Arizona who... (full context)
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Urrea describes a day in the life of a Border Patrol officer in Wellton. Many drive... (full context)
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Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
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...media got hold of the story, everyone wanted to know what had happened. The tracks, Urrea says, told the story of the men’s journey. (full context)
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Urrea describes the “groaning shelves” of the Tuscon consulate, where all the paperwork of the Wellton... (full context)
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Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
Bearing Witness Theme Icon
Urrea recalls sorting through the postmortem packets for each of the Yuma 14. The portraits of... (full context)
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Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
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Some of the Wellton 26, Urrea writes, were indigenous, making Spanish their second language. Most them came from the tropical Southern... (full context)
Chapter 2: In Veracruz
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Urrea describes the landscape and history of Veracruz, whose name means “true cross.” Despite its Catholic-sounding... (full context)
Chapter 3: The Coyote and the Chicken
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Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
Bearing Witness Theme Icon
The Border Patrol and the Mexican consulate are connected, Urrea writes, by two things: each side has a deep distrust of its own government, and... (full context)
Desolation and Desperation Theme Icon
Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
...wire—or perhaps no physical border at all—standing between them and the States. Towns like Sasabe, Urrea writes, exist only for illegal entry. There, buses and vans “full of walkers” line up... (full context)
Chapter 4: El Guía
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Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
Urrea writes that three guides led the Wellton 26 into the desert. One will never be... (full context)
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Bearing Witness Theme Icon
...26’s journey, he never imagined that the tragedy that befell them would happen. But Mendez, Urrea writes, surely knew of the horrors that were so routine along the border. (full context)
Chapter 5: Jesús Walks Among Us
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Urrea reviews video footage of the Wellton 26 survivors at the sheriff’s department. In the videos,... (full context)
Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
Bearing Witness Theme Icon
Jesús liked “bold” music which lamented how land had been “stolen at gunpoint” from Natives. Urrea speculates that Jesús told himself that, as a smuggler, he was “a kind of civil... (full context)
Chapter 7: A Pepsi for the Apocalypse
Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
Bearing Witness Theme Icon
Urrea imagines Mendez waking up on the morning of May 19th—the day of the Wellton 26’s... (full context)
Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
Bearing Witness Theme Icon
...disappears—he comes back a few minutes later in a van driven by El Moreno. Later, Urrea writes, the survivors will give differing accounts of what kind of van it was, and... (full context)
Desolation and Desperation Theme Icon
Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
...couple hours of exposure to the triple-digit heat. As the men set off on foot, Urrea writes, “their Pepsis [are] already warm.” (full context)
Chapter 8: Bad Step at Bluebird
Desolation and Desperation Theme Icon
Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
Bearing Witness Theme Icon
...Migra, and all of them scattered. However, this “mysterious” event raises a lot of questions. Urrea wonders why Mendez would panic if he thought he saw a Border Patrol vehicle, as... (full context)
Chapter 9: Killed by the Light
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Urrea relays a series of anecdotes which describe the deaths of unwitting visitors to this stretch... (full context)
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Myth, Religion, and The Spirit World Theme Icon
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Urrea begins to describe the stages of hyperthermia, or heat death. He notes that “your death... (full context)
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...from within as the body, system by system, shuts down. Unaware of all of this, Urrea writes, “the men headed deeper into the desert.” (full context)
Chapter 10: The Long Walk
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...but somewhere between three and five men decide to go with Santos back to Mexico. Urrea writes that no trace of this group has ever been found. (full context)
Chapter 11: Their Names
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Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
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Urrea offers the names and firsthand accounts of the Wellton 26. José de Jesús Rodriguez was... (full context)
Chapter 12: Broken Promise
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Mendez and Lauro, meanwhile, are making good time on their own journey north. Urrea speculates that the two of them knew the walkers would be dead by the time... (full context)
Chapter 13: The Trees and the Sun
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...Disoriented, few men even realize that their large group has splintered into several smaller ones. Urrea writes that there is evidence of the fact that, because so many men were fainting... (full context)
Chapter 15: Aftermath
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Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
...that the medical bills will be the hospital’s responsibility, and not the government’s. (Illegal immigrants, Urrea writes, make up 23% of unpaid bills in hospitals throughout the southwest.) One of the... (full context)
Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
Bearing Witness Theme Icon
...call from Yuma, she had begun to “hunt down Mexican authorities all over the world.” Urrea describes Vargas as “charming and funny” but decidedly “no-nonsense,” and unafraid to “stand up to... (full context)
Humanity and “Illegality” Theme Icon
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...bodies of the dead are shipped to medical examiners in Tuscon. Rita Vargas accompanies them. Urrea describes the “cool, smooth, speedy” ride the bodies take. It is relaxed and out of... (full context)
Chapter 16: Home
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Myth, Religion, and The Spirit World Theme Icon
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...insisting that he isn’t like all the other polleros who leave their pollos to die. Urrea writes that when news of Mendez’s statements reached officials in Wellton, “some of them laughed... (full context)
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Urrea writes that, today, “the filth and depravity of the border churns ahead in a parade... (full context)
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Gang and cartel violence continues along the border, Urrea writes, and quotes the Mexican consul in Tucson asserting that “the media only cares about... (full context)
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Urrea considers the hard facts and figures of immigration. Far fewer Mexicans are coming over the... (full context)
Afterword: Ten Years On
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...Highway, and thirteen have passed since the deaths of the Yuma 14. “Everything has changed,” Urrea writes, “and the worst of it remains the same.” (full context)
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Urrea was “surprised” to watch his book take off, and take on a life of its... (full context)
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While the idea behind the book’s creation was to generate discussion, Urrea reveals that the deeper idea eventually became one of bearing witness to “an exodus straight... (full context)
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...his initial research on and contact with the Border Patrol, the agents were suspicious of Urrea, he notes that it was a “holy” experience to eventually have the rescuers open up... (full context)
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Urrea wonders if the border is a region or simply “an idea nobody can agree on.”... (full context)
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...agent one, though with waning illegal immigration numbers there has been a “drop-off in clients.” Urrea describes Border Patrol agents as “warriors,” and expresses his gratitude for the fact that so... (full context)
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Urrea considers the current state of smuggling. Now that “some villages in Mexico are devoid of... (full context)
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Urrea briefly notes that he left out his own personal experiences along the border during the... (full context)