“The triumvirate of Desolation—walkers, smugglers, and Migra—were all worthy of witness,” Luís Alberto Urrea writes in the Afterword to The Devil’s Highway. His inspiration for the book was the act of bearing witness not just to the stories of the Wellton 26, but also to the stories of the people and circumstances that led them there. By taking a holistic approach to the act of bearing witness, Urrea argues that the only way to responsibly tell a story as complicated as that of Wellton 26 is to tell the whole story—the story of the place and its history; the story of its Native people and the story of those who live and die there now; the story of the men who died, the men who lived, the men who rescued them, and the men who set the whole tragedy in motion to begin with. Ultimately, Urrea even includes his own story—the story of how his radical approach to bearing witness came to be, and the story of how that witness has had political and social uses and benefits he never imagined, for himself and for the individuals whose stories he told.
His firsthand investigation into the lives of the Wellton 26 and the circumstances that led them into Desolation reveals as much about Urrea as it does about the subjects of his text. As he endeavors to carefully, thoughtfully, and respectfully bear witness to the tragedy of the Wellton 26, Urrea himself becomes a character in the book. The passages in which he thoughtfully and imaginatively explores the aspects of his characters’ stories that, in some instances, Urrea never witnessed directly—their innermost thoughts, the intricacies of their daily routines, their ways in which they died—are tinged with Urrea’s own writerly embellishments, and his curious, nonjudgmental brand of empathy. Urrea himself is folded into the pages of this narrative—the ways in which he describes Melchior Díaz’s longing for home while on assignment in Desolation, Mendez’s roaring headache on the morning of the fateful walk, or the screams of Reymundo Barreda, Sr., as his son died in his arms, all announce Urrea as not merely a witness to but a participant in the stories he bears witness to.
This approach to storytelling—considering the entire picture of an event, and using radical empathy in order to bear witness to even private or unremembered moments of it—allowed Urrea to accomplish his mission of allowing others to bear witness to the events of the Wellton 26’s ordeal. In his Afterword to the text, Urrea writes that readers of his book have ranged from students to Border Patrol officials to family members of the 26. In one anecdote, Urrea reveals that, at a book-signing event in Oregon, a reader revealed to Urrea the fact that he was undocumented—the reader’s wife, standing nearby, overheard and expressed her shock and disbelief. This is one small-scale piece of evidence which demonstrates how Urrea’s own act of bearing witness has inspired others to seek out people to bear witness to their own stories. In another anecdote, Urrea describes how the Wellton Station, which was made “infamous” in large part due to The Devil’s Highway itself, now employs about three hundred agents—at the time Urrea was researching the book, the station only employed thirty-two men. Urrea’s act of witness lead to others bearing witness—and taking action. Though immigration numbers in the area have declined in the years since the Wellton 26, bearing witness to the severity of the situation in the Yuma desert effected actual political change—moreover, Urrea writes that he still corresponds with many Wellton agents, who continue to provide him with a “constant flow of witness” as to the goings-on in their sector.
“It is a stunning and terrifying experience to sit with the autopsy reports of fourteen men who are the nameless subjects of op-eds, TV jokes, raging radio blather, and know you will be their only witness,” Urrea writes in the text’s afterword. The thought of being the “only” witness to such a horrific story—and to contemplate the horrific incidents which take place day after day with not even one witness—drove Urrea towards his unique, big-picture stance on what it means to be a witness. As Urrea contemplated the isolation that the survivors must have had to contend with in the aftermath of their ordeal, he recognized his own isolation, too—he was isolated in his status as one of the few people patient enough, angry enough, and desperate enough to make sure that the story of the Wellton 26 (and, by proxy, the story of the Devil’s Highway itself and all the lives that have been lost in crossing it) would be told, seen, and heard in the way it deserved to be—in a way which validated and championed the “worthiness” not just of the stories of the dead, but of all involved. In his commitment to bearing witness to the entire ecosystem of the U.S.-Mexico border—immigrants, Coyotes, and Border Patrol agents alike—Urrea makes the argument that every facet of a story is “worthy” of being explored, and it is necessary to examine all sides of a thing in order to understand its complexity. Unable to bear witness to the plight of all immigrants, he instead uses this one story—the story of the Wellton 26—to enlighten his audience as to the severity of the tragedies that continue to unfold daily along the border, and, hopefully, to light a spark that would affect political and social change where the world of the border was concerned. To understand what happened in this “notorious” incident, Urrea knew it was necessary to witness the story in its entirety, and to have empathy for even those characters who might have initially seemed undeserving of it. In doing so, he was able to enact real change not only in his personal life but in the political and social sphere of the U.S.-Mexico border, solidifying his own argument that all stories are “worthy” of witness, and that bearing witness has the power to affect meaningful change.
Bearing Witness ThemeTracker
Bearing Witness Quotes in The Devil’s Highway
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“I do not know who was dying or how many because I too was dying.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.