In the world of The Devil’s Highway, desolation is a daily lived reality for the desperate, impoverished Mexican immigrants who, in May of 2001, set out to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Seeking to escape the poverty and hopelessness that define their lives in Veracruz, the men who would become the Wellton 26 take out loans, leave their families behind, and risk everything to travel to the border. Upon crossing it, they find themselves abandoned by their polleros, or smugglers, in a stretch of desert which has been known by many names throughout history—one of which is Desolation. In seeking to escape the state of mind and the lived experience of desolation, the men come to find themselves in a new state of desolation—that of the desert itself. The ancient desert is a vicious and at times seemingly living, breathing terrain with a will of its own. Throughout the text, Urrea argues that desolation and desperation are, perhaps, inescapable when it comes to the oft-misunderstood and scarcely-seen world of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Early on in the text, Urrea offers an unsparing portrait of the desolation which affects Veracruz—the southern Mexican state from which the majority of the Wellton 26 came—and the desperation that desolation inspires. A rural and tropical state, Veracruz was, in 2001, in a state of financial collapse. Many Veracruzians were “killing themselves” through difficult and demanding physical labor—often the only jobs available in an overfished, overfarmed region where the price of coffee—the main export—had collapsed. Though Coca-Cola and Pepsi factories offered jobs and this created “small waves of semiprosperity” throughout the years, in 2001 the cost of living and feeding a family were rising and rising. The sense of desperation this economic climate created is what drove many men from the region to seek passage into America—the majority of the Wellton 26 had enlisted in the scheme of a local recruiter for the Cercas smuggling game in order to earn enough money to provide their children with food and an education or to build new homes—or improve on the often shoddily-constructed homes they already lived in--for their wives and families. The desperation and desolation in Veracruz, however, would only be met with a new kind of desolation as the Wellton 26 arrived at the border.
The land where the United States meets Mexico is harsh, dangerous, and desolate. The great mythic desert of Desolation—a place where, according to some ancient religious texts, fallen angels are chained and buried beneath the sand—could, Urrea writes, very well be the Yuma desert itself. The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is situated within that desert, and the Devil’s Highway is situated within the Cabeza Prieta. The Wellton 26 were told by their smugglers that they would need to pass through three separate deserts in order to reach salvation, and as their group grew more and more lost and began to suffer the slow and agonizing effects of heat death, or hyperthermia, their desperation to find water and civilization—and their desolation when they realized that that might never happen—only grew. In their desperation the men drank their own urine and tore spiny cacti apart with their bare hands in order to get at the lifesaving liquid inside. Desperation once again was all that was driving the men forward—and as they moved on, they only encountered more emotional desolation and deeper, more barren parts of the desert Desolation.
At the text’s conclusion, Urrea—writing an Afterword penned ten years after the book’s initial publication--considers the lives of those still living in Desolation: the Migra, or the Border Patrol, the locals, and the government officials with the power to effect change in the area. Though much has changed in the area, “the worst” of it has remained the same—and what changes have come, Urrea argues, have only been made in response to the feelings of desperation and desolation that grow out of bearing witness to the continued violence and death along the border. Emergency towers have been erected throughout the Cabeza Prieta which allow lost walkers to summon help from the Border Patrol—these were implemented after the Yuma 14’s deaths highlighted graphically the extreme desolation of the area and the inhumane suffering of the illegal immigrants who become lost or are abandoned trying to traverse it. More Border Patrol officers have been installed not just in Wellton, the sector of the border where the Wellton 26 were found, but in other areas, as well—these new opportunities have been created in response to the violence of border gangs and drug smugglers, and the crimes of desperation and desolation they commit.
As Urrea’s narrative unfolds, desolation the feeling and Desolation the place become inextricably intertwined. The Wellton 26, driven by desolation, arrive in Desolation, only to encounter more desolation. Desperate situations lead to experiences of desolation which then lead to an even greater, finally actionable sense of desperation. Urrea’s argument that desperation and desolation form a vicious and torturous cycle which feeds endlessly upon itself is highlighted in the journey of the Wellton 26 from Veracruz to the border, in their torturous trek through the harsh desert, and in the reforms which were enacted in the wake of the country’s bearing witness to their horrific ordeal.
Desolation and Desperation ThemeTracker
Desolation and Desperation Quotes in The Devil’s Highway
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“Five miles from the border, nobody knows. Nobody cares. Nobody understands. They don’t want to know.”
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.
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.