The opening pages of The Devil’s Highway read like ancient lore. As Luís Alberto Urrea describes the height of the Wellton 26’s treacherous ordeal, he invokes ancient myths describing the imprisonment of fallen angels in the desert sand, as well as “dark and mysterious” desert spirits and gods who rule the wasteland with brutality and “retribution.” The “noxious” and unforgiving natural world of the desert is described in heavy detail—“poisonous and alien” snakes, spiders, and scorpions, spiked trees and cacti, and the long-forgotten bones of the anonymous dead scattered throughout the waste lend an air of mystery, confusion, and inevitability to the narrative in its very first chapter. As the story progresses, Urrea invokes the myth of the giant black head after which the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge is named as well as the centuries of mirages, miracles, and ghostly encounters which have become part of the desert’s lore. Urrea employs myth as a storytelling device and as a method of scene-setting, but he also uses myth to ascribe a lore-like quality to the story of the Wellton 26. In this way, he demonstrates the universal nature of their ordeal, and demands that his readers regard their story with the same mix of reverence and respect that they give to myths. The desire to bear witness to ghost stories and ancient legends, Urrea argues, should extend to bearing witness to vital, contemporary stories about the U.S.-Mexico border. Similarly, the willingness to believe and revere a piece of ancient lore should extend to the willingness to believe and revere the stories and struggles of a desperate group of immigrants.
In writing about the circumstances surrounding the journey of the Wellton 26, Urrea calls attention to the ways in which their story bears certain similarities to stories from the Bible. He writes, “Jesus led the walkers gathered by Moses into the desert called Desolation.” Don Moi Garcia—born Moises—gathered the twenty-six men together and took their pesos from them in exchange for passage into America. Jesús Lopez Ramos—who used the alias Mendez—was a smuggler, born (like Jesus of Nazareth) on December 25th. The mythic desert—Desolation—and the devastating ways in which it would “swallow” the men attempting to traverse it, is another element of the story of the 26 which lends it the proportions of a biblical tale. “We saw an exodus straight from the biblical template,” Urrea writes of the aftermath of the 26’s journey, “and it felt that no one was paying attention.” Urrea focuses intensely on the story’s mythical setting and biblical parallels as a way of demanding the world bear witness and “pay attention” to the horrors of the border.
In describing the increase in violence along the U.S.-Mexico border in the wake of the Wellton 26’s harrowing ordeal, Urrea quotes a Mexican consul in Tuscon: “The media cares about the [deaths of the] Yuma 14 because of the large numbers. But this tragedy goes on every day. It never stops. If only one person dies out there, it is exactly the same horror story.” As Urrea describes the horrors perpetrated just “five miles from the border”—the rape, torture, and slaughtering of women whose organs are then removed from their corpses, the violent deaths of Border Patrol agents caught in the crossfire of drug deals gone wrong—he notes that the killings, in their brutality and occasionally their ritualistic-seeming nature, “sound like [stories] from a book of urban myths or a bad horror movie.” Urrea acknowledges the human attraction to myth and the human desire to bear witness to horror, and he laments that people only seem to pay attention to the violence along the border if it resembles lurid fictions and films. Urrea here acknowledges what he has done in his own work—making the 26’s story more attractive by “mythologizing” it—even as he bemoans the fact that “nobody cares, nobody understands, [nobody] want[s] to know” what is truly happening along the border unless it smacks of a Dateline exposé or a Lifetime movie.
As Urrea “refracts” the tragedy of the Wellton 26 through the lens of myth, he reveals the power of myth to transform stories from the modern world into allegories reminiscent of Biblical legend or ancient lore. In drawing parallels between the journey of the Wellton of the 26 and the journey of the Hebrews through the desert, Urrea elevates their story to one of Biblical proportions, and demands his audience bear witness to their struggle and contemplate the complexities of their humanity. Myth is a conduit for moral teachings from culture to culture across the world. In mythologizing the story of the Wellton 26 while remaining true to the facts and the horrors of their journey, Urrea underscores the power and importance of simply “paying attention.”
Myth, Religion, and The Spirit World ThemeTracker
Myth, Religion, and The Spirit World 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.