Saturday, July 14, 2007
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
It’s lucky that the Devil’s Highway deals with such a topical subject since the writing is atrocious. Somehow, it won a few journalism awards, which is a bit shocking to me. I’d expected that the overall standards for journalistic excellent might have been higher.
The Devil’s Highway deals with the ill-fated voyage of a dozen Mexican illegal immigrants, and the “coyotes” who led them to ruin in the desert of Arizona, a few hundred miles west of Tuscon. It chronicles the poor choices and lack of economic prosperity that led these men to decide to go on this trip, and the equally poor skills in navigation that wound up killing many of them.
There’s a level of (wholly justified) outrage here on behalf of the writer which makes this feel much more like an Op-Ed piece than a work of journalistic objectivity.
The book humanizes the often abstract border debates in the US, and it does tell an interesting if sad tale. But the author’s use of the English language is so without regard for the traditional rules of grammer as to make it difficult on occasion to discern his meaning. I’m not trying to pick a stylistic quibble here, but the common misuse of clichés, poor punctuation, and strange narrative intrusion into otherwise factual paragraphs makes this read more like a high school report on events than those of an award winning journalist.
The familiarity with local flavor (music, clothing, foods, lingo, etc.) goes a long way towards counteracting these shortcomings and make the book worth spending time on for anyone interested in the border culture of the southwest.
Likewise, the avalanche of speculation, seemingly unsupported assertions, and the fantastic statistics tossed around without any citations weaken this book’s messages: the immigration debate cannot lose sight of the humanity of its subject. Illegal immigrants are people and deserve a more humane policy to deal with cases in which they decide to break the law and cross illegally into the United States. I don’t think that Mr. Alberto Urrea proposes any workable solution to the problem, but he’s certainly good at bringing it to everyone’s attention.
Perhaps I missed some secret genius here? Others have seemed to be mightily impressed by this work…