Luis Urrea Speaks at Honors Convocation
Roughly ten years after the tragedy of the “Yuma 14,” LSU students gathered to listen to acclaimed writer Luís Alberto Urrea speak about “The Devil’s Highway,” his nonfiction account of the devastating events surrounding a failed border crossing in Arizona in May 2001.
Urrea, an award-winning author, poet, and essayist spoke to a group of roughly 500 students at this year's annual Honors College Convocation.
A poignant tale of survival and morality, “The Devil’s Highway” recounts the failed odyssey of 26 men crossing the desert at the Mexican-Arizona border, as well as the trials, opposition, and death they encountered on their journey that made them known as the “Yuma 14.”
The bestselling account, which was the Honors College Shared Read this year, won the 2004 Lannan Literary Award, the Border Regional Library Association’s Southwest Book Award, and was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize.
Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Urrea said that the shocking events surrounding the novel hit close to home. In fact, his desire to tell the story of the struggles of his cultural heritage inspired him to become a writer.
“I think it was listening to family tales and realizing that all of those old-timers in my family were going to pass away and not leave a record,” he said. “And I started getting obsessed with wanting to keep a track of that stuff.”
Urrea continued to write through high school. The death of his father at the hands of the Mexican police during his senior year pushed him to write what he knew. When he was invited to serve with a group of Baptist missionaries working in Tijuana, he seized the opportunity. It was there that he met his inspiration, Pastor Von, who requested his services as a translator. This decision changed his life.
“If you have the gift of speaking to people, you inherit the responsibility of listening to people,” he said.
Working in the Tijuana garbage dump, Urrea saw a great deal of poverty and suffering. After responding to a medical distress call in a nearby community, Urrea encountered a worker who inspired him to write about his experiences.
“[He said to me,] ‘You write it down … I was born in the garbage dump … when I die they’re going to bury me in the trash. So you tell them I was here,’” Urrea said. “That was the revelation. The key to everything I care to write about is that guy.”
Urrea continued to write about the issues that mattered to him most. He published “Across the Wire”, his first book about his experience working in Tijuana. Then, out of nowhere, Little Brown and Company contacted him and asked him to write an account of the “Yuma 14.” From that point, Urrea spent several years researching the disaster. His wife Cindy, a career journalist, assisted him in the interview process.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, according to Urrea, was cracking the Border Patrol. He went through multiple departments and various sectors of Border Patrol outposts before making headway.
After shuffling between stations and encountering hostility, Urrea finally ended up at the Wellton station, where he met Border Patrol Senior Supervisor Kenny Smith who — much to his surprise — agreed to help him. Standing on the border of Arizona, looking into the desert of Mexico, Smith looked at Urrea and told him he knew what Urrea thought of him.
“He said [to me,] ‘You think I’m a jackbooted thug … you want to know what I really am? I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor,’” said Urrea. “’I’m a father with a daughter. You carry a dead nineteen-year-old girl six miles in your arms, and tell me I don’t have any feelings.’”
Urrea said he realized then what he had been missing.
“I hadn’t done the duty I was asking readers to do,” he said. “I had not acknowledged the humanity of everybody.”
In the end, the book explored three secret worlds: the world of the Border Patrol, the smugglers, and the immigrants. Urrea mentioned that nearly ten years later, the immigration issue has changed — security is tighter, and less people are walking. Now the problem is the narcotics war.
When asked what he would like to see for the future of Mexico, Urrea answered simply.
“I want happiness for everybody,” he said. “You know, the Mexican dream isn’t that different than the American dream. People want to raise their families; people want to be able to feed their children.”
Though the violence in Mexico has been extensive in the past, Urrea said he believes there will be a solution that depends on mutual cooperation.
“I think there are ways to deal humanely with each other,” he said. “You gotta hope.”
Story by Jacqueline DeRobertis, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831