The Devil's Highway

by Luis Alberto Urrea

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In this desert, what are some of the natural things that terrify people?

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In 2001, twenty-six people crossed the US border illegally, and only twelve survived the trek through the unforgiving Yuma desert. One of the first natural things that is terrifying is the weather and the effects it can have on the human body. Imagine the hot sun relentlessly beating down on you for hours (and days) with no shade and no water, the scorching sand beneath your feet, and dust and sand in your eyes and mouth. This type of heat can cause delusions and disorientation, not to mention the possibility of hyperthermia from heat stress and exhaustion.

These people were abandoned by the smuggler who brought them across the border. This leads to another natural effect: fear. Imagine you have no water or food and, worse, no idea where you are or where to go. Let's add another terrifying factor: the many poisonous creatures that live in the desert, such as rattlesnakes and scorpions.

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The unforgiving landscape of the desert acts as an additional barrier to Mexican immigrants trying to make it across the border. The natural features of the desert are presented in almost a quasi-mystical way, as if the desert were possessed with dark, malevolent spirits hellbent on doing evil. Wherever one turns in the desert, there is always something guaranteed to strike fear into the heart. As well as the boiling desert sand, there are also snakes, scorpions, spiky trees, and cacti. All the natural features of this harsh, brutal environment come together to create an apocalyptic vision of hell on earth.

In giving his account of the Wellton 26's terrifying ordeal, Urrea draws a parallel with Moses leading the people of Israel into the wilderness. In this way, he hopes that more Americans will empathize with the plight of Mexican immigrants, instead of shrugging their shoulders at what's happening on the border and preferring not to think about it.

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