Why were the immigrants who died listed as "white males" in The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the non-fiction work The Devil's Highway the author brings facts from several sides together to paint a picture of how illegal immigration affects border crossers, border towns, the Border Patrol, the Coroner's Office, and ultimately, the rest of us. The theme in this book is forgotten men, victims...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In the non-fiction work The Devil's Highway the author brings facts from several sides together to paint a picture of how illegal immigration affects border crossers, border towns, the Border Patrol, the Coroner's Office, and ultimately, the rest of us. The theme in this book is forgotten men, victims who are caught in the crossfire of a brutal game of smuggling humans and drugs across the southern US border. The climax of the story occurs when the 26 men who set out from Mexico—many from far south of the border, in Veracruz—are caught in a zone called "the devil's highway" for its history of killing those who try to cross it. Their struggle for survival and the demise of the Yuma 14 (the 14 men who died that day in May 2001) is the heart of the story.

The author, Luis Alberto Urrea, makes a point of giving each man a biography, of describing the things each man carried, and of discussing their relationships and motivations for crossing. He does this to emphasize that each of the crossers was a human being with a dream to build a better life in America, but also to help the reader empathize with each man's plight and understand the inhumane conditions in which they died. At the very end, on the last page of the book, the coroner's office in Tucson, Arizona keeps the final paperwork on these men. The Yuma 14 are listed as "white males" in yet another clerical error in the bureaucracy that loses track of individuals. The final insult, that they are mis-categorized, is both telling and ironic. They were Hispanic males, and this fact matters since one of the reasons they suffered was their nationality and ethnicity. The last page emphasizes the ultimate loss of their identities, even in death.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The authorities' incorrect description of the dead men epitomizes how they regard Mexican immigrants. Frankly, they just see them as a gigantic amorphous mass rather than individual human beings. As the authorities don't look upon the dead men as individuals, they feel no obligation to do justice to their true ethnic and cultural identity.

Wrongly identifying the deceased as white men also has the symbolic effect of filing away the problem: out of sight, out of mind. The quicker this can be done, the better. And putting "white males" down on the death certificates speeds up the whole process. The local authorities are overwhelmed by bureaucracy relating to illegal immigration and so anything they can do to relieve the burden will provide some respite. Unfortunately, this means that the Yuma 14 and countless others like them are denied dignity in death and soon forgotten.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Luis Alberto Urrea wrote The Devil's Highway as a kind of expose of the kinds of horrors which routinely happen at the Mexican-American border. Specifically he follows a group of men called the Wellton 26. Fourteen of them, known as the Yuma 14, did not survive the crossing.

On the last page of the book, a secretary in the Yuma coroner's office discovers that the death certificates of the fourteen Mexican men who died in the crossing all say they were "white males." Once she makes the discovery, the "files go on a shelf; a stack of newer files is dislodged and falls over." The woman leaves and these men, Urrea implies, will be forgotten, lost amid many more deaths.

Urrea is a researcher, and he does not state any reason why the death certificates were incorrect; however, readers can draw a few conclusions about what the fact means. First, no one cares enough to get it right, even in a case which rose to international prominence. Second, these fourteen men were treated as carelessly in death as they were in life (and not just in America). Third, in death these men have been betrayed again by people who should have cared more about what happened to them.

Why it happened is unknown; the fact that it happened and was not corrected is the tragedy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team