The Devil's Highway

by Luis Alberto Urrea

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In The Devil's Highway, how do borders shape our culture and identity in different aspects?

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The author tells the story of this and seven other groups of men who died trying to cross the border and what happened to their families. The author makes it clear that he feels that the US and Mexico have been at war for over 100 years. He also makes it clear in his writing that all of these dead men were not drug dealers but people looking for a better life, escaping poverty by leaving family behind and risking their lives for a small chance at a better life.

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Borders are an important concept, both symbolically and literally, in The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea . The border is what needs to be crossed to transform lives, and this is most obvious in the economic ramifications for the border crossers who are led and those who "guide"...

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The motivation to cross the border for Mendez (Rooster), for example, is purely an economic one, a ruthless desire to make money. The opposite side of the economic picture is the moral picture. The morality of crossing the border is a non-issue when economic concerns such as job prospects, making a living, or running a business come into play—not just for Mendez, but for the impoverished men from Veracruz. Morality is pushed aside by the crossers but is arguably a central motivation of the Border Patrol is their quest to capture border crossers and keep the border safe.

Borders shape cultural identity and evolve as the cultural norms change: fifty or sixty years ago, Mexicans crossed a barely perceptible border on their way to work or live in San Diego or Los Angeles but today those crossing points are heavily guarded. The cultural norms of what makes a border changed in the 1980s, then transformed through NAFTA in the 1990s, and today cultural borders live on in policies that persecute people who have immigrated to the US from Mexico or Central America. The cultural borders are perhaps more important than any others, because of the unbending attitudes on both sides of the border due to cultural differences between Mexico and the US.

Political borders are largely geographic, those lines drawn through historical battles or local agreements that separate the US and Mexico. In some remote places, like the far southern reaches of Texas near the Rio Grande river, these borders don't matter matter culturally, barely matter economically, and make no difference morally—but politically they are fought over as if they are as important as the border between Tijuana and the US.

Our culture, whether American or Mexican, is shaped by economic borders because of opportunity, by moral borders because of the context of individual morality, culturally because we need our cultures to strengthen borders, and politically because we can become hostages to arbitrary political decisions on both sides of the border. In The Devil's Highway, the history of the area where these men crossed and died tells the story of a border that has shifted radically over a few hundred years.

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In the opening of Chapter Two, entitled "In Veracruz," the author paints a rather grim picture of the realities of life for inhabitants of small pueblos such as Veracruz. What defines their existence is the twinfold presence of rising indicators of poverty alongside an increased Westernisation. Due to its position so close to the border of the USA, the inhabitants of Veracruz were becoming more and more aware of the massive comparative wealth that people only a few miles away enjoyed because of being in a different country. They watched programmes such as CNN and saw the wealth that Mexicans who lived and worked in the USA were able to send back to their families, creating a myth of how easy it was to earn money across the border. At the same time, economically, there were massive issues to do with the prices of the bean crop, the price of tortillas and foreign debt. Note how Urrea characterises this situation and how he explains how this inevitably produced a desire for the inhabitants of Veracruz to take the risk and seek to go to the USA to enjoy the same material wealth that they saw others experiencing everyday:

The neighbours of these adventure-capitalists watched and watned. Their children were dying. Dengue fever had made its way up from the Amazon. Malaria was spreading again, and it was worse than before--this new black blood malaria. Corruption, political violence, indigenous revolution in the south. People in Veracruz were looking north, as inevitably as the rains came and the mosquitoes bit.

This quote demonstrates the reality of economic factors and how they impact our identity. The inhabitants of Veracruz were confronted day after day with their own harsh lives as defined by their lack of money, and could observe the comparative wealth of those who had relatives in the USA and were sent money. Whilst their own children starved and died, they watched the families of others prosper. Economically the USA became characterised in their own imagination as a place where the streets were made of gold and there was easy money to be made. The impact of such economic factors on the identity of the inhabitants of Veracruz is shown to be so immense that they are willing to place themselves into massive debt and in the hands of unscrupulous individuals such as Don Moi in order to have the chance of entering the USA and enjoying the same supposed wealth.

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