Common Reading 2008: Life and death on the border

Book cover of 'The Devil's Highway'In May 2001, 26 Mexican men searching for work in America risked an illegal border crossing in Arizona’s brutal Sonoran Desert. Only 12 survived. Their stories – and those of the people who aided, pursued or betrayed them – are at the center of Luís Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway, SMU’s 2008 Common Reading Experience.

The book deals with controversial political questions such as immigration and border policy even as it forces readers to think about those issues in deeply human ways, says Benjamin Johnson, associate professor of history and author of Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans.

“Urrea’s searing writing makes it hard not to identify with the characters, ranging from the migrants and the families they left behind to Mexican consular officials and U.S. border patrol officers,” adds Johnson, who proposed the book for Common Reading. “It blends masterful writing, moral sensitivity and deep empirical research – and thus demonstrates some of the capabilities higher education can help to instill.”

>> Students “may find more in common than they realize” with book’s subjects

Urrea wrote the forward to Johnson’s latest book, Bordertown: The Odyssey of an American Place, scheduled for Sept. 30 publication by Yale University Press. The two will appear on KERA Radio’s “Think” at noon Sept. 8.

New students may also find unexpected resonance in the story of the “Yuma 14,” says Diana Grumbles, senior lecturer in English and director of first-year writing, who coordinates SMU’s Common Reading Experience.

“As people who have just left their own homes and the world they know in search of a better future, our entering class may find more in common with these men than they realize,” she says. “When they start thinking and talking about the importance of their own journey to college, I think they’ll understand why these men risked what they did.”

Incoming first-year students receive the Common Reading book during summer AARO sessions and discuss it at informal gatherings led by SMU faculty and staff members and student leaders at the beginning of the fall semester. Urrea himself will discuss the book with students in a Gartner Honors Lecture to begin at 4 p.m. Sept. 8 in the Hughes-Trigg Student Center Theater. The lecture is open to the public.

Grumbles answers a few questions about this year’s Common Reading below:

One historic goal of the Common Reading Experience has been to help students think outside their experiences – and frequently outside their comfort zones – as they become college-level readers and writers. How does The Devil’s Highway challenge them?

Well, the book shatters some of the beliefs we have about why people make such a crossing. Many students will come to it with expectations about the people Luís Urrea writes about. They may have formed ideas about why people immigrate in the first place, and they may think it has to do with dreams of consumption.

But once you get into the book, you realize that the money these workers are trying to make is largely to send home to their families. One man is trying to put four real walls around his mother for the first time in her life. Another wants to send his children to school but doesn’t have the money for supplies. These men aren’t trying to get an Xbox – there are very real motivations to attempt the journey.

One reason this story is so affecting is that these deaths are so commonplace. The scope of the Yuma 14 tragedy was so great that it’s hard to turn away from, but Urrea doesn’t want us to forget those who die on a daily basis making that crossing. This case was particularly shocking and horrific because of the number who died at once, but it’s no less awful when one person dies. Urrea writes very affectingly about what the Yuma 14 endured.

What about the other people Urrea writes about – the government officials and border guards, as well as the guides who make money promising to get people across the border?

This book does have villains, but they may not be who you think they are. Urrea does a great job of humanizing the U.S. Border Patrol, in particular. Those men aren’t engaged in vigilante justice out there. People may not realize how many things they do to be helpful, to keep people alive. They’ve done some really impressive work that I don’t think is part of the popular perception.

Then there are the coyotes, the brokers who charge fees to get people across the border and who make a lot of false promises about the ease of the journey. Some people mortgage everything they own to pay these individuals. Urrea does a good job of not demonizing anyone but the people who lead these immigrants astray, or create false expectations, or promise something they can’t deliver. They are the only figures who really seem sinister, and they deserve it.

Will the book spark a discussion of U.S. immigration policy and what it should look like?

Urrea doesn’t talk much policy in the book. It’s really a very human story, methodically researched. But it’s a valuable exercise to think about what a border means in the first place. I think we forget that national borders are man-made. We drew those lines.

There’s also an interesting conversation to be had about the language and terminology we use to talk about this situation. The terms “illegal immigrant,” “undocumented worker,” “alien” – they all pose questions about why we label people in the ways we do. There also are differences in the ways we talk about the Mexican-American border versus the Canadian-American border. There are socioeconomic reasons why that southern border represents something that some people are willing to kill for, literally.

With immigration being such a prominent issue in the upcoming presidential election, is this book an especially timely read?

Yes, especially because our students are coming to college in a border state. National security issues play into the border, but there also are socioeconomic issues in having workers come from another country. Do they help our economy or hurt it? And those issues raise the question of how we treat people who are truly our neighbors to the south.

Our Political Science Department is very involved in the Common Reading this year. Several of those professors will be leading discussion. We also have professors from the law and theology schools participating, which is a rare opportunity for our entering undergraduates to interact meaningfully with graduate school faculty. There’s an unprecedented level of interest from across campus in this year’s reading, and I’m thrilled about that.