Author Luís Urrea talks about life and death on the border

Luís Alberto Urrea told a standing-room crowd of SMU community members, “Americans have to remember that we are a family first, and we if talk to each other instead of yell at each other, we come to solutions.”

The author of The Devil’s Highway, the University’s 2008 Common Reading, discussed immigration policy and his own writing inspirations at the Gartner Honors Lecture Sept. 8. His latest book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is soon to be a major motion picture starring Antonio Banderas.

What inspired you to become a writer?

My mother was American and my father was Mexican – and the blond, blue-eyed one in the family. His mother was named Guadalupe Murray. And Urrea is a Basque name, which means “the golden men.” I was born in Tijuana and registered as a U.S. citizen born abroad. I was the first in my immediate family to go to college, and it meant a lot to both my mom and dad that I would get a college education.

In my senior year, my father drove back to his hometown to get $1,000 from the bank as my graduation gift. On the way back, he was in a car wreck and died under mysterious and awful circumstances. I had been called from San Diego to Tijuana to meet the body. The police department arrived with my father in a cardboard box in the back of a station wagon. And the agent told me that my father was still in custody, and I had to pay bail. I had the $1,000, which a doctor in town had saved for me, so I paid him $750. Then the funeral director who had brought my father told me his services would cost $550. So I was left with this horrible sense that my father, who was my hero, had died for nothing. He had died to pay for his own funeral. It was awful.

This was on the first day of classes in the last semester of my senior year. I went back to school after all this and was not able to function in any way. I was trying to deal with it, and so I kept writing about it. As fate would have it, the author Ursula LeGuin was coming to my college as a visiting writer, and my writing professor gave her the piece I’d written about my father’s death as my audition to get in to her workshop. She accepted me into her workshop and at the end of the year accepted my piece for an anthology, which was my first sale of writing.

So I realized that my father had sacrificed himself and handed me my life. I try to do this in memory and honor of what he did.

How did you choose to do this sort of writing, about border issues and poverty in Mexico?

After college, I ended up working as a translator with a mission group in Tijuana. Being the translator means you have to see everything. Every medical exam, you have to see. Every funeral. Birth, death, human guts, accidents, injuries, gynecological exams – you name it. You have to see it so you can translate for the doctors. A little girl was badly burned one night, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.

So I was outside taking notes, and one of the workers goes by. Tough guy, black with oil, handkerchief tied in four knots around his skull. He saw me writing in the book and asked what I was writing about. “You’re writing about this place? You’re writing about these people here?” And then he asked, “You writing about me?” I said I probably would. And he smiled and said, “That’s good. You write about me. I was born in the garbage dump, I spent my life picking garbage, and when I die they’re going to bury me in the trash. You tell them I was here.” And then he walked away.

It was overwhelming. You think it’s a blessing, but it’s also a curse, because it gives you a direction you must pursue. I never saw that man again, but I keep him in my thoughts all the time. That’s why I write the kinds of things I do.

How difficult was it to get those extraordinary interviews with U.S. Border Patrol agents in The Devil’s Highway?

I understand now my struggles with the Border Patrol. I didn’t at the time. I’d spent a lot of time researching the book with consular staff and legal people. I had depositions, documents, interviews, letters. I had been shown the death archives, the autopsy reports. I had everything except the Border Patrol.

At the beginning of the Yuma 14 investigation, the Border Patrol had been set up as the bad guys. They were basically accused of lighting up this group and causing a panic that led to their deaths, and of doing it on purpose. That was going to be the federal defender’s case so that Mendez, our smuggler, could get off the hook. They were preparing this massive attack on the Border Patrol because people like me assumed it could have been true. Mendez thwarted that on the first day of trial when he stood up and pled guilty. They made him a plea deal on the spot – no trial. He’s in prison right now, doing his time, and dead silent. He won’t talk to anybody, anybody, about what happened.

So the Border Patrol was off the hook, and then I show up. And you can imagine. They know I have a Mexican name, they know I’ve published three books about the Mexican poor, and I’m there to expose all their secrets in their most controversial case of all time. I didn’t realize this was what they were thinking, and I thought they’d greet me with open arms. Instead, everyone said they wouldn’t talk to me.

What happened then?

My wife is an investigative reporter, and she works the telephones. So she got in touch with Yuma Station, because she thought if the official channels didn’t work, we should call around and see what happened. So she reached an agent and told him, “My husband is trying to write a book on the Yuma 14. Washington won’t talk to him, Tucson Sector won’t talk to him – will you guys talk to him?” And he said, “Sure, send him down.”

I ended up in Wellton Station, which actually did the rescue I wrote about in the book. I’d spent my life on the border but never been anywhere near a Border Patrol station. There were all these enormous guys, like professional wrestlers, and they were all looking at me like I was raw meat. A supervisor named Kenny Smith came out to meet me, and it turned out that he was the supervisory agent who sent out the rescue on the Yuma 14.

I spent a few days with them in their computer center, and Kenny finally said, “Don’t you need to go out there and see [where this happened]?” So the next day began my training. I still to this day don’t know why he had pity on me, except that I think going through that event so moved and disturbed him that he just wanted someone to talk to about it. And for some reason, he trusted me to listen. And because he trusted me, the other agents started trusting me.

Kenny said to me, “I don’t care if you trash us or not. I don’t care if your book is negative or positive. All I want is for you to tell the truth about us. You get it right, you can attack us all you want.” That was not what I expected. The nature of the Border Patrol’s job is to arrest people who are breaking federal law by being here. It’s also to rescue people who are dying a horrible death. Both those tasks are about the same people. All the agents at Wellton Station live 50 to 75 miles away from work. Why is that? Because it takes that long to get into the game, and it takes that long to get out of it when they go home.

That moment when Kenny and I made that human connection became the key to the book for me, and it informs everything I try to do with my writing.

Where do you think the line is drawn for people like Mendez, between being victims of poverty themselves and being the bad guys in these smuggling operations?

Mendez is a really troubling character for me. He did come from poverty. He doesn’t show great brilliance in his personal choices. He swore up and down that he did not intend to kill anyone. The problem was that everything he did was in line with the evil coyotes who do abandon people to die. The one mitigating factor is that he almost died trying to get to the Mohawk rest area. His partner did die, and they thought Mendez was dead, too, but he was revived. He vexes me to this day, and it’s impossible to get his story beyond a couple of letters he’s written, because he won’t talk. He won’t talk to the consuls, his lawyer, the press or me. So he’s a mystery.

If you had the power to change immigration policy, what would you do?

I think I would probably suggest a bipartisan, binational 9/11 Commission-type investigation. I would urge people to look again at the McCain-Kennedy bill. People in the Mexican government have proposed a reform policy that’s very similar to McCain-Kennedy in some of its tenets.

I think one thing people don’t know is that the paradigm is shifting all by itself. The numbers [of people making the crossing] are down radically all across the border. They’re down this year by 68 percent. The only sector that has gone up is Del Mar, California, which is up seven percent. The remittance money back to Mexico has dropped precipitously. The World Bank had that number at around $20 billion a year about a year and a half ago – it’s down to a trickle now. They believe it’s because people are saving up to retire and go home.

The drug war has had an effect. Certainly, people have noticed the fence and the anti-immigrant moves in local governments around the country, and the economic downturn. The fuel price situation is an ironic boost. Something like 500 factories in NAFTA countries had closed down and gone to China and India, but now that cut in costs is being annihilated by the costs to ship. So those factories are starting to look at Mexico again. All these things are constantly shifting and changing, so I’m trying to educate myself first and foremost.

We might, dare I say, look into legalizing marijuana and regulating it the way we do liquor, because it’s such a huge mainstay of the narco world that’s building in power. We also need to look at what flows from America to the south, and that’s weaponry. We’re shipping tons of weapons into Mexico. All of those things would be someplace I’d start, certainly.

How important was the goal of breaking down the prevailing image of the “illegal alien” in writing your book?

Totally important. “Illegal alien” is a really inflammatory phrase. Are people illegal? People tell me, “My family were immigrants, but they came here legally.” And I have to ask, “Who checked the papers? Crazy Horse? Geronimo?” We’re all visitors to this continent in one way or another.

But I mainly just wanted people to be informed, as much and as honestly as I could – and tried to put aside my own bias, which has been a hard lesson for me. I think Americans have to remember that we are a family first, and we if talk to each other instead of yell at each other, we come to solutions.