Four months before 9/11 made all of us jittery about our borders, a tragedy in the southwest commanded national attention. In an attempt to enter the United States illegally, 26 Mexican men traveled the Devil’s Highway, a clandestine route through Arizona’s most punishing stretch of desert. They’d paid for guides (“coyotes”), but were led–on foot–in the wrong direction and then abandoned. Out of water and under a relentless sun, with temperatures climbing to 110 degrees, they staggered through “a vast trickery of sand,” feverish and deranged, drinking their own urine. Fourteen died; the twelve that survived were grateful when, after four days, they were picked up by the border patrol they had been trying so desperately to avoid. Naperville resident and University of Illinois at Chicago professor Luis Alberto Urrea, a poet, journalist, and fiction writer, tells their story and the story of the immigration officers who tracked them in The Devil’s Highway, published this month by Little, Brown and soon to be made into a film by some of the team behind Y tu mama tambien. Urrea, who was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, constructed his dramatic account through interviews, reviews of the official records, and firsthand knowledge of the Sonora desert, with its “strong presence of Desolation.” He’ll appear at 7:30 on Thursday, April 8, at Anderson’s Bookstore, 123 W. Jefferson in Naperville. It’s free; call 630-355-2665.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nina Subin.