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Editor's Notebook: An Illinois writer defines the border between art and truth

Julian Ambros Malaga wore his red-striped soccer jersey for good luck. Mario Castillo had crossed before. He once spent eight months living and working in Galena, Ill. Enrique LanderosGarcía wanted to make a better life for his wife Octavia and their son Alexis. In the end, Reymundo Barreda Maruri had to hold up his boy Reymundo Jr.

Those were some of the men who walked into the desert that May in 2001. Twenty-six went in, by some counts. Twelve stumbled back out.

They had no way of knowing it, but the walkers took the Devil's Highway, a region novelist and poet Luis Alberto Urrea calls the deadliest on the continent, where it gets so hot that "bodies will mummify almost immediately." 

Their route, traced after the fact by the official trackers, moved erratically to the northwest, roughly from the west of Sonoyta Arroyo on the Mexican side toward Yuma, Ariz. Their guides, the coyotes, took their money and left them to die. That any survived 110-degree days with no water and no shelter is a testament to the human will. That they were in the desert at all shows a failure of political will.

The Devil's Highway, Urrea's nonfiction account of this true story, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. He put flesh and bones on the survivors, the dead and the coyotes — and on the trackers, the border patrol, the migra, the bureaucrats on both sides of the border. 

Urrea, who teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has been inducted into the Latino Literary Hall of Fame, is qualified to tell this story. He was born in Tijuana but grew up in San Diego. His father was Mexican, his mother Anglo. And they grew to regard each other as "one of them," he writes in his autobiographical nobody's son: notes from an american life

The Devil's Highway is a useful book to read now as Congress and the president take up immigration policy once again.

The official "death packets," Urrea writes, "are known as 'archives,' and harvest season — May through July — is known as 'death season.' It is then that lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, strawberries are all ready to be picked. Arkansas chickens are ready to be plucked. Cows are waiting in Iowa and Nebraska to be ground into hamburger, and grills are ready in McDonald's and Burger King and Wendy's and Taco Bell for the ground meat to be cooked. KFC is waiting for its Mexican-plucked, Mexican-slaughtered chickens to be fried by Mexicans. And the western desert is waiting, too — its temperatures soaring, a fryer in its own right."

 And, of course, beyond the desert lies Illinois, where Mexican migrants join immigrants from more than 100 countries. Illinois, Chicago especially, has always been a destination for pilgrims seeking a better life. In fact, immigrants and their children account for more than a quarter of the state's population now. And last year, the number of foreign-born Illinoisans rose, reaching a double-digit percentage increase from 2000.

That reality helped inspire Managing Editor Maureen Foertsch McKinney to focus this year's arts issue, the magazine's 11th, on  the theme of ethnicity. Illinois' multicultural history, she writes, has enriched the artistic heritage.

We owe thanks to her and to the rest of the editorial and design team — Beverley Scobell, Bethany Carson, Vera Leopold and Diana  Nelson — for making this and other editions a success throughout the year.

And a special year-end thanks is due Charlene Lambert and Toni Langdon, our circulation, marketing and finance team, without whom nothing could happen. 

We hope you'll take the time to savor the diverse cultural contributions of Illinoisans. As Urrea says, "I know how much color and beauty we add to the American mix." 

I would add that sometimes, like Urrea, artists also show us a vision of the darker side of ourselves.


The Hummingbird's Daughter

A novel by Luis Alberto Urrea

Magic realism, writes Luis Alberto Urrea in his 1998 autobiography nobody's son, is "basically reality," though he adds that most of us probably won't believe it. "Gringos have a strangely difficult time with the bizarre details of the daily life of Latinos. People scoff at personal testimonials of wonders, but they love to read them in novels from Colombia." 

Now his 2005 The Hummingbird's Daughter, a novel about his "aunt" Teresita Urrea, a Mexican revolutionary and people's saint, has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. But this book is grounded in Urrea history. His family's memories, he writes, are "full of ghosts," including one that may or may not have watched over his own baby crib. 

As for Teresita, who lived from 1873 to 1906, she also is Mexican history. Legend has it that La Santa de Cabora came back from the dead, performed healing among the poor who flocked to her father's ranch, preached to the pilgrims and penned newspaper articles denouncing the government, the church and the landowners. This did not make the officials or the priests happy, or her father, the rich and powerful Don Tomás Urrea, who could only sputter when she sat up at her wake.

"She said, 'I am tired. I have come a long way. Have you been there yet?'

Tomás coughed. How was one to be a father to a dead girl? Did one scold her? Correct her?" 

Who is to say whether Teresita, still honored in parts of Mexico, did or didn't do these things. But her story, researched and reimagined by Urrea over the course of 20 years, has much to say about poverty and oppression, rebellion and healing — whether we doubt the details of the miracles or not. 

Urrea, who also writes poetry and nonfiction, heard about the Saint of Cabora at family gatherings in Tijuana. 

The historical record on Teresita is extensive, but in an interview included in the 2006 paperback edition, Urrea says he wrote a novel because "I quickly realized that you can't footnote a dream." It was, he says, through the "intuitive" that he came to know Teresita. "Finally, I felt that a novel was a way to arrive at the deepest truth about the events of her life."



KFC is waiting for its Mexican-plucked, Mexican-slaughtered chickens to be fried by Mexicans. And the western desert is waiting, too — its temperatures soaring, a fryer in its own right." Luis Alberto Urrea The Devil's Highway

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, December 2006

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