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Study Questions: Luis Alberto Urrea, "The Devil's Highway"

In the assigned excerpt from Luis Alberto Urrea's The Devil's Highway, the author narrates the brutal journey of the "Wellton 26": a group of twenty-six Mexican nationals abandoned in May, 2001, in the middle of the Arizona desert by "coyotes" paid to smuggle them into the U.S. The group trekked for five days without food, water, or shelter, before reaching the U.S. Border Wellton Station. Fourteen of the twenty-six, now commonly referred to as the "Yuma 14," perished from exposure—the largest group of border crossers to have died in Arizona in more than two decades. (Click for an interactive map of their trek.)
  1. Many authors and filmmakers claim their work is "based on a true story" (or, worse, inspired by true events--as though fiction were not inspired by real life). Luis Urrea, however, is writing about a widely documented event under the banner of "creative nonfiction." How do you feel about the Urrea's writing as "creative nonfiction"? Are you concerned that he is stretching the truth in the interest of better storytelling?
  2. How does a creative nonfiction author do justice to his or her subject matter? What are the obligations of creative nonfiction writers to the "truth" of a story? What creative license do we allow them? At what point does "embellishment" become "lie"?  

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I. Free-Write

After reading the excerpt from "The Rules of the Game," free-write individually for five minutes on your reaction. There's no wrong or correct answer to this task. Write anything and everything that comes to mind, as long as it's relevant.

I. Desolation

Luis Alberto Urrea explains in his introduction to The Devil's Highway the extent of his research for this nonfiction project, as well as his own personal investment in, and empathy for, the Wellton 26. Urrea admits that "some conversations were implied," but he goes on to say,

"...although I wasn't with them on the morning when they awoke lost in the Sonoran desert, I have spent many mornings there. I know the smell and sound of the dawn quite well. I know the time of year. And I know the weather conditions in which they found themselves. The Wellton 26 had scant time to worry about the nature aspects of their journey. But no story about death and the Devil's Highway could rightly exist without the strong presence of Desolation, in all its intimidating glory."

Where is the evidence for "Desolation, in all its intimidating glory" in Urrea's narrative? What does he mean by the seeming oxymoron, "intimidating glory"? What specific qualities or details in Urrea's writing can be interpreted as "intimidating glory"?

II. The Wall

The literal "walls" of this excerpt from The Devil's Highway are obvious enough: the U.S. border crossing, and the nearly impassable Sonoran Desert. The former is as much an ideal as a physical destination, but the latter is also a metaphor.  

List as many figurative "literary" meanings as you can think of that crossing the Sonoran Desert might hold for the author. (Look to the ways the author uses the desert crossing to create a perspective about issues and topics relevant to his book, rather than try to put the author on the couch and psychoanalyze him.)

III. The Moral of the Story

Collaborate on a complex thesis statement about the way that walls, borders, and/or divisions are used as a literary device--theme, metaphor, symbol--in Luis Alberto Urrea's writing. Your argument should be limited to what Urrea achieves in the assigned excerpt from The Devil's Highway, rather than to the entire book. However, if you've read the entire book, or you've read other chapters in it, feel free to draw from these to help with this task.

Last Updated: 04/05/2017


Karl J. Sherlock
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