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Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border by Luis Alberto Urrea, photographs by John Lueders-Booth

Across the WireThanks to a sudden snowstorm and ensuing power outage, I had every excuse to strap on my headband flashlight and read the first of Luis Alberto Urrea‘s Border Trilogy without pause. Given the sheer gawk-factor of these pages, any excuses were negligible: This is definitely a riveting, shocking must-read. Realizing that the book was published almost two decades old (!) and not nearly enough has changed is the biggest jaw-dropping, head-shaking, gawk-inducer of all.

Born in Tijuana just south of the California/Mexico border – Urrea is hapa: Mexican on his father’s side and U.S.-American on his mother’s side – Urrea never really left, even when living elsewhere. Check his blog: his entry for December 8th, 2010 has him back in Tijuana, reliving an experience almost straight out of Across the Wire. “Tijuana is Mexico’s cast-off child,” Urrea writes of his birthplace, where the tragedies, brutal crimes, murders, addictions, and the unimaginably difficult everyday lives in this collection take place.

In 1978, Urrea met “a remarkable preacher known as Pastor Von,” a 30-year-veteran of “slogging through the Borderlands mud”; this book is simply dedicated “For Von.” Into the bottomless depths of Tijuana’s poverty, Urrea followed Von to the garbage dumps and shanty villages, bearing food, water, medicine, building materials, and sometimes just a willingness to listen.

In the dumps, the Cheese Lady drags him to meet a newly arrived woman named Jesus and her large family, whose 13-year-old daughter must hide in the family shack as howling men circle trying to “break though the doors and walls to get to her.” He meets Pacha, a young mother of too many who loses another child, and Mrs. Serrano, a woman literally desiccated from lack of food and water, who miraculously delivers a healthy baby.

He meets and loses Negra, a little girl who will haunt him for years. He recalls the reed-thin, glue-sniffing addicts, a fire-blinded kitten whose gratitude lasts through its final purr, the careless inhumanity of a Tijuana policeman who insists he’s “‘a cop, not a monster,'” and his father’s own mysterious and violent death. He is remarkable in his ability to be unflinching at the horrors he witnesses, and yet never so distanced as to ever not be achingly, powerfully humane.

With the latest round of whose-side-of-the-border-are-you-on-headlines, sharing Urrea’s memories couldn’t be more timely. Beyond the “ambassadors of poverty” – as Urrea refers to scourges like lice and scabies, neverending diseases from diarrhea to chronic hernia, even madness and “‘demon possession'” – Urrea captures life just 20 minutes from and yet clearly a whole world away from San Diego. He repeatedly reminds us that these are our neighbors, no matter how easy to ignore and forget, invisible from San Diego’s sparkling skyline, which for most of the bordertown’s survivors remains forever out of reach.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1993



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