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By the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the Mexican Border by Luis Alberto Urrea, photographs by John Lueders-Booth

By the Lake of Sleeping Children copyOnce I opened this second volume in Luis Alberto Urrea‘s Border Trilogy, I simply couldn’t stop. So here’s the best thing I can say about Lake after reading his first border title, Across the Wire: Lake is more of the same … it’s another riveting must-read.

Urrea begins his “Introductory Matters” by debunking an American myth: “In spite of what the anti-immigration proponents will tell you, Tijuana is NOT “a teeming staging area for a massive assault on America, [and] you might be surprised at how many people have no intention of ever crossing the border,” he insists. “No matter what anyone tells you, a population of more than a million people, living in one of the top money-making cities in Mexico, and the most visited city, and the most reviled city, and the most Disneyfied city, are not going to crunch through the fabulous fence we have erected. They aren’t going anywhere.”

Urrea reports how “young Mexican intellectuals with a slightly revolutionary bent have coined a pet name for Tijuana. They call it Palestijuas, Tijuana-Palestine.” The resemblance does not go unnoticed: the looming fence, the circling helicopters, the hordes of cramped people on one side, the threat of armed Border Patrols on the other. Even the land – as Tijuana’s citizens see it from thousands of miles away on salvaged televisions running on diverted electricity – is cause for “amazed” recognition: “the West Bank! Why, it looks exactly like Tijuana,” the crowds exclaim.

Amidst these teeming multitudes, Urrea shares the often unbearable stories of those who stay: “It’s a forum for the voiceless,” he describes his book, the fulfillment of a promise he made to a garbage dump dweller who insisted, “‘And nobody will ever know that I lived. So tell them about me. Tell them I was here.'”

Here the body count is gruesome … and high. Here Urrea exposes the sudden appearance of ‘a lake of sleeping children’ after a spontaneous flood, the tragic fate of four young boys deserted overnight by their parents, a disturbing glimpse into a less-than-well-run orphanage, and a heartfelt introduction to a beer-drinking nun who isn’t above ignoring ridiculous laws in order to protect orphan children. His most unforgettable piece examines 24 wrenching hours in the lives of three dump families trying to survive another day.

Urrea has a whole chapter to teach you how to curse, Tijuana style. He doesn’t flinch (although he warns you in case you might flinch, or worse …) when he recounts some of the mind-boggling horrors he’s witnessed against innocent animals; that chapter, “The Bald Monkey and Other Atrocities,” when first published in a newspaper, earned him not a few death threats. Ironic the lengths strangers will go to to express rage at abused animals … and yet what about the children … and the people …?

Once again, as in Wire, Urrea openly, honestly presents the overlooked humanity of voiceless lives … once more, his writing demands humane consideration and unflinching attention. You, we, all of us … should not, must not turn away.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996

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