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Authors: Luis Urrea

Across the Wire

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Advance praise for Luis Alberto Urrea’s

“Luis Alberto Urrea’s fine and passionate book about the Mexican poor is nothing less than a travel book to the strange and enduring territory we call the human soul.”

—Richard Rodriguez,              
author of
Hunger of Memory

“Across the Wire
tells of a poverty so immense—it carries over generations, crosses borders, follows lives beyond death, and will haunt your sleep.”

—Ana Castillo,                                  
author of
The Mixquiahuala Letters

“Across the Wire
graphically portrays life on the trash dumps of Tijuana, a life Luis Alberto Urrea shared with
los de abajo
, those who scratch out a living in the nightmarish world of the

“Those interested in the U.S./Mexico border should read this vivid portrayal of the people who survive in this cesspool which society has created, then forgotten. Urrea has written a work full of despair, yet with flashes of hope, a story which will continue to haunt us. Those forgotten people, Urrea reminds us with compassion, are fellow human beings.

“Urrea deserves recognition for his work among the poor, for reaching out to help the families and the children, and for having the guts to write the story.”

—Rudolfo Anaya,                
author of
Bless Me, Ultima

“Across the Wire
takes you across the cold, objective language and reality described by political discourses into the human tears and laughter that make up daily life at the U.S./Mexico border. I applaud Luis Alberto Urrea for daring to think, speak, and write with emotion … for daring to feel in a time of reason.”

—Laura Esquivel,                               
author of
Like Water for Chocolate

“Like its title,
Across the Wire
is a book that stands at the border between tenderness and anger, death and life. It is an examination of love at the center of devastation, a work of witness, compassion, and finally, of hope.”

—Linda Hogan,            
author of
Mean Spirit

“Perhaps only Luis Alberto Urrea could have written this book. Not only because he is a bilingual Chicano, born in Tijuana and raised in San Diego, but also because he is genuinely driven by compassion. Urrea never thinks of the poor as a stereotypic ‘they’; he never lets us forget that humor, devotion, and even love can coexist with the most desperate circumstances. A more simplistic writer would anesthetize us to these lives by letting us imagine the poor as dehumanized; Urrea shows us that full humanity persists in situations we would not know how to endure.
Across the Wire
is mostly a book about human suffering, but it never loses hope, and that hope is earned because it is grounded in no illusions. As Urrea says in the end, ‘you do what you can’—and he has done what few could do in writing this book.”

—Lowry Pei,                               
author of
Family Resemblances

“Whether in Egypt, Manila or Tijuana, families who live among garbage—the most abject human living conditions imaginable—are a testament to the spirit of survival. Urrea captures this spirit in his inimitable fashion: straightforward, with plenty of humor, but no gratuitous pity. We learn about life on the U.S./Mexican border, and we learn about ourselves.

“I recommend this book for the general reader, but also for undergraduate students in sociology of poverty, community studies, U.S. and Mexican anthropology and history, and border studies.”

—Evelyn Hu-DeHart                               
Director, Center for Studies of Ethnicity
and Race in America (CSERA),
and Professor of History (Mexico and
Latin America/Caribbean), University of Colorado at Boulder

, J

© 1993 by Luis Alberto Urrea
Photographs copyright © 1993 by John Lueders-Booth

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The stories in this collection are true. Some names and identities and, especially locations have been changed. In all cases, accuracy has been preserved in spite of considerations of security.

Most of the pieces gathered in this volume originally appeared in the San Diego Reader, many of them under different titles. They include “Los Cementeros,” “Christmas Story,” “Father’s Day,” “Good Friday,” “Happy Birthday, Laura Patricia,” “The Last Soldier of Pancho Villa,” “Meet the Satánicos,” “Negra,” “Pamplonada,” “Tijuana Cop,” all the sections of “Sifting Through the Trash,” and, finally, portions of the Preface and Prologue.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Urrea, Luis Alberto.
Across the wire: life and hard times on the Mexican border / Luis Alberto Urrea: photographs by John Lueders-Booth.—1st Anchor Books ed.
p.    cm.

1. Tijuana (Baja California, Mexico)—Social conditions. 2. Tijuana
(Baja California, Mexico)—Economic conditions. 3. Mexican-
American Border Region—Social conditions. 4. Mexican-American Border
Region—Economic conditions. I. Title.
HN120.T52U77  1993
972’.2—dc20  92-12680

eISBN: 978-0-307-77374-6


For Von

 … you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes.

—Michael Herr,


—Hand-painted sign
near the Okefenokee


here is a joke told on the border, and it is relished or denounced with equal levels of resignation. It is either a witty take on Cold War rhetoric or a racist epithet politically incorrect in every way. It refers to the hopelessly tattered yet imposing borderline, where thousands of Mexicans pour across every week under helicopters and infrared night-scopes. It refers to the obscure secrets that fester behind the wires, the dastardliness of Mexico that grows into popular myth in our imaginations.

They call the border “the Tortilla Curtain.”


This is a book of fragments, stories of moments in the lives of people most of us never see, never think about, and don’t even know exist. It seems to me that statements such as “There is a problem on our doorstep” or “The Mexican border is where the third world meets our world” are vague at best. The “huddled masses” ostensibly welcomed by our Statue of Liberty are, specifically, people.

I offer an introduction to the human value in these unknown lives, a story of hope in spite of horror and pain. What you read here happens day and night; the people you meet here live minutes away from you. Learning about their poverty also teaches us about the nature of our wealth.

I do not intend to offer a “balanced” view of our friendly neighbor to the south. Tijuana’s boosters always maximize the many wonders of the Borderlands: industry, tourism, bullfights, jai alai, mega-tech discos, duty-free shopping, charming trinkets and baubles, friendly people, even nice beaches on the coast. Any American or well-off Mexican family can see this—all we have to do is drive into town.

Nor is this book a portrait of “the Mexicans.” I hope no general inferences are made about the nation or the people. This book is as much an overview of Mexico as a tour of the South Bronx is representative of the entire United States.

Across the Wire
deals with my experiences in parts of the Borderlands that no tourist will ever see. It is subjective and biased, and I believe that is the way it should be. I have avoided presenting the people who live there as “noble savages.” Poverty ennobles no one; it brutalizes common people and makes them hungry and old.

Most of the people in these pieces urged me to tell their
stories. They believed that if you knew where and how they lived, then they wouldn’t simply fade away, relegated to as pointless a death as the lives they had been forced to live.

Although there are missionaries here, and their roles often make them heroic in the context of this book, it is not my intent to offer religious homilies. There will be no altar call at the end of the book. However, it has become obvious to me that the role of missionaries is a subject of serious question on many counts. I cannot speak for any other missionary group’s agenda or actions; this is not intended as a sweeping overview of spiritual service or anthropological damage. Rather, I focus on the activities of one basically decent and slightly renegade group.

Most of this manuscript was wrung from about fifteen hundred pages of notes gathered on my travels with the missionaries from 1978 to 1982. Several times during 1982-85 I returned to the Borderlands from an East Coast teaching position. Finally, I researched the region anew as a writer for the San Diego
in the summer and winter of 1990. The
gave me the opportunity to disseminate these dark secrets to hundreds of thousands of people in California. Always surprising to me was that San Diegans, living right beside the border, had no idea what went on there. If they didn’t know, the rest of the world knew even less.

More startling was that Mexicans didn’t know, or pretended not to know. My Mexican family didn’t know. This, in spite of having always lived in Tijuana, of seeing the shacks in the hills, of deflecting the beggars, the shoeshine boys, and the gum-selling girls.

I have come to believe that when something is this bad, we
look the other way, or we hope it’s better than it looks. I trust this book will put a face on the “huddled masses” who are invading our borders. I want you to know why they’re coming.

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