Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border – Luis Alberto Urrea (1993)

Using a series of vignettes about life in Tijuana, Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Across the Wire…” manages to convey the seedy hard life of the people who live on the outskirts of this border city. In the prelude to the book, Urrea makes no apology for having a definite point of view towards those who want to cross the border, and if you are expecting a screed against illegal immigration, then perhaps this is not the book for you.  Urrea wrote these fragments after he had returned to San Diego and they ended up as newspaper columns for the San Diego Tribune. The book is really just a taste of life of Tijuana for those who are on the edge of society – the desperately poor who have very few choices to change their lives, and who live only 20 miles or so from San Diego.

I thought this book was going to be similar to other non-fiction accounts that I have read where the author shadows someone who crosses the border illegally and sees how hard it is. Instead, Urrea takes us to meet individuals, one character at a time, as he volunteers time with a religious group in the border town. The group that he is with is from a church but their main mission is to provide aid to the poor people who make their
homes in the city’s garbage dump, so there is little proselytizing (which I was glad to see).

As the book goes on, the reader gets to meet Tijuana’s poor citizens, and although the descriptions of such poverty are not easy to read, Urrea gives them a sense of grace at the same time (although he is careful not to make them seem “too good” as some authors do). These are normal fallible humans who live very hard lives. Some live in the garbage dump and their main possessions are a bed and a television that runs off an old car battery.  He follows a Tijuana police officer on one shift, and watches how immigration is controlled at the border (or not, as the case may be).  A young girl named Negra befriends him, and on his return years later, he tracks her down and she says that she never forgot him.

But as mentioned, Urea does not glamorize the seedy rough lifestyle of these residents. He shows you the warts and all side of things when you live as they do, but it is done with respect. You don’t get an impression of the characters being martyrs at all, but Urrea treats their stories without sensationalism which makes them very real.

Not an easy read in terms of content, but an effective reminder of what some people have to live through just a few miles away from the Land of Milk and Honey.

This was a library book. Hooray for Texas libraries.

If you’re interested in further reading along these lines, check out John Vaillant’s novelistic effort, The Jaguar’s Children, also about this topic.