NEA Big Read
Into the Beautiful North

Into the Beautiful North

by Luis Alberto Urrea

…I always hopelessly, passionately, root for the underdog.

The Life and Times of Luis Alberto Urrea

  1. 1950s
    • 1951: The Braceros program, a series of U.S. laws and agreements created in the 1940s, prompts the importation of thousands of temporary Mexican laborers.
    • 1954: A backlash against illegal immigration prompts "Operation Wetback," a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service initiative to remove immigrants who have entered the country illegally. Tens of thousands are deported.
    • 1955: Urrea born in Tijuana, Mexico, to a Mexican father and American mother.
    • 1956: Immigration peaks when nearly half a million laborers enter the U.S.
  2. 1960s
    • 1960: Latinos are recognized as a significant voting bloc.
    • The Chicano movement, an art and social justice movement, gains strength.
    • 1960: Urrea’s parents move from Tijuana to San Diego.
    • 1962: César Chávez organizes the National Farm Workers Association in California.
  3. 1970s
    • Throughout the 1970s, maquiladoras, assembly plants owned by U.S. companies, proliferate along the border, fueled by the cheap cost of labor.
    • 1974: The Mexican American Women’s National Association established in Washington, D.C., to advance the status of Mexican-American women.
    • 1976: The U.S. Congress imposes a limit of 20,000 visas per country per year in the western hemisphere; the number of Mexican immigrants surpasses the limit by 40,000.
    • 1978: Urrea graduates from University of California in San Diego.
  4. 1980s
    • 1982: The repeated devaluation of the peso compels more laborers to seek jobs in the United States.
    • 1982-85: Urrea teaches expository writing at Harvard.
    • 1986: The Immigration Reform and Control Act grants amnesty to people working in the United States illegally. Nearly three million people gain legal status.
  5. 1990s
    • 1994: The North American Free Trade Agreement established to increase trade among Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.
    • 1997: President Bill Clinton promises Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo that he will discourage mass deportation under the U.S. immigration policy.
    • 1999: Urrea awarded the American Book Award for his memoir, Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life.
  6. 2000s
    • 2004: The Border Patrol expands dramatically in the wake of 9/11. Ten thousand new agents authorized under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.
    • 2005: Urrea’s book-length investigation of a tragic 2001 border crossing, The Devil’s Highway, named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
    • 2012: Mexican President Felipe Calderón launches an offensive against the drug cartels.
    • The Devil’s Highway removed from Tucson classrooms after the school district’s Mexican-American Studies Program is declared illegal by Arizona in 2010. A federal judge orders a reversal and implementation of culturally relevant courses in 2013.

The Border

Until late in the twentieth century, much of the 2,000-mile U.S.–Mexico border was a lively, multicultural, even symbiotic region. Though the borderland is best known for the harsh deserts of southern California and Arizona, it also encompasses forests, mountains, and wildlife refuges. Originally, barriers between the two countries were designed merely to separate herds of cattle. The border has been altered several times, either due to the natural movement of the Rio Grande or military conflicts, which resulted in the transfer to the U.S. of five entire states (Arizona, California, Texas, Utah, and Nevada) and parts of others—half the original land of Mexico.

The prevention of immigration grew into a significant political issue around 1990. The U.S. economy had grown dependent on Mexican workers for much of the harvesting of its produce and a substantial portion of its service work in childcare, landscaping, construction, and food service, and many Mexicans relied on financial support from family members working in the U.S. As the U.S. struggled with rising unemployment and threats from external forces such as Al Qaeda after 9/11, concern about border security increased.

Crossing the border has become more difficult in recent years with much-enhanced American enforcement, which now includes more than 21,000 patrol agents who utilize an increasingly sophisticated array of technological equipment to prevent and apprehend immigrants. Those efforts, supported by $90 billion in U.S. federal funding to bolster fences, personnel, and equipment, have resulted in the apprehension of more than 18 million people since 1990, with a peak number of 1.6 million apprehensions in 2000. Still, many Mexicans (and citizens of other countries in Central and South America) pay "coyotes," people willing to smuggle immigrants into the U.S., a fee that buys three or more attempts at crossing into the U.S. Many of these attempts are successful with more than 11 million Mexicans currently living illegally in the U.S.

The decline of the U.S. wage economy since 2007 and increased border security efforts caused the net migration from Mexico to the U.S. to fall dramatically. But the challenges of economic disparity, tensions over illegal drugs flowing into the U.S., and guns flowing south into the hands of powerful Mexican gangs are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. As Urrea suggests in Into the Beautiful North, much remains to be resolved. Until then, the border crossings—successful or not—will continue.

"‘The border,’ whatever that is, is seeking to define itself through me."
—Luis Alberto Urrea from a WaterBridge Review interview

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