Luis Alberto Urrea's first book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, was a haunting and unprecedented look at what life is like for those living on the Mexican side of the border, eking out only the barest of lives not far from the white sands and coral reefs of Southern California. His poignant, widely acclaimed account of the struggle of these people to survive amid the abject poverty, unsanitary living conditions, and legal and political chaos that reign in the Mexican borderlands vividly illustrated why so many are forced to make the treacherous and illegal journey "across the wire" into the United States. Written with the same unflagging curiosity, compassion, mordant wit, and novelistic sense of detail that made Across the Wire "a work of investigative reporting that is also a bittersweet song of human anguish" (Los Angeles Times), By the Lake of Sleeping Children explores the post-NAFTA and Proposition 187 border purgatory of garbage pickers and dump dwellers, gawking tourists and relief workers, fearsome coyotes and their desperate clientele. In sixteen indelible portraits, Urrea illuminates the horrors and the simple joys of people trapped between the two worlds of Mexico and the United States - and ignored by both. The result is a startling and memorable work of first-person reportage.
Urrea has an almost evangelical zeal to communicate the sad lot of Mexico's "untouchable class," a border population abandoned by their country, at times by their own kin. This collection of repportage, like his Across the Wire, originates in Urrea's years helping California missionaries deliver food and medicine to orphanages and inhabitants of a moldering garbage dump near Tijuana. Here, people's lives are wholly delimited by this universe of decomposing waste. They mine their livelihood in hidden treasuresa can of food, cast-off clothing, scrap wood for a house. Passions fester and erupt; nobility and sacrifice coexist with greed, cruelty and rage. A dual government of armed toughs and community respect prevails. In 10 stark, intimate, riveting essays, Urrea passes no judgment, but attempts to show why his subjects risk all for the chance of something better across the border. Their privation provokes incomprehensible acts, incomprehensible unless one has been in their situation. Urrea has shared their lives and he emerges with strong opinions on those responsible for such misery, and fears of what it forebodes for the course of America's future. Well worth reading in our age of escalating xenophobia. (Oct.)