A tree branch swiped her face, knocked the wind out of her and she almost fell off of a moving freight train. Bandits and gangsters taunted her and almost robbed her. One night, she managed to escape a man who wanted to rape her.
To tell a true story of a young boy in search of his mother, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Sonia Nazario did the unimaginable. And yet, her story is only a recounting of a journey too often taken by thousands of young children fleeing Central America and México in search of their mothers in the United States.
Last Friday afternoon, Nazario explained why she felt it was so important to tell their story— one that people do not often understand or want to hear.
“The plight of Central American children from their countries to the United States is horrific. As young as seven-years-old, they leave everything they know to venture off into the unknown. Along the way, they are robbed, beaten, raped and too often, killed,” said Nazario.
During her lecture titled “Enrique’s Journey and America’s Immigration Dilemma” Nazario used photographs to tell Sacramento State students the story of how millions of immigrant women come to the United States as single mothers, and leave their children behind in their home countries in Central American and México in search of a better life.
Based on the Los Ángeles Times newspaper series that won two Pulitzer Prizes, Nazario’s story recounts the quest of a Honduran boy looking for his mother, eleven years after she is forced to leave her starving family to find work in the United States.
Undergoing peril, and climbing on and off the sides and tops of freight trains, Nazario takes readers through the life and experiences of Enrique as he travels through hostile worlds filled with thugs, bandits and corrupt military and cops. Despite the slim odds of making it, he presses forward, relying on his courage, hope and the kindness of strangers to get by.
The idea to write the story came from an unlikely place: her kitchen.
“I was talking to my housekeeper one day and she questioned whether I was going to have children. I avoided the question like any good journalist and asked her if she, herself planned to have more. She started sobbing and told me how she left four children behind in her native Guatemala,” said Nazario.
Her housekeeper’s story unfolded. She told Nazario how her husband had abandoned her for another woman and she didn’t have a stable job and didn’t make enough money to feed her children. They would complain of having hunger pains because they only ate once a day.
Intrigued by her housekeepers story, Nazario decided to explore the question: what makes women or even children leave their home country, everything they know and love to make a dangerous journey to the United States in search of a better life?
As the child of immigrants herself, Nazario used her own experiences to piece together, understand and evaluate the many reasons why people flee their countries.
In stark contrast to her own life experiences; her father was a biochemist who left Syria during Christian persecution and her mother left Poland during Jewish persecution—both of them met, married and settled in Argentina.
That’s where Nazario grew up but during Argentina’s Dirty War, where thousands of people disappeared, so they fled and came to Kansas. After her father’s sudden death as a result of a heart attack, her mother was desperate to return to Argentina.
“Like most immigrants from Latin America, my mother would always say, ‘En este país la gente es tan fría” (In this country, people are so cold) so we went back only to return to the United States years later,” said Nazario.
She became a journalist after witnessing the death of two journalists who were her next door neighbors in Argentina and were brutally tortured and killed in their home by the Argentinean government. When Nazario asked her mother why they were killed, she said it was because they wanted to tell the truth. Intrigued by the concept, coupled with her rebellious personality, Nazario was determined to become a journalist and also tell the truth.
The youngest reporter ever hired by the Wallstreet Journal, Nazario began to tell stories like Enrique’s that blended her own immigrant experiences to those of others; stories of Latinos and other underrepresented minority ethnic groups that are often voiceless in mainstream media.
Enrique’s story was one of those, but in order to write the story, she wanted to travel to Central America herself and make the exact same journey in order to grab her readers “by the throat and take them for a ride and put them in the middle of the action,” she said.
Through her journey, Nazario discovered that more than half of those who arrive in the United States from Central America are women (single mothers) and children. More than 200,000 children have arrived as undocumented immigrants. When they arrive, life in the United States proves to be tougher than they had imagined.
“Life is much harder compared to the way it is advertised by friends and relatives. What immigrants don’t know is how many jobs they have to work to make ends meet; the living conditions they must endure to be able to send money back to their families and the amount of time they are separated from their families is longer than they expect,” said Nazario.
The majority of children who decide to make the journey north is because they are in search of their mothers.
“Many of them just want answers. They want to know if their mothers still remember them; if they still love them,” said Nazario.
Through Nazario’s journey, she noticed how child immigrants are hunted like animals from the time they depart their home countries from the stretch of Guatemala to México. In their pockets, they carry the phone number of a relative or their mothers, often covered in plastic to prevent it from falling into the water or losing it.
When they reach México via multiple freight trains, and one famously known as “La Bestia” (The Beast) they confront Mexican federal authorities and immigration officers who deport more than 30,000 of them a year. The United States pays undisclosed sums of money to the Mexican government to prevent immigrants from crossing through México to reach the United States.
Many children are not successful in their journeys. They are robbed, stabbed, held at gunpoint, mutilated by the trains, beaten, raped and most times, killed. As young as seven, they board the trains clutching on to the most basic of necessities. They forego eating food for days and undergo extreme weather conditions. Most of the gangsters and bandits who rob them are men who were deported themselves from the United States.
“To say it is a dangerous journey is an understatement,” said Nazario.
Through the book, Nazario doesn’t just point out the negatives, but also the positives. The strength and resiliency of Enrique and other children who don’t make the journey once or twice, but multiple times in an effort to reconnect with loved ones in the United States, is to be admired.
“My faith was restored in humanity several times when people who don’t have anything, open up their homes and prepare home-cooked meals for the children that are making their way on these trains,” said Nazario.
Most of them women, throw tortillas, bread, sandwiches, seasonal fruit and tap water aboard the trains or kneel beside the tracks and offer the children a prayer.
For Nazario, these children are refugees and the only way to stop or limit them from making the dangerous journey north is for the United States to invest in violence prevention programs in their home countries that better their way of life and reduce homicide rates and makes their living conditions better all-around.
“It is the only way we are going to see less mothers separated from their children and less children making the dangerous journey north in search of them,” said Nazario.
At a special talk last Friday evening hosted by the Sacramento State Latino Alumni Association at Mayahuel Mexican restaurant, Nazario stressed the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform in order to solve today’s child refugee—not immigration—crisis.
“If it’s about our community and our issues, Latinos need to wake that sleeping giant now and vote,” she said.