Enrique leaves his home in Honduras for a perilous journey to the United States.
It takes eight attempts — gripping the tops and sides of moving freight trains. He’s hungry, cold, hot and exhausted while sleeping outdoors, sipping water from puddles. He’s beaten and robbed.
The 16-year-old didn’t head north to find work. He wanted his mom.
In her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning series, “Enrique’s Journey,” Sonia Nazario tells the heartbreaking story of Enrique’s odyssey to reunify with his mother. To report the story, Nazario retraced Enrique’s steps (lasting 122 days and covering 12,000 miles) by taking buses through Guatemala and riding atop freight trains in Mexico.
Enrique, living in grinding poverty, was 5 years old when his mother left for the United States to earn money so her children could eat and go to school. His mother promised she would come back soon, but she doesn’t.
He wonders: Does my mom still love me? Why doesn’t she come visit?
And then he makes a decision: If she won’t come to him, he will go to her.
Expanded into a book, “Enrique’s Journey” became a national best-seller and required reading for incoming freshmen at 62 colleges and dozens of high schools across the U.S. Many students at local schools and universities, including Norcross High School and Emory University are also reading the book. A young adult version was recently published.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently interviewed Nazario — who will be in metro Atlanta next week for events open and free to the public — about her book and the ongoing migration of children.
Q: The idea for the story stemmed from a conversation with your housekeeper. Please explain.
A: I think a lot of us interact with immigrants in our daily lives. Because I am Latino and speak Spanish, my housekeeper, Carmen, felt comfortable talking to me. She asked me if I was going to have children, and I was taken aback with that question. I tell her I’m not sure. Carmen has a young son, and she sometimes brings him to watch television while she works. I ask her — does she want more children? She tells me about four other children I never knew existed — in Guatemala. She said she hadn’t seen them in 12 years. I remember standing there being rocked back in my heels. I thought, “What kind of desperation must one have to walk away from her children and go 2,000 miles north?”
She talked about the fact that she worked but didn’t earn enough to feed her children. She lulled them to sleep by telling them to sleep face-down to help quell hunger pangs.
I talked to moms heading to the United States unlawfully who say, “I know what I am doing is wrong and I am breaking the law and I hope God forgives me.”
If you happen to be born in a poor country like Honduras and you had two kids and your cupboards are bare and your children are crying from hunger, would you consider making the same choice of heading north? I hope that is a question that people in Georgia entertain.
I was so emotionally moved by this choice that she made and couldn’t imagine a parent having to make this choice. What would I choose was one of the drivers of this story. … And then Carmen’s son comes up a year later saying he came up on a series of buses to come and find his mother. He wanted this question answered: Does my mom really love me? He tells me about the thousands of children who make the journey to find their mothers coming up on freight trains. They call it El Tren de la Muerte, the Train of Death. … I picked [another boy] Enrique as the boy to tell the story through because his experiences were typical of what children go through trying to reach the U.S. to reunify with his mother.
Q: Talk about the perilous journey these children take.
A: I think Georgia parents wouldn’t allow their 7- or 12-year-old to go to the grocery store alone, and to see it with my own eyes, it was horrific. I saw kids who lost a leg and a few weeks later they would be back on the train. I saw girls write with magic marker the words “I have AIDS” across their chest to try and not get raped.
For me, I was almost swiped off by a branch, and I had a gangster lunge at me and try to rape me. When I talk about it, I try to convey how hard it was for me, but what I was experiencing was 1 percent of what these children experienced. Most of the kids never make it through. It is a testament to the kind of determination most of us can’t wrap our brains around.
Q: These children experienced such cruelty. But there were also some acts of kindness.
A: People think the hardest part is crossing the border from Mexico, but that is a cakewalk compared to Chiapas in southern Mexico. I think when I emerged from Chiapas, I had felt like I had been in the heart of darkness. Most of the children are robbed and beaten several times. For me, the south-central state of Veracruz restored my faith in humanity. I would see in these little towns where there would be curves in the tracks and the train would have to slow down; I would watch, 10, 20, 30 people run out of their homes and give out food. They would throw bread, tortillas, whatever they had in their shacks. When I was on top of the train, they threw big bunches of bananas at me on the top of the train. And people would line up and clasp their hands in silent prayer as these migrants went by. These are folks who are poor who made a dollar a day … and everyone said, “I am doing this because it’s the Christian thing to do, it is the right thing to do.”
Q: What does Enrique’s dangerous and harrowing journey to reunite with his mother say about the bond between mother and child?
A: I think the bond of blood and the people we are raised with is stronger than anything else. We may disagree with people in our family, but we have this connection that can not be broken, and this yearning is so primal and so deep that it motivates us more than anything in our lives, and when we separate families we will do anything to become whole again. There are massive deportations going on right now of parents, and their children often remain in the U.S. I believe that while politically we can separate families, we are seeing those families reunite come hell or high water.
Gwinnett County event:
“Enrique’s Journey,” 6:30 p.m, Wednesday, Nov. 6. Free and open to the public. Norcross High School, 5300 Spalding Drive, Norcross. 770-822-5375
(This event is part of the Gwinnett County Public Library’s “Meet the Author” series. It is recommended for middle school ages and up.)
Nazario will also speak 7 p.m Thursday, Nov. 7, at Emory University. Free and open to the public.
Center for Ethics Commons, Room 102, 1531 Dickey Drive, Atlanta. 404-727-6392.