Learning from Enrique

A journalist joins the immigrant trains to gain perspective on a divisive issue
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While chatting with her Guatemalan house cleaner one day, journalist Sonia Nazario casually asked the immigrant mother of four if she planned to have more children. The house cleaner broke down and began crying. She explained to Nazario, a Los Angeles Times reporter, that she hadn't seen her kids in 12 years, having migrated to the United States so she could make money to send home to them.

Nazario realized her house cleaner's plight was a common one among Central American women, whose families are so often abandoned by the fathers that the women must do whatever is necessary to ensure that their kids have enough to eat. "Most Americans don't understand that kind of desperation," Nazario explained to a crowd at San Francisco Public Library's Koret Auditorium on Nov. 28.

She felt bewildered that someone could come to work in the US while leaving her children behind to live in squalid conditions in Central America. At first, Nazario said, she even felt a bit judgmental. But her house cleaner's story inspired Nazario to learn more about the level of desperation so many immigrants and their families live with.

Touched by the women's sacrifices and curious to learn more about the struggles of immigrants — undocumented immigrants in particular — Nazario embarked on an epic journey that led to her writing a newspaper series about a Honduran boy named Enrique who braved numerous obstacles so he could reunite with his mother in the US.

The series won Nazario a prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and became the blueprint for her book Enrique's Journey (Random House, 2006), which is currently being developed as an HBO special. Nazario's work offers a complex and insightful perspective on an immigration issue that has often been oversimplified by pandering presidential campaigns.

TRAIN OF DEATH

Tens of thousands of Latin American youths travel from their home countries toward the US each year on top of trains. The perilous, Odyssey-like trip takes weeks to complete, and migrants rarely reach their goal on their first try. Enrique, for instance, attempted the journey eight times. Other immigrants try dozens of times.

Nazario, wanting to understand the struggles of undocumented immigrants as intimately as possible, replicated Enrique's journey by boarding the top of a train in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and riding through the heart of Mexico in a three-month excursion. Having received permission from Mexican officials and with the resources to spend the occasional night in a hotel, she didn't rough it to the extent that migrants — adults and children alike — have to.

But that's doesn't mean it was easy. On returning to the US, Nazario began having nightmares about being raped by bandits during the journey and ended up in therapy to deal with the trauma.

The US-Mexico border, she noted, is far from the most daunting leg of the journey for these immigrants: the hardest part is the lush southern Mexican state of Chiapas, which migrants call "the Beast." The region is home to Mexican immigration authorities, corrupt cops who are out to shake down and deport travelers, and ruthless gangsters who control the tops of many of the trains. Mexico deports roughly 200,000 illegal immigrants each year, mostly from Central America.

Enrique still wears the scars of a beating he sustained at the hands of bandits. Torrid heat, all the more unbearable to those riding atop trains made of metal, exhausts and wears down the travelers in an unforgivable fashion.

They call the trains los trens de la muerte, or the trains of death, due to the regularity of death and maiming that occurs when immigrants fall off.

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