Format: Hardcover, 320pp
Pub. Date: February 2006
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Interview with the author and pictures of "Enrique's Journey" on WBUR's "Here and Now"
Website for Enrique's Journey
The U.S. Immigration Debate
"The Pilgrim's Train", "The Iron Horse", "The Train that Devours", "The Beast", "The Train of Death" - so many conflicting appellations for this one train( journey) - which one am I describing?
It's one I hadn't heard of before I read Sonia Nazario's book "Enrique's Journey" and quite early into the book you are told that one of the ways Central Americans enter into the US illegally is by taking freight trains that run from Central America through Mexico. That may sound simple enough but the journey is as perilous as taking a stroll through tiger-infested jungles...
The Train Journey:
The migrants have to travel on "top" of the trains, precariously hanging on to the top and sides of the train so as not to fall off, and yet, plenty do when they inadvertently doze off or when pushed off the train onto the tracks by machete-weilding bandits who scour the trains looking to rob and rape migrants to fuel their drug habits. Other migrants have lost arms and legs trying to climb on or off the moving train during embarkation and just before the train pulls into a station.
In many ways, the wait between train journeys, when migrants have to hide themselves in bushes and away from 'la migra' or the police who brutally and routinely round them up for deportation to their home countries, is almost as dangerous as hanging on to the moving train, because, while they hide from the authorities they are in extreme danger of being assaulted and robbed by bandits who prey on these unfortunate migrants. Many of them have to spend the nights in sewage pipes, in the trees or in cemetaries and often they can go 2-3 days without even having a drink of water till their throats nearly swell shut; some kids will go without eating for 5 days...
Who are these migrants? Why are so many of them young boys - some as young as 10 or 12 years - and what factors force them to make this perilous journey? These same questions intrigued journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Sonia Nazario and she decided to write a story on the journey of these young migrants through the life of one 16-year old boy from Honduras, Enrique (more on him later).
What Ms. Nazario found is that due to extreme poverty and the frequent disintegration of the family home in Central America, mothers of families that are starving (in some cases all they have to give them is a glass of sugared water to quiet their bellies at night) have been forced leave their children in the care of a relative and head north for the US with the expensive aid of smugglers. The intention is always to return but once in the US they get further and further into debt and often stay away for years much to the confusion and bewilderment of their kids who feel abandoned by them. Many of these kids,prompted by loneliness, abuse, neglect and a desire to know if their mothers still love them, go on "the trains" to look for their mothers in the US.
Enrique is one such boy. His mother left to go north when he was 5 years old. Eleven years later the teenage boy became desperate to be reunited with his mother; convinced she wasn't coming back he began a perilous and illegal trek out of Central America, into Mexico,with a North Carolina phone number as the only clue to his mother's wherabouts. For most kids the journey is seldom successful - either they get caught and deported, maimed in an accident, go crazy or suffer other forms of trauma; even for the ones that do make it to the US, the reunion with their mothers isn't always as they had imagined it to be.
In order to write Enrique's story, Ms. Nazario retraces Enrique's steps, doing the journey exactly as he had done it. She wanted to "see and experience things as he had with the hope of describing them more fully". This included interviewing his family in Honduras, seeing his haunts...she traveled more than sixteen hundred miles, half of that on top of seven freight trains the length of two-thirds of Mexico. Everyday, like Enrique, she faced the fear of being beaten or robbed, yet she did it because she wanted the world to know what migrants really go through in their desperate bid for a better life. She also wanted to show us how the face of immigration has changed to include young, single mothers, pregnant women and children - not just adult males.
Enrique's story is a grim one - full of poverty, death, desperation and villians out to prey on the less fortunate, but in all that darkness there are also heroes and heroic deeds. For instance, when the freight trains pass through through the villages of Veracruz and Oxaaca in Northern Mexico, the villagers (poor,poor people who subsist on less than $2/day) rush up to the trains as they pass throwing tortillas, water, cardigans and fruit to the migrants. There are also churches that provide shelter to the migrants and some wonderful laypeople, driven by their faith and compassion, who look for injured and maimed migrants, carry them back to their homes and tend to them until some sort of mobility is restored to them. Some of the stories will make you cry and definitely restores one's faith in human kindness.
This book was an eye-opener for me - whether you are for, or against, amnesty for illegal immigrants, I think this book is required reading. Besides giving the reader a glimpse into a migrant's journey to the US, Ms. Nazario also discusses immigration - its pros and cons. But her main purpose in writing the book is to help us understand the origin of migration - why it happens and who it is happening to, and in that respect I think she is very successful. Reading this book has given me a new understanding on the immigration issue.
This is narrative journalism at its best; Nazario's reporting first appeared as a series of articles that ran in the L.A. Times and won her a Pulitzer Prize; the book expands on those articles. It will soon be followed up by an HBO drama series.