The 5-year-old boy clung to his mother’s pant leg as she stepped off the front porch of the Honduras shack where she’d raised him. She was bound for the United States, in search of money to create a better life for her and her children.
The little boy, Enrique, knew nothing of that. He only knew his mother was leaving. “Don’t forget to go to church this afternoon,” she told him as she walked away, unable to hug him. And so begins the true story of "Enrique’s Journey," a tale first chronicled in a six-part series published in the Los Angeles Times in 2002 and then expanded into a national best-selling book by Random House four years later.
Journalist Sonia Nazario’s stirring account of Enrique’s perilous trip across the U.S. border at age 17 to find his mother won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and photography. More than that, it has become the most widely read book in the United States about immigration and a favored selection for classrooms and universities, including the University of New Orleans, which chose “Enrique’s Journey” as its Common Read book for 2016-17.
On Sept. 20, Nazario comes to UNO, where she will speak about her work. The free, public event starts at 5:30 p.m. at the University Center Ballroom and will include a reception, author presentation, Q&A and book signing.
For her reporting, Nazario herself rode atop trains and on buses, retracing the journey Enrique and tens of thousands other youth from Central America and Mexico made in search of their mothers. She has become a national voice on immigration, her work frequently appearing in The New York Times and elsewhere. Her recent humanitarian efforts to get lawyers for unaccompanied migrant children led to her selection as the 2015 Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award recipient by the Advocates for Human Rights. She also was named a 2015 Champion of Children by First Focus and a 2015 Golden Door award winner by HIAS Pennsylvania. In 2016, the American Immigration Council gave her the American Heritage Award.
What: Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of best-selling "Enrique's Journey," talk, Q&A and book-signing
When: Tuesday, Sept. 20, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Where: University of New Orleans, University Center Ballroom, 2000 Lakeshore Dr., New Orleans, La.
Free and open to the public.
In preparation for her visit to UNO later this month, we talked with Nazario about her own journey. Here is our discussion, lightly edited for space and clarity:
Q: You wrote “Enrique's Journey” when you were a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and your career until then centered on writing about social justice issues and immigration. But this story has really experienced the kind of longevity that isn't often enjoyed by a lot of newspaper projects.
SN: I would say that's an understatement! We usually say that it ends up at the bottom of the bird cage the next day. But yeah, I think it's because immigration is a huge issue that has been used politically by both sides. And I think that while the number of unlawful migrants overall is at a 40-year low, the number of Central Americans coming—and specifically unaccompanied immigrant children—has reached new heights. So, it's become a bigger issue than ever and kind of symbolic of our inability to deal with the issue of immigration.
It's been kind of a perfect storm in terms of the politics and the number of these children coming, and the violence that has surged in these countries in Central America that is pushing so many of these children out now. When Enrique came, he was coming to find his mother and for economic reasons. But now many of the children are not economic migrants, they're refugees.
I've stuck with it because I've become, for better or worse, a voice for these kids,
an advocate because I feel many of them are running for their lives now.
Q: Did you anticipate that's what you would be doing when you set off on your reporting for this?
SN: Well, I'm currently about five, six years behind on finishing my current book. So, no, I did not anticipate this. But I think sometimes God, or the world, puts you in a place for a reason and you need to step up and take on that cause. Since I'm one of the experts in the country on these kids and I'm able to be a voice for them. I've seen it as a responsibility to continue reporting about what they're facing and how our government is dealing with them, which is not very well.
Q: Why do you think it's become an important point of reference specifically in today's classrooms? It seems like it's become a very common choice for the common reads in high schools and colleges.
SN: I think nearly 100 universities have now picked it. I was just at Michigan State, and they had 10,000 students reading this book. I think that it's because in the last two decades—unlike previously, when migrants went to six states, basically—migrants have gone everywhere, to virtually every county in the United States and places that did not see migrants for a 100 years, when the Germans came or the French came or the Poles came. I think that that's produced a lot of backlash, it's produced a lot of anxiety, it's produced a lot of fear. And I think, God bless them, educators want to inject some reality to that picture of, “Why are these people leaving their countries? What are they willing to do to get here? Will a wall stop someone as determined as Enrique? And who are your new neighbors in New Orleans?” So that you, at least before you hate, you have some knowledge of which to hI think it's been very popular with educators because they are trying to counter the misinformation that's often put out there politically by both sides, both Republicans and Democrats, and take you inside one migrant family's world to see what the good and the bad is. In my mind, it's an issue with many shades of gray, and there are winners and losers in terms of this influx. But I think to just try to see it in a more clear-eyed way, and I think that's what educators are trying to do.
Also, unbeknownst to me, there is a list of 10 things that colleges look for in these books. They look for something that's about 300 pages or less, and promotes global awareness, that promotes diversity, that has a protagonist that's about the same age as the kids coming to college. The kid is going through some similar issues, potential drug addiction, separation from family, as you come to college for the first time. So it just happened. I happened to fall into this wormhole where my book has seven of the 10 things that colleges traditionally look for in these common reads.
Q: What do you hope that college and university students walk away with after reading about Enrique and Lourdes and their family?
SN: I think what I most like about this, what I love about this journey is that virtually every day I get an email from the students and they start out saying "I was forced to read your book" and usually "forced" is in capital letters. And then they say, "You know, I was raised a racist, to hate all immigrants. I didn't know any growing up but that's what my parents taught me. And by reading this book and discussing it, it's changed some of my views. And it's brought me to a different understanding of migrants who live in my city or who live in my town." And many of the students have then gone on to get involved to try to improve conditions in these home countries by building schools and water systems, starting micro-loan programs, to try to address the issues that are driving migrants to come to places like New Orleans.
For me, I think that's been my hope—that people understand these complex social issues better rather than just having a knee-jerk response that's based on what they see either on FOX News or on MSNBC. I think we tend to now watch news programs that confirm the views we already have. And sometimes those views are based on very little fact and a lot of ignorance. And so, my hope is that it'll just open some of these students' eyes to, “Who are these new neighbors?”
Q: You said that when you wrote this, you noted that there were 48,000 children entering the U.S. illegally each year without their parents, and you said now we're about to have a record high. Where do we stand now? And what do you think still needs to happen?
SN: Federal officials are kind of quietly estimating that we'll likely apprehend 70,000 unaccompanied immigrant children this year. And that could be higher than the 68,000 that we had in 2014, when everyone's hair was on fire about this issue. The numbers went down about 40 percent last year. And I wrote a piece in The New York Times showing how the U.S. was paying Mexico tens of millions of dollars to produce this crackdown. So that now it's almost impossible to ride on top of freight trains through Mexico, and kids are being Tasered off of moving freight trains. I saw last year children walking the length of Mexico trying to reach safety at our border.
So, the numbers went down last year, but they're expected to match or perhaps exceed the record 68,000 of 2014. Those are the ones that are caught. That doesn't include all the ones that aren't caught. No one really knows how many aren't caught at this point. Because I think, more than before, these kids are turning themselves in to the border patrol. But there are a lot who do not want get caught. So, we're definitely talking over a 100,000 children. It's a lot of children.
Q: What still needs to happen?
SN: I think we need to do two things. We need to be more compassionate towards children who do arrive at our border, and the UN has found that for about six in 10 of those kids, the primary reason they're leaving Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala is that they've been threatened one to three times by gangs or narco cartels, and they feel that their lives are in danger. We have signed a protocol saying that we will protect refugees and we urge other countries to take in millions of refugees around Syria. Yet, I think we have had a very negligent policy in recent years in terms of that. I think when these kids come here, we should consider giving them a temporary protected status, until those countries improve in terms of the violence.
I think that we should assign a government-funded lawyer to those children when they go to the immigration courts to ask for asylum. Today, you see 7-year-old, 10-year-old children, half of these kids can't afford a lawyer. So, they stand before that judge with complete fear. I've seen 7-year-olds shaking with fear, standing before that judge because they're being asked to present a complex asylum case, very complex immigration law. They have to get police reports from their home country and present their case in English. These children are 7, and they only speak Spanish, and they know nothing about law. And the government has a trial attorney arguing why that child should be deported.
I think that this judicial process we have for these children, if we don't get them a government attorney, it's a sham. It's really life and death circumstances, sending these kids back to countries that only have kill-rates that are second to Syria right now. I think we need to change those things once they arrive. But I think we also need to continue to fund foreign aid aimed at reducing violence in these places. I wrote a piece in The New York Times four weeks ago, about how in December we more than doubled foreign aid to these places and it's actually working. Instead of funding law enforcement programs that lock up all these gangsters, we are funding violence prevention programs in the most violent places in Honduras, at the three most violent neighborhoods. And I went to one of those neighborhoods and I saw how 10 different kinds of programs had worked to help reduce homicides like 62 percent in two years.
The number of children fleeing that neighborhood has dropped by 50 percent in two years. So, we need to do more to address what's pushing these kids out and we need to, I think be more compassionate once these children arrive at our border until the violence improves in these places.
Q: What drew you to Enrique?
SN: I was looking as a journalist for the “typical” story. At the time, the average kid caught by border patrols was 15 and three in four were boys. The number of girls now has gone up, but then it was three in four were boys. And so, that's what I was looking for, and the kid coming on trains for his mom. I liked him. When I talked to him on the telephone, he was in a church in Nuevo Laredo. Most of the kids were coming that route at that point. He was willing. And he had had many of the experiences of almost being killed on top of the trains that I had heard about with these kids. When I reached him in Nuevo Laredo, I changed my mind because I realized that he was a glue sniffer. I was also concerned he was a little older than I wanted.
So, I started searching for more angelic child because I figured that's what people could relate to. The problem was, that all these kids coming through that city, I met 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds traveling alone, but they had all been robbed of their phone number of the person they were going to find in the United States, their moms or their dads. And they hadn't thought to memorize any telephone back home in Honduras or El Salvador or Guatemala because they just didn't use telephones that much. Enrique remembered one number, so he had the possibility of going on to his mom. And I think at a certain point, out of desperation, I reconsidered. And my boss at the Los Angeles Times said, “You know why is he a glue sniffer?” And I said, “Well, you know a lot of these kids to fill that void of not having their mom there, to numb that pain, they turn to drugs.” And he said, “Go with this kid. The best characters of literature are not perfect little angels, they're all deeply flawed and that's because we can't identify with someone who's perfect. Go with this kid.”
I think, overall, it's been a good choice because I think when I go to Louisiana or North Carolina or Indiana, places where there is fair amount of hostility towards immigrants, they say I didn't pick a perfect migrant. Sometimes I'm conflicted. I was in Kansas City recently at a college and there was a girl there in college who, this was her story and she had done very well. All those travails had led to enormous resiliency and she was doing well in college and probably going on to a great career. And she got in my face and said, “Why didn't you pick somebody like me?” The truth is that a lot of them do have troubles because if you have that many traumas in your life, you're going to have issues as a result. And his story has continued to say so much about what migrants are going through—the fact that he was apprehended and almost deported away from his U.S. born son. There are 70,000 parents of U.S.-born children that are being deported every single year. I think, in many ways, his story is still telling us a lot about what migrants are facing.
Q: When you met him in 2000, you were about 40 and he was what, 17? How were you able to gain his trust and get him to share with you so many details about his life and journey?
SN: I think there were a couple of things that were key. One was that, unlike many journalists, I spend probably 10 minutes at the beginning of an interview saying, “Listen, this is what I want to do, this is why I think it's important to tell this story. When I talk to people in this country, they say ‘Well, they're just coming here to steal my job.’ And I want to explain to them: What is it that's driving you out of your country? It's more complicated than that. I want to explain to them what you go through getting here, that most people really don't understand and they think that by throwing up a wall they'll be able to stop you. And you know that's not true. And I want to explain to people who these immigrants are who live in their communities. What are their stories like?” Because we’re living in a time of great hostility towards immigrants since the Great Depression. I think I really go deep in explaining why am I telling this story. Why is it important to educate Americans about this issue?
And then the second thing was, he and other migrants could see that I was miserable in a lot of my reporting. I mean I would spend whole nights out on the Rio Grande with him and there were bandits out there and we were wet, and we were hungry. And when I was on top of the train, I didn't eat. I didn't have food or water because I didn't know if the migrants would have any. I basically had a red rain jacket strapped around my waist, a little black bag with a little bit of toilet paper. And that was it. Because I didn't want to be in a more privileged position than I was already in, in terms of being a reporter and being an American citizen. There were times when I did not go to the bathroom for 18 hours—you discover how long your bladder can go if you are on top of a hot piece of metal and drink no water. You know the guys could pee off the side of the train but I could not. I think they saw, and Enrique saw, that I went through at least some discomfort, if not suffering, to tell his story as best I could, to get close to what he was experiencing. I think he and the other migrants that I saw were really moved by that. You know, they don't see that very often.
Q: And how do you think now that his life has been changed as a result of being featured in this story that has been received so widely by people in this country?
SN: Honestly, I don't think in the U.S. his life has really changed very much as a result of this and that's because he's fairly separate from speaking about it and really being a part of the book at this point because he's using drugs. He's had moments since he's been here, times when he has not used drugs. Now is not one of those moments. His mother kicked him out of the house about six months ago and he's living with another woman who puts up with his drug use. He's no longer living with María Isabel. He very rarely sees his children and sometimes not at all. He's kind of living what he learned growing up. So he's living in his disease. And, unlike his mother, who has been very close to it. (Lourdes and I) talk all the time; we text all the time. She's actually come to a couple of colleges with me to speak to students about her experiences since it's her story. She's been very involved and I think she's very proud of what this book has done in educating people.
I think for him it had much less of an effect because of where he's at. I think it did as the book showed, it led to him seeing his sister again, but other than that, I think it's not had much of a direct effect on him. When he's not in his drugs, I think he enjoys ... I send him letters from students and I think he enjoys seeing, as his mother does, that the book has really helped educate a lot of people in this country. It's probably the most read book at this point about immigrants. So, I think he really appreciates that it has that effect.
Q: You reported the story with a support of a newspaper that was willing to give you protections and resources as you rode on top of trains and retraced his steps. I'm curious about your thoughts on whether this kind of reporting would be possible at a newspaper today.
SN: I think "Enrique's Journey" would not run today. It took two years at the LA Times. Then, I spent three years going back to Honduras, retracing the journey a second time without that support, and expanding it to a book. But two years and all that travel and expense. It was 33,000 words, I believe, that ran in the LA Times. That just doesn't happen today in any newspaper. At the time, it was, if not the longest, one of the longest stories that have run in the LA Times, and that was in the LA Times glory days when they did run these longer pieces. Some genius decided 15 years ago, 20 years ago, to give newspapers away for free on the Internet. Younger generations, that's basically where they get their news, without paying for it.
Unfortunately, the ads on the Internet pay about a tenth of what they pay in print. So, there just isn't enough revenue to pay for the number of reporters that places like the LA Times used to have. The LA Times has gone from about 1,400 people in editorial to about 500 today, and that's what's directly affecting the kind of news that we're getting, I think.
It's good that we've democratized news through the Internet and that you don't have those same gatekeepers that you had before. But the downside has been that there's just not enough money to pay for people like me to go out and do these kinds of stories that I think are very well-received by the public. This ran every other day in the newspaper, and the days that it didn't run, I would get these panic calls at 3 a.m. on my voicemail, saying, “I ran out to the newspaper stand, or to the newspaper box and there's no new segment. What happened? Why don't you have the next segment in there?” I mean, that's what you want to get: People who are eager to educate themselves about some of the biggest issues of our time.
Q: How then will we tell stories like Enrique's story in the future? How will these people whose voices aren't being heard, how will their stories be told?
SN: I think people who are today at college need to increasingly realize the worth of that. I hope the pendulum will swing back and they will pay a dollar a month like people do to NPR, for example, to sustain news organizations that produce this kind of reporting. And if not, we're going to get the kind of reporting that we get now which is very too often superficial, too often does not delve deeply into these big social issues.
I feel like I'm being barraged by this stream of information on all of my devices and on TV. And it's very hard to kind of unwind, “Well, what's really wrong with our educational system? How do we really fix this immigration dilemma? How do we fix welfare? Is government really working, or is it not working?” Some of these very big questions. You need people who are able to spend the time to tease out what's working, and what's not working. And I think, so far, the only business model that's worked is for people to directly support that. I think if this generation wants that kind of reporting rather than just a lot of the junk that we're getting now, spewed at us … There's very little original reporting going on. No one's going out there turning over rocks and saying, “Okay, let me go to a Honduras to see how we're spending $750 million this year in Central America. Is that well spent? Is it poorly spent? Is it doing anything?” You need people who are capable and able and funded to do that. My hope is that young people will realize that and start directly supporting some of these news organizations by paying for their news. There's a radical concept. When they go to the University of New Orleans, they don't get that education for free. They pay for that service. So most things that are worthwhile, you have to pay for.
Q: After a student at the University of New Orleans reads this book and feels like they want to do something here in New Orleans, Louisiana, what is possible for them?
SN: Well, my hope is that the University will put together a list of the many Latino or immigrant organizations in Louisiana or New Orleans that students could go do direct work with. I've seen other universities put together a list and say, “You say you want to do something, here's a list of places and here are telephone numbers where you can go and volunteer.” If they want to help more in Mexico as migrants are coming here, I have on my website a whole “How to Help” section where you can reach out to Olga Sánchez Martínez, who had this shelter for people mutilated by trains. Now she has another shelter for people who are women and children who are refugees. I just put on there a video from her. She's trying to come up with musical instruments because she wants donations of musical instruments because she wants to have music therapy for children who are traumatized by everything they've been through in their home countries, refugee children, so she wants to have an orchestra of refugee children.
I've got about 10 instruments in my garage, guitars, saxophones, trumpets that people have donated to me that I'm going to put in a container and ship south to her. So, just with her, there are three or four things that you could do. There are students who have volunteered their spring break to go and help her that has shipped her medical supplies, who have raised money for her. I give many suggestions in Mexico and I also have many groups that are helping in Honduras that I suggest, too.
There's no lack of things that students can do. I think they have to realize: What is their commitment to it? And do they prefer to work one-on-one with the family in New Orleans? Or do they prefer to try to address some of the issues of kids as they're migrating? Or do they prefer to address the root causes of this migration? And I have suggestions for all of that on the How to Help section on my website.
There's no excuse for not doing anything.
Q: Is there anything else that you want to say to the university community that is
reading your book now?
SN: I think Louisiana is one of the few states that, in recent years, has seen an actual influx of unlawful migrants. It's gone from about 35,000 in 2007 to more than 65,000 now. With Hurricane Katrina, many Hondurans came in to work in construction. This has really produced a lot of very spirited discussions in Louisiana. My hope is that people will try to at least see the other side, both from the left and the right, and try to put themselves in the shoes of the migrants to see, “What would I do if I were in the circumstances of a mother like Lourdes or a child like Enrique or like some of the refugee children that are coming now.” I think that's my greatest hope. There's so much turmoil about this issue right now in Louisiana, probably more than most of the states. I hope that students will try to at least put themselves for a moment in these migrants’ shoes and say, “What would I do if I were in their place?” That doesn't mean you agree with someone coming here unlawfully, that doesn't mean that you think it's all positive. But, “What would I do?” And I think that's a good place to start.