In 2000, Sonia Nazario, a seasoned news reporter for the Los Angeles Times, had been in contention for a Pulitzer Prize but had never won. But she had no idea that her next big story, the one that would finally earn her the coveted award, was as close as her morning coffee.
“I was in my kitchen one morning with Carmen, the woman who cleans my house,” Nazario recalled. “I knew she had one child, and I asked her if she had any other children. She just started sobbing, telling me she left four children behind in Guatemala.”
That story led Nazario on a perilous journey of discovery, stretching thousands of miles and leading to a six-part, 33,000 word piece in the Los Angeles Times that would earn her a coveted Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2003. She detailed the practice of Latin American mothers leaving their children and coming to the U.S. in hopes of creating a better life, then sending for their children. Nazario faced danger and death as she recreated the travels of Enrique, a young Honduran boy in search of a mother who had left him and his sister to work in the U.S.
The author recounts both her and Enrique’s troubles in her book, “Enrique’s Journey,” which was selected by MSU and East Lansing for this year’s One Book, One Community program. The community reading program, now in its 15th year, selects an author or authors who reflect a specific theme. This year’s theme is “Faces of Migration: the Human Face”.
The selection committee couldn’t have known when they decided on the book earlier this year that refugees and immigration would become some of the most contentious topics of the 2016 presidential election cycle or that “build that wall” would become a rallying cry for Republican nominee Donald Trump and his supporters.
But readers of “Enrique’s Journey” quickly discover that immigration is a complex issue. Single mothers leaving their families — and the children left behind leaving to find their mothers— is commonplace in Central America. The drug business that has taken hold in the region brought with it violence, rape and death, and families are desperate to escape.
As Nazario details in “Enrique’s Journey,” the children left behind face violent drug gangs, extortion and a life of crime and brutality. It also becomes increasingly obvious that much of this horror is directly related to U.S. drug policy.
Nazario wanted to put a human face on the issue. She settled on the story of Enrique and his eight attempts to find his mother. It is an anguishing story that Nazario retraced with a photographer. (The photographer, Don Bartletti, also won a Pulitzer for documenting the journey.) Nazario followed Enrique’s path as closely as she could, including riding “the beast” — the train — by sitting or lying on top of the train’s roof. One of those trips came close to killing her.
“I was riding on the top of a train when a branch almost knocked me off,” she said. “The branch swiped a kid off behind me.”
Her journeys added up to 1,600 miles and took over three months. She also reconstructed scenes that Enrique had told her about in interviews. Nazario said the story probably couldn’t be written today, referring to the decline of the American publishing industry.
“It cost too much and took too long,” she said.
Nazario said today’s immigrants risk the dangers of illegal immigration because the conditions where they live are much worse.
“More often than not, it is children fleeing the most dangerous situations,” she said. “If they are sent back, they will be killed.”
Today, Nazario uses her book to foster intelligent discussion on immigration policy. Since its publication in 2014, “Enrique’s Journey” has been selected by 87 universities and 20 cities for community reading programs.
“It’s rare for a university and a city to jointly select a book,” she said of the One Book, One Community program.
While in East Lansing, Nazario, will address incoming students and talk with students in MSU’s College of Law with the hopes of recruiting lawyers for Kids in Need of Defense, which provides lawyers for children who are facing deportation. The organization’s goal is to avoid situations where children have to stand in front of judge without representation, knowing they face extreme danger or death back home.
As for Trump’s proposed solution, Nazario cautions that there are no quick fixes.
“Walls don’t work,” she said. “Smugglers will find ways to go around.”
One Book, One Community events Kick-off
7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28 FREE Hannah Community Center 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing
MSU Academic Welcome
9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 29 FREE Breslin Student Events Center 534 Birch Road, East Lansing