With recent promises of immigration reform coming from Washington, L.A. Times journalist Sonia Nazario’s book signing at a church in the Mission District reminded listeners Friday night of the risks that immigrants endure to get to El Norte.
Nazario’s Pulitzer Prize winning Enrique’s Journey, which was made into an HBO movie this year, follows a young man as he leaves Honduras to find his mother in the United States.
Her goal in writing Enrique’s Journey, she said under the dim lights of the Episcopal Church of St. John, was to humanize immigrants.
But first, she had to answer the question— how so many Latina mothers could make the choice to leave their children–a choice many of the undocumented women in the United States have made.
Nazario explored the question in 2000 by following Enrique, a 17-year-old boy who last saw his mother, Lourdes, when he was 6-years-old. Before she left, she promised to be back in Honduras soon, said Nazario.
What her son didn’t know was that his mother was unable to feed him from her earnings as a street vendor. At the time she left for El Norte, Honduras had an unemployment rate of 30 percent and half the population lived below the poverty line.
But life in the United States turned out much harder than advertised. Back home, there was equal heartbreak and bitterness as Enrique waited and prayed for his mother’s return. Finally, he decided to find her, and began a journey that took him thousands of miles through Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States.
Often, he rode atop freight trains, carrying only a scrap of paper with his mother’s phone number. It took him several months and multiple attempts to reach the United States.
On her parallel journey, Nazario found a migrant as young as seven-years-old making the journey north. At that time, 100,000 children a year were heading north by freight train, the majority in search of a parent, she said.
In her travels, Nazario said she met a boy who tried to cross the Mexican border from Guatemala 27 times. Enrique made eight attempts in 120 days.
“I had no idea people could be this determined,” Nazario said. “I couldn’t fathom what these kids would do to arrive in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco.”
Nazario, in her early forties at the time of her journey, spent three months riding the rails for 1,600 miles, following Enrique’s path, from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Though she only met Enrique in Nuevo Laredo, after he had already made much of his journey, she recreated his experiences through his stories and through her time on trains with other teenage migrants on the same route.
Nazario learned that Enrique, like many migrants, slept in sewage culverts to stay safe. Bandits, corrupt border police, and animals were a constant threat. He went two days without water at one point. Desperate for liquid, Enrique and the other the small migrants scooped water from the sewer with their hands, filtered it through their t-shirts, and then consumed it.
In areas with dense foliage, like Chiapas, boys called out rama or “branch” to avoid getting swept off the train tops by a tree branch. In one instance, a branch smacked Nazario in the face and almost threw her off, but she was able to grab onto the side of the train. That same branch later knocked one teenage boy off the train.
Nazario said one in six trains derail and many tip over, crushing migrants to death under the train’s weight. In the south, the rails warp under the heat. In the north, people freeze to death. But everywhere, migrants lose their grip and get pulled under by the trains, with many losing limbs.
Migrants refer to the trains with names like the train of death, the beast, or the train that devours.
In southern Mexico, Mara Salvatrucha gangs control the trains, walking from car to car demanding money or a passenger’s life, said Nazario. In her book, Nazario rote, gangs broke Enrique’s teeth after slamming his face in the top of the train and strangling him with his own clothing. He jumped off the moving train to save himself.
After he gained consciousness, a group of women found him lying by the train tracks, gave him money, and begged him to return home. He told them he couldn’t—he had to go to the United States to find his mother.
Although harrowing, Nazario described her experience as only an iota of what migrant youth go through, but after returning to her home in Los Angeles, she said, she was haunted by nightmares of a gangster chasing her down a freight train to rape her. It took six months of therapy to free her mind of that image.
Most migrant children say they would rather have their mom by their sides and go hungry than live without her—even if she sends home Nike shoes, soccer balls, and enough money for food, said Nazario.
“These kids are tough on their moms,” she said. Migrant mothers want to give their children a better life, but sometimes it costs them the love of their children.
Today, 26 year old Enrique lives in Florida and visits his mother’s house every day for a cup of coffee. Nazario said their relationship has had its up and downs, compounded by Enrique’s childhood addiction to sniffing glue and his recurring resentment of his mother for leaving him behind.
“Most immigrants would rather stay at home,” said Nazario. “If they could feed their kids, put clothes on their backs, and send them to school, they wouldn’t leave.”