Sonia Nazario on Riding the Rails to Retrace the Steps of One Illegal Immigrant

The 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner recounts the long, harrowing journey her protagonist took to reach the U.S. - and her own dangerous voyages to understand his experience first-hand.

Sonia Nazario
Sonia Nazario (left)

Sonia Nazario has been a reporter at the Los Angeles Times since 1993. She was the recipient of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for a series detailing, through the story of one child migrant, the harrowing journey that some young people take to reach America where their mothers have been working illegally for years. Spending over three months retracing the steps of her protagonist, Enrique, Nazario rode on the top of freight trains, hitchhiked, and tried to see first hand the hardships encountered by thousands of immigrants every year. The articles have now been expanded into a book, Enrique’s Journey, which has gained wide acclaim as an exemplary piece of long-form narrative non-fiction.

Gal Beckerman: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the process of putting the articles and then the book together. How did you decide to choose Enrique as the best way to tell this story? Did you conduct long interviews with him? How did it work?

Sonia Nazario: I originally got the idea from my housecleaner who would come twice a month to clean. I had asked her one morning whether she’d like to have more children and she suddenly started crying, talking about these four children she had left behind in Guatemala. She was a single mother. She couldn’t feed them more than once or twice a day. She could no longer stand their cries of hunger at night. So she left them with her grandparents in Guatemala to come to the U.S. And she hadn’t seen them in twelve years. And I couldn’t understand how a mother could travel 2,000 miles away, not knowing when or if she would see their children again. A year later, her son came up on his own to find her. He said he had hitchhiked on buses but that there was a more dangerous way that thousands of children were taking, coming on freight trains through Mexico. This struck me as an incredible story.

I soon discovered that it was also a very common story. Four in five live-in nannies have left children behind. There are more than 48,000 children that enter the U.S. alone without parents. I wanted to tell it through one mother, one boy, one train ride. Initially I thought I would start in Central America and follow one boy on his voyage north. I had done some research at detention centers that the border patrols used in Texas, and I realized there was no way to stay with one child who was running from all these bad people who were trying to rob and kill him. I couldn’t keep up with a fifteen-year-old boy. If I wanted to do the journey myself it was already incredibly dangerous. I could create some safety nets by reconstructing and doing the journey in pieces. I remember the head of the detention center telling me “these children don’t know what they’re getting into, but you fully know the dangers. You would only be doing this out of sheer stupidity.”

I decided to try and find a child in northern Mexico. The typical boy that the border patrol catches entering alone is a fifteen-year-old boy. So I started calling a dozen shelters and churches on the Mexican side of the border. And I said I was looking for a boy who had come up on a freight train looking to find his mother. Soon I reached this church in northern Laredo and the nun there handed the phone to Enrique. He was a little older than what I had wanted. He was 17. He had started his journey when he was 16. But his experiences were typical.

He had nearly been beaten to death by the gangsters who control the train tops. He had traveled 122 days and he had made eight [separate] attempts to reach his mother — the typical harrowing journey these children make. I spent time with him in Nuevo Laredo. I hoped he might make it to his destination. I talked to him about everything he had been through in his eight attempts. And then I went to Honduras and I did the journey step by step, exactly as he had done it a few weeks before. I traveled on buses when he traveled on buses through Central America. And in southern Mexico, in Chiapas, he got on top of the freight trains and I got on top of the freight trains at the same place. I traveled more than 1,600 miles, half of that on top of seven freight trains, up the length of two-thirds of Mexico. And then he gets down and he hitchhikes on an 18-wheeler to get to the U.S.-Mexico border. I hitchhiked from the same place. I really wanted to understand in-depth what he had been through and he had seen. And this allowed me to go back to him with these incredible details from riding the trains with other children and ask him, yes or no, did this happen to you.

GB: Did it enhance your sense of his own experience?

SN: Tremendously. Just understanding the dangers in a very visceral, personal way. My first night on a freight train in southern Mexico, they had warned me about these branches that envelope the top of the trains. It was pitch dark, middle of the night, and suddenly the migrants near the locomotive yelled back the warning that there was a branch. And the train was so incredibly loud and I couldn’t hear what they were saying. A huge branch hit me in the face and sent me nearly sprawling off the top of the car. I was able to grab a guardrail and pull myself back up. The next day, these migrants on the car behind said that a Honduran teenager had been swiped off by the same branch and they weren’t sure whether he was alive or not because when the train moves forward it produces this sucking wind that pulls you into the churning wheel as you fall.

I spent three months taking his journey for the articles. I retraced his steps again over three months for the book. And when I returned from that second trip I had this recurring nightmare that a gangster was running after me on top of the trains, trying to rape me, and I had to go into therapy to try and deal with that.

What struck me most is that I felt like I was at my breaking point at the end of each train ride. But I would get off of a train and go to a motel and sleep in a bed and eat a warm meal. And Enrique and these other children spend months trying to claw their way north, sleeping out in the elements, by the rails, sleeping in trees to protect them from the animals. Enrique spent two days without drinking water until he felt like his throat was swelling shut. These kids would sometime not eat food for up to five days and then fall off the train from hunger. It just gave me a glimmer. And as I was writing, I could write in a more powerful way what these kids go through to reach their mothers in America.

GB: It seems very rare that a newspaper would allow you to spend this time to really get to live this story in the way you did. Do you think newspapers do enough of these types of stories, stepping away from breaking news to report on lived experience?

SN: Well the Los Angeles Times gave me two years to do this series. It was a 34,000-word series. I think they recognize that this is an important story. The face of those who are coming to America has changed. Many of these migrants now coming to America are single mothers and it’s important to understand how these five- and ten-year-long separations affect these mothers, and then the children who come looking for them. So for a place like Los Angeles, this is a very important story. Of course I could have told it in 20 inches, interviewing people for one week. But I believe that these narratives where you take people for a ride — I took people on top of that freight train so they could feel the terror and the joy he felt at times, the cold and the hunger — that grips readers in a way that a 20-inch story often can’t. I think this is what will save newspapers. To write stories, not articles, stories.

GB: In light of that, I’m curious what you think about the coverage of the recent immigration debates and the protests.

SN: I’d say too much of the coverage has been too simplistic. This is an issue with a lot of shades of gray. While coming here obviously has benefits for these migrants and their children when they are able to send money back, there is also a huge cost at the end of the road where these kids often end up with huge resentments against their mothers for leaving them for so long.

People are debating the Congressional measures that either focus on greater enforcement or some sort of earned amnesty or temporary worker program as a way of reducing immigration. And yet those have both been tried historically and the evidence is that they have only led to greater numbers attempting to enter the States. I saw in a very visceral way, when you see the desperation people are trying to flee in Central America and you see the incredible determination of people to get through Mexico and get to the U.S. … I mean I met a Honduran teenager who had tried 27 times to enter the U.S, had just been robbed by bandits on the road who put a machete to his throat and a girl in his party had been gang-raped by bandits. He said, “Today Mexico will deport me. Tomorrow I will make attempt 28 to see my mother in the U.S.” When you see those things up close, you realize that the only thing that will slow this flow — and it’s huge, 850,000 people a year — is focusing on the economies of these handful of countries, focusing on the poverty that is at its source. That’s what I’ve been trying to emphasize, that all this noise out of Washington about various measures will likely not have an effect on slowing immigration.

The debate is also still too focused on that it is men [who are] coming. And the news media still shows those three men hopping a fence. A study just came out by the Pew Hispanic Center that 51 percent of the 12 million in the country illegally today are women and children. [Emphasis added.] So in a lot of ways the debate does not reflect the face of who is a migrant to America today. It shows those same three guys hopping over the fence.

GB: Do you think there is a way to do coverage of immigration differently? Is there something about your work on this project that has made you think that there is a way we could be doing it more completely?

SN: I’d say that sometimes I’ve been bothered by the PC aspect of the coverage. I think there’s a way to convey in a very heartfelt and strong way why people come and what they are fleeing, and the desperation, but there are other angles of the story as well. There are many people who benefit from illegal immigration — employers who get compliant workers, and obviously the migrants themselves. But those who are most hurt by this exodus to the U.S. are the one-in-14 workers in the U.S. who have no high school degree, and their wages have declined, according to a Harvard study, 8 percent over the last 20 years because of the competition with these immigrants for some of these jobs. It is a more complex picture in terms of the benefits and the costs involved, and sometimes it strikes me that people come to the story with too much of an agenda, either on one side or the other, and that it’s just more complex than that.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.