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.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.