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Acclaimed reporter shares lessons from Pulitzer-winning story

Sonia Nazario visited Elon University on Sept. 29 for a lecture on her travels with a Honduran boy searching for his mother in North Carolina.

Sonia Nazario spoke with students in a literary journalism course prior to her Sept. 29 evening lecture at Elon University to discuss her Pulitzer Prize-winning work for the Los Angeles Times.

By Caitlin O’Donnell '13

A simple conversation in the kitchen was the starting point. The conclusion would come many months and many more miles later with a level of personal reflection and professional accomplishment that Sonia Nazario did not anticipate.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter and author addressed a packed McCrary Theatre Thursday night, tracing her experiences writing Enrique’s Journey. Originally published as a Times series before expansion into a book, the work tells the story of a young Honduran boy’s attempts to reunite with his mother, within the larger context of the problems of immigration.

The journey was born from an interaction between Nazario and her housekeeper, Carmen, who left four children in her home country of Guatemala to find work in the United States.

“I remember standing there and being stunned by what she was telling me,” Nazario said. “I could not understand how a mom leaves her kids. What kind of desperation would it take for a mom to walk away and go 2,000 miles north?”

That simple question would take Nazario on a dangerous, disheartening and, at times, poignant journey into the experiences of people like Carmen, whose story is a common reality for Latin American women. Nazario said that women now form the largest wave of immigration in the nation’s history, a trend that she described as having an even more devastating effect on children.

“Every single (woman) said they left their child with a promise, they told them ‘I’ll be back in one or two years, at the most,’” she said. “Life in the United States is much tougher than advertised. The women all said their separation stretched into five, 10 years or even more.”

Nazario found Enrique in northern Mexico, on his eighth attempt to make it across the border to reunite with his mother. At the time, he was sleeping on the muddy banks of the Rio Grande and barely eating.

Enrique was five when his mother left him while she trekked to the United States. By 11, he prayed on Christmas morning only for God to bring his mother home. By his early adolescent years, he was a lonely and troubled teenager. And after a total of 11 years of separation, he joined the more than 100,000 other children on the quest of finding their mother.

It’s a 1,600 mile journey rife with perilous rides on top of freight trains, corrupt police officers and threatening gangs – and one that Nazario experienced twice in her attempt to humanize immigrants and their quest for a better life in the United States.

“I wanted to show what dangers these kids face,” Nazario said. “I wanted to take readers on top of these trains, there’s a whole world that unfolds (there).”

After a few weeks tagging along with Enrique and learning more about his experiences and struggles, Nazario went back to the beginning and completed his journey step-by-step, half of that time spent atop seven freight trains traveling two-thirds the length of Mexico.

In her presentation at Elon, she shared tales of interviewing children with lost limbs because of failed attempts to jump on or off a train. Others filtered sewage water through T-shirts to quench their thirst.

“I couldn’t fathom the kind of determination these migrants have, incredible determination,” she said. “All of this was nothing compared with the yearning to be with (their) mother again.

But, amidst the darkness, there were glimmers of hope as well. There was elderly Maria, who prepared bags of food for her daughter to then throw to the starving travelers atop the train. There was also Francisca, who shared her tiny home for the night with migrants she had just met that day.

“I’ve written about immigrants for two decades, but there were some things I didn’t get about this issue until this journey,” Nazario said. “There is incredible desperation driving people out of places like Honduras.”

But Nazario’s own stereotypes were broken as well.

“I think Carmen could hear the tone in my voice, what I was feeling and thinking but not spitting out – what kind of lousy mother leaves her children?” Nazario said. “I came to understand her decision and a lot of these women’s decisions better when I saw the consequences for the children of mother’s who decided to stay.”

An unyielding determination is often the driving force – a factor many Americans fail to grasp, but stunned Nazario in her experiences.

“A boy lost his leg three weeks before, the wound was barely healed and he got back on the train to continue the journey,” she said. “When (the United States) talks about building 700-mile long walls, we don’t understand this kind of determination. If you build a 20-foot wall, people will find a 21-foot ladder to get over it.

"My hope in writing this was to humanize immigrants,” Nazario said as she noted the recent increase in undocumented citizens in the state of North Carolina. “I think when we see that rapid change, it’s easier to demonize then to try to understand them.”

Nazario has spent two decades writing and reporting, with a focus on social issues. Her visit to Elon University also included a visit with students in HNR 272: Literary Journalism, taught by professors Tom Mould and Brooke Barnett.

Eric Townsend,
9/30/2011 12:53 PM