Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sonia Nazario Brings “Enrique’s Journey” to Life


After seven previous attempts, 17-year-old Enrique finally makes it from his home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, up the length of Central America into southern Mexico, then across Mexico to the Rio Grande and over into the United States to reunite with the mother who left him behind 12 years before to live and work in the U.S. What’s more, Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario hears of Enrique’s story and decides the only way she can tell it is if she goes to Central America and duplicates Enrique’s hazardous journey, crossing through Mexico on the tops or sides of freight trains and taking the same risks he did.

The dangers include being thrown off the train and crushed under its wheels, running into bandits or police and being robbed (in the interior of Mexico, all too often police and bandits behave pretty much the same way), being deported by Mexican immigration police, being turned in by Mexican citizens who have the same jaundiced and sometimes racist attitudes towards Central American immigrants that people on this side of the border have about Mexicans, and a risk Nazario, as a woman, had to worry about more than Enrique did: rape. The stories of both journeys sound like a film script — and, indeed, Enrique’s Journey, the book Nazario wrote about Enrique’s trip and her own, is being filmed as a six-part miniseries by HBO — but it’s a true story, and one which at once highlights the nuances of the immigration issue and puts a human face on it.

Nazario spoke at the San Diego Public Library February 12 and recalled how she stumbled on Enrique’s story and ended up writing first a series in the Los Angeles Times and then a book, Enrique’s Journey. “I was 37, had been married six years, and my housekeeper, Carmen, was perplexed about whether and when I was going to have a baby. I really did not want to answer her question. I wanted to deflect, and I asked her if she was planning to have more kids. She went silent and started sobbing. She said she had four children she had left behind in Guatemala, where she could only feed them once a day. She had left them with their grandmother and had not seen them in 12 years. The youngest had been only one year old.”

Nazario said she wondered how a mother could possibly leave four children behind to come to a strange country, and what she herself would do in a similar situation. “That started me on a journey to Central America and back along the immigration routes,” she recalled. “Carmen’s choice seemed terrible to me, but it’s incredibly common. In Los Angeles four out of every five immigrant nannies has a child left behind. We know these women in San Diego as well.” Nazario explained that, contrary to the common impression that most undocumented immigrants are men, over half the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today are women or children.

“We’re experiencing the largest wave of immigration in our nation’s history,” Nazario said. “One million immigrants enter the country legally every year and another 850,000 come in illegally. One out of every four immigrants lives in California. In our public schools one out of every four children are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.”

According to Nazario, most of the women who left their children behind in Central America to cross Mexico and enter the U.S. don’t expect to be gone longer than a year or two. “But they find out life in the U.S. is a lot harder than advertised,” she explained. “A lot of these separations drag out five years or more, and a lot of those kids decide, ‘If Mom isn’t going to come back for me, I’m going to see her.’ So there’s this small array of kids from Central America, three out of four of whom are looking for a parent.”

The story of Enrique, her book’s protagonist, is all too typical. “Enrique’s mother left when he was five, and at first he’s just bewildered by her absence and begs people, ‘When is she coming back?’,” Nazario explained. “At 11 or 12 he waits by the door of his grandmother’s shack and prays that she’ll come back. After that he decides to set out and find her, with the question, ‘Does she love me?,’ on his mind. All he has to guide him is a scrap of paper with her phone number in his pocket. In Texas, at the Border Patrol detention centers, they’ll often have this piece of paper wrapped in plastic, and it’s all they’re carrying on them.”

Nazario’s estimate is that about 48,000 children attempt this hazardous journey from Central America through Mexico and into the U.S. each year. While Enrique was 17 when he finally made it — after seven previous tries — most of them are younger, sometimes as young as seven. “I traveled with a 12-year-old boy,” Nazario recalled. “It’s an amazing adventure but also harrowing beyond belief. Most of them don’t make it. They’re returned to their countries of origin, or they’re crushed by the trains, or ambushed by Mexican bandits or corrupt cops. The migrants talk about the trains as if they were living beings.”

They talk about other things as if they were living beings, too. Among them is the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, which the migrants call La Bestia — “The Beast.” “There are gangsters who prowl the tops of the trains in gangs of 10 to 20, armed with machetes, wooden bats and guns, and hopped up on crack,” Nazario said. “They’ll strip you of your clothes and rob you of the few coins you have, beat you and sometimes throw you down to the ground below.” In her book, Nazario explained that on some of his earlier attempts to make the journey through Mexico, Enrique had had friends in the Mara Salvatrucha (“M.S.”) gang, based in El Salvador, but once he refused to kill another person at the command of his M.S. traveling companion, that protection was withdrawn.

At the library, Nazario vividly described what happened to Enrique on the train in Chiapas once the M.S. were no longer looking out for him. “ Enrique was beaten with a wooden club and lost three teeth,” she said. “They stripped him to his underwear and tried to strangle him. One of them said, ‘Throw him off the train,’ only one of the gangsters slipped and Enrique was able to escape by throwing him off the train. The next day the women of the town surrounded him, gave him coins and tried to get him to go home.”

Not everyone the migrants encounter on their journey are out to rob, beat, rape or kill them. While Nazario described Chiapas as the most hostile place for the migrants — once they’re out of that state, even though they’re only a third of the way towards their destination, they figure the worst is over — she identified the state of Vera Cruz as the part of Mexico where they’re treated most kindly. “When the trains have to slow down, there are people who meet them with food and water,” Nazario said. “Those are the poorest Mexicans, who make only $1 to $2 per day. The poorest Mexicans give to these strangers from other countries they’ll never see again. They’ve seen them fall off the trains or die from hunger, and they think it’s the Christian thing to help them.”

Sonia’s Journey

Most reporters, confronted with a story as moving and laden with human interest as Enrique’s, would have been content to interview him, maybe call up a few Mexican officials through the consulate in L.A., collect a few statistics about immigration, and write from that. Not Sonia Nazario. She came to the conclusion that the only way she could really understand Enrique’s story and communicate it effectively to her readers was to take the same journey he had, traversing Mexico from south to north on the tops and sides of trains. In fact, she took two trips, each three months long, though only the first trip was train-bound.

“You would see 300 to 400 people on the trains,” she recalled. “The conductors say the train looks like a beehive and joke, ‘When we see the president of El Salvador on a train we’ll know the whole country has emptied out.’”

Of course, Nazario had some advantages the Central American immigrants did not. One was a letter from an assistant to the president of Mexico, which she called her Carte d’Oro (“golden letter”) and which did indeed keep her out of jail three times. Another was the fact that, even though she was riding on trains, she didn’t have to sleep outdoors the way the migrants do: she could check into a motel. Yet she also had one vulnerability the male migrants usually didn’t share: she was a woman traveling alone, and the bandits and corrupt cops who see the migrants as prey regard a woman traveling alone as fair game for rape.

“Women know they have an almost 100 percent chance of being raped,” Nazario said. For that reason, she added, most women migrants historically have avoided the trains and sought other means of travel through Mexico to the U.S. border. But when she took her second journey in 2003, there were more women desperate enough to come to the U.S. to take their chances on the train — and many of them were either pregnant or carrying babies with them.

“When I started this journey, I was judgmental,” Nazario admitted. “I thought, ‘What kind of mother walks away from her children?’ I understood Enrique’s mother’s decision better when I went to Honduras and saw what happens to the children whose mothers stay. They would hang out at the garbage dumps, and mothers and children would look for bits of tin and anything they could sell. Much of the garbage came from hospitals, and the stench was so oppressive I had to breathe through my nose.”

What Is To Be Done?

Nazario’s experience also made her understand better why so many Mexicans and Central Americans are immigrating to the United States — and why the policy prescriptions from the Right and Left alike won’t work to stop them. “People in this country don’t understand the gritty determination of these people to get to America,” she said. “I met a 17-year-old who had been robbed, and his girlfriend had been gang-raped. He told me, ‘Tomorrow the Mexican authorities will deport me, and the next day I will start on attempt number 28.’”

According to Nazario, media coverage and political debate on the immigration issue in the U.S. focuses on only three alternatives — “tougher border enforcement, guest-worker programs or amnesty” — all of which have been tried and have failed. The U.S. tried an official guest-worker program for farm laborers from 1942 to 1964, the bracero program, and it didn’t stem the tide of undocumented immigration. The U.S. tried an amnesty when Congress passed the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill in 1986 — and, as hard-line anti-immigrant activists are fond of pointing out, since then the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. was three million then and is 12 million now. In the 1990’s, the U.S. tried “Operation Gatekeeper” and other attempts to seal the border with fences, double fences, triple fences and a high-profile Border Patrol presence — and undocumented immigrants kept coming, often taking more hazardous routes through the desert and, according to immigrant advocate Enrique Morones, frequently dying of heat or thirst.

“You have to tackle this exodus at the source,” Nazario said. “You have to create jobs in Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. Rather than try to ignore our neighbors to the south, we need a new federal policy focused on jobs, including microloans and trade policy. Most migrants would rather stay at home with their families, language and culture than come to a totally foreign place like the U.S. The women tell me it wouldn’t take much to keep them at home, and we wouldn’t see the thousands of children in the U.S.”