Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist Sonia Nazario has written about social issues for 20 years. In 2006, her book describing a Honduran child's struggle to reach his mother in the U.S., entitled "Enrique's Journey," became a national best seller.
This year, the UW chose "Enrique's Journey" for the university's Go Big Read program.
Nazario spoke with the Daily Cardinal about her experience escaping gangsters atop freight trains when tracing the unpredictable journey thousands of young immigrants make to the U.S. each year.
THE DAILY CARDINAL: Can you tell me some of the difficulties you faced while working on the book?
NAZARIO: The first difficulty was that I thought I'd start with a boy in Central America and follow him through Mexico, but I realized that was not possible. There were too many people trying to kill this kid along the way-bandits, gangsters, etc.-so there was no way that I could stick with one kid if he was running from all these different actors. I decided to find a boy who had made it to northern Mexico...hoping he would make it on to his mom in the U.S., and then reconstruct his journey.
I felt like I needed to make the train ride myself to see a lot of those details. I traveled about 1,600 miles and about half of that on top of freight trains. That involved a lot of challenges: Not getting raped; not getting swept off the train by a branch. I had a gangster try to grab me and I had to try to get away from him and leap forward three cars, [where] I begged the conductor to save me from this guy.
DC: Do you think your experience on the train was authentic in replicating Enrique's?
N: I had six guys with AK-47s [guarding me through Chiapas]. I could still see the gangsters knifing people and robbing them on top of my train, but when they would get too close, the guys with me would fire off rounds into the air warning them to not get
I think it was authentic because I had a real sense of how difficult it was. I returned to my home in Los Angeles with a slight case of Post Traumatic Stress. That said, when the train stopped I would get off and I would pull out my credit card, have a few tacos and go to sleep in a real bed. I think my experiences were authentic enough...that it allowed me to write about this in a different way.
DC: Why did you decide to use Enrique?
N: [At first] I was worried that [Enrique] was a little too old-he was 17 [and] he started his journey when he was 16. I decided I'll focus on him, but I'll keep searching for my ideal 15-year-old. Then I...realized [Enrique] was a glue-sniffer, and that bothered me because I thought readers would want someone they could empathize with more
than an older glue-sniffer. [After a couple weeks], I called my editor...and he said, ‘The best characters in literature are not perfect little angels. They're deeply flawed characters because we can't identify with someone who's perfect.' It was at that point that I went with Enrique and...it was a good choice.
DC: I read that you were inspired to write this story by your maid who was separated from her son after immigrating to the U.S. How so?
N: Carmen came to clean my house twice a month. She had said to me one morning in the kitchen, ‘You seem like a nice person...but it is very unacceptable as a Latina not to have children. ...When are you going to have children?' I didn't want to answer so I said, ‘What about you Carmen, are you thinking about having any more children?' She just started crying in my kitchen and she explained that she had left four children behind in Guatemala. She explained to me that she had come north to work and left them with her grandma, and how she hadn't seen her children in 12 years.
It struck me, first of all as a journalist, as an incredible story-this odyssey that these kids make on top of freight trains to come in search of their mothers. But also a very important story...about what is pushing people out of their home country.
DC: What do you think the best approach for these women is, who are looking to provide a better life for their family, but don't want to damage them by leaving?
N: I insisted that the book be simultaneously published in Spanish because I wanted Latinas to understand...that there were big costs [of leaving their children behind]. In terms of the question, what choice should they make, I can't answer that question after a decade of looking at this.
I had heard stories in high school...that the worst thing these kids can do to get back at their mothers for leaving them, is for the girls to have an affair with the mother's [new husband]. I saw [Carmen] two years ago in Iowa: [she] had just learned...that her oldest daughter had had an affair with [her new] husband. [She said], ‘If I knew then what I know now, I would have never left them; this is destroying my family.' I know how the story ends, but I've never been standing in Honduras with hungry children and nothing to give them.
DC: How are you hoping this book impacts students who read it?
N: I think many people are highly sympathetic [toward illegal immigrants], but I think there's also enormous hostility. I'm hoping that with both extremes, people can start to look at the other side of the issue.
I'm hoping that students will read this and it will take them inside one immigrant family and help them better understand the issues of what's pushing people out of their countries.
DC: How often do you speak with Enrique?
N: I speak with his mother maybe every couple of months, and I spent a night actually sleeping at their house a couple of weeks ago. I probably talk with him about once a year because I think he doesn't want to hear my lecture about drugs. He made himself scarce the night I was there.
DC: I read Enrique is struggling with drugs again. Is this information still accurate?
N: Yes. During my lecture I'll explain that there is very good news about Enrique and very bad news about Enrique as well. He's still mired in drugs, but the good news I'll save for later.