Part I: The Women Who Migrate North
Migration in my blood
I have a lot of migration in my blood. My father's family fled Christian persecution in Syria. My father was born in Argentina. They went to Argentina. My mother, who is Jewish, left Poland before World War II to go to Argentina. And then both of my parents left Argentina where they had grown up to come to the United States.
And like the majority of immigrants, they were coming here in search of a better life, better opportunity. My father was a biochemist, and he wanted to do early genetic mapping. So, and I migrated growing up. I grew up both in Kansas and in Argentina. We went back and forth twice. So, I understand what it's like to migrate, to have a foot in two worlds, to feel like an outsider in both worlds. So, on many levels I understand migrants.
How it all began
It started with a conversation with Carmen, who was a woman who would clean my house a couple of times a month. Honestly, she was trying to figure out what was wrong with me because I had been married at the time seven years, Latina, and no children. And I seem like a perfectly nice person, but to her all of this added up to that there was some horrible monster lurking within.
And so finally one morning she popped the question, "Mrs. Sonia, ¿cuándo va tener un baby? When are you going to have a child?" I didn't want to answer so I asked her, "What about you?" and I thought she only had one young son. And when I asked her that question, she went silent and started sobbing in my kitchen. And she told me of these four children she had left behind in Guatemala.
She said, "I'm a single mother. My husband, he left me for another woman, and most days I could feed my children once, sometimes twice, but at night they would start crying with hunger, and I had nothing to give them." And she showed me, I remember in my kitchen, how she would coax her kids to roll over in bed at night and say to them, "Sleep face down so that your stomach doesn't growl so much." She said she had left them in Guatemala with a grandmother, come to work in the United States, and she hadn't seen her children in 12 years.
And I was just stunned by this. I couldn't understand what level of desperation it would take for a mother to walk away from her children. And my housecleaner had no idea when or if she was ever going to see her children again. And what I learned was that her story was incredibly common, that there are millions of single mothers who have come to the United States, left children behind in their home countries thinking it would be a separation of one, two years.
Those separations stretch into five or 10 years typically because life here is a lot harder than they think it's going to be, and these children despair and set off to find their mothers after not seeing them for so long. And so that was the story I told of this modern-day odyssey these children go on to come in search of their mothers. And they're coming by the hundreds of thousands every year, children coming from Mexico, Central America without any parent by their side, entering the United States unlawfully.
Why women migrate alone
I've written about immigration for nearly three decades, and I always thought that migrants were predominantly men, but there's been growing family disintegration, divorce throughout Latin America, and that's really transformed the face of who's coming now to the United States. Really for the last couple of decades, there are more single mothers who are coming here and leaving children behind. And then those children coming to reunify with those mothers. And so today of the nearly 12 million people in the United States unlawfully, 51 percent are women and children, not men. So, there's been this huge change in who's coming here.
Importance of family for Latinos
Given these family separations, it's so incredible that these women are willing to leave their children. I think it says so much about the desperation these women face because family is everything in Latino culture. And it is all important. And the fact that these women will leave their children because they – and are willing to sever that bond temporarily to provide a better life for their kids, it tells you what these women are facing in these home countries.
Women like Enrique's mother, Lourdes, who had tried everything. She had sold tortillas home to home. She had washed people's laundry in a muddy river in the capital of Honduras. She had tried everything. And she knew, "I can't afford pencils for my child to go to school. I can't afford the uniform. They will be consigned to a life where they won't be able to eat three meals a day either. "
I think, you know, family bonds are – Latinos set aside every Sunday to get together with their families, no matter what. My family in Argentina, my cousins, every Sunday is a four-hour barbeque where you sit and you talk to your family. It's very different from the United States where we're a very transient society. We oftentimes value our careers over our families. We're willing to move for that advancement in our jobs.
My family in Argentina does not understand that. They believe that family is number one. And so to me the fact that these women are willing to move away from their children speaks volumes of the desperation that they really face and the longing that they have for those children to have a better life than they had.
Generosity in McAllen, Texas
I was in a church in McAllen, Texas a few weeks ago. The border patrol was releasing women and children. They didn't have enough room to detain all these women and children who were now arriving because there are unaccompanied children arriving in record numbers, but there are also women coming with younger children together with them who were arriving in record numbers. And they, after holding these women in what are called hieleras, they're very cold jail cells that the border patrol has, they don't feed you enough, there's no beds, so, these women were sleeping on concrete floors with their children, there was a three-day-old baby in these hieleras, and they would be released, no showers, dirty, and dropped off at the bus station in McAllen.
And these people in this Catholic church, Sacred Heart, started seeing these women there and bringing them back to the church. And they created this impromptu relief center. And donations started. Everyone in this town came together; the Jews, the Episcopalians, the Baptists, to help these women.
They went and stared down these people who were arriving from Houston and California with guns drawn at these women at the bus stations telling them "Go home, you're criminals, get out of here," and they protected these women and children and brought them back to this relief center, which is piled high with these tables with clothing and food that's been donated. And volunteers have come in from 28 different states by the thousands to help these women at this refugee, relief center.
There are showers out back. There are tents for them to sleep in. And people like this couple who drove with their 8- and 10-year-old sons from Pennsylvania, they piled a van up with donations and drove all the way to south Texas. And I saw these women come in that night and so traumatized by everything they've been through on this journey and being locked up by the border patrol in these inhumane conditions. They've often been raped on this journey.
And they walk in and these volunteers yell out "Bienvenidos, welcome," and these women started crying. It was the first time they had been welcomed by anyone in America. And it's just so emotional to see, you know, as this righteous nun said who operates this center – her name is Sister Norma, "We are not doing anything political. We are reaching out, one human being to another, to help them. And they will go to immigration court and see if they're allowed to stay here legally or not, but for now we're going to treat them like a human being." And that's what I saw in this incredible church.
And that's what she went and told Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This is nothing political. These people should be treated like human beings that they are. It's amazing to see what people can do when they come together with a purpose and extend a hand like I saw with the people in Veracruz.
Part II: Unaccompanied children and youth
Violent trends in Central America
The conditions spurring people to come to the United States, women and children, really have changed markedly over the last decade. When I started to look at this phenomenon, this army of children who had come north in search of their mothers, children like Enrique that I would write about, they were coming to reunify with a parent, they were coming to work if they were older teenagers. Sometimes they were fleeing abusive situations because many countries in Central America really don't have functioning child welfare systems.
But today that story has really changed. In the last few years the narco-cartels, you know, the United States uses more illegal drugs than any nation on earth, and those drugs used to come from Colombia up the Caribbean corridor, but the United States taxpayers have spent $8 billion to disrupt that flow. So, the Mexican narco-cartels simply rerouted that flow inland to places like Central America, Honduras. Four out of five cocaine flights from Latin America are landing there before the drugs continue north.
And so these cartels have really taken ahold of many of these countries, and they are recruiting children to be their foot soldiers to control this territory moving drugs north to serve as lookouts, to sell drugs, and ultimately to kill people for them. And so a lot of these children are recruited even in their elementary schools.
They're forced to start using crack cocaine, get them on drugs, then working for the gangs that report to these narco cartels. So, in many instances today these children face this choice: Do I stay and be forced to be recruited by these horrible actors or do I flee and save my life? And that's what we're seeing today. These children before were more economic migrants. Today I really see 6 out of 10 of these children per U.N. studies are refugees. They are fleeing for their lives.
And many of these children that I saw this summer in Honduras going back there to report on this, they had been threatened multiple times by these cartels or the gangs. Girls had been threatened by the heads of gangs, the head of the cartels, "You're going to be my girlfriend or I'm going to kill you. I'm going to kill your whole family." And so what we're seeing is really children fleeing for their lives and with governments who cannot or will not protect them. And Honduras really is teetering on being a failed state.
What's behind the surge of unaccompanied children?
This summer we saw so much in the news about this surge of unaccompanied immigrant children, children coming to the U.S. without a parent. And I think that was sparked by the narco-cartels really looking for new markets. Their markets are down in Mexico. The human smuggling business is as large now as the drug smuggling business. It's no longer mom and pop operators. It's these huge cartels in Mexico.
And fewer people are coming from Mexico. So, they were looking for new markets, and Central America with this violence – Honduras has the number one homicide rate of any peace-time country, second in body count every day to Syria, which we know has had a raging civil war for years. And so they saw many parents who would do anything to get their children out of these very violent circumstances.
And they started telling lies to these parents saying, "If you can just get your kid to the border, we'll shove the kid across the border to the border patrol agents, and they'll be scot-free here in the United States," which obviously is not true. Once you're caught, you are ordered to go to immigration court to see if you can stay in the U.S. legally or not. But I think that those lies helped spur what was already happening since 2011. We started to see this surge, this increase in the number of children coming as a result of this violence.
But the narco-cartels really amped that up significantly with what they were telling people in Central America. And so what we saw was in the past – in fiscal 2014, 69,000 children being caught and being put in federal custody entering the United States illegally. That's a number that's 10 times what we were seeing three years ago.
And really until the conditions in these countries improve, we have countries with enormous levels of violence, enormous corruption, poor governance, until conditions change in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, the countries these children are largely fleeing, I believe we will continue to see this surge.
It has gone down temporarily because for bad reasons. The United States has really pressured these countries to the south of us, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, to interdict these children and send them back. And Mexico is sending back 10 times as many children to El Salvador as they were at the beginning of the year. They're doing that at our behest, and unfortunately they are sealing many of these children into a deadly fate sending them back to places where they have been threatened by the narco-cartels, by the gangs in their neighborhood.
So, but until conditions that are pushing these children out change, I think we will continue to see this surge in children, and these children will continue to enter our classrooms throughout the United States.
Understanding traumas students have been through
When these children enter American classrooms, it is so important for educators to understand the traumas that they have been through and to address those traumas. These children have been traumatized in their home countries. Many of them have been threatened by narco-cartels, threatened by gang members. They have experienced – many children I interviewed this summer in Honduras had personally witnessed several murders by the time they were 11, 14 years old.
So, they have experienced enormous violence and have lived with enormous violence and have post-traumatic stress just from what they've been through in their countries. I mean I interviewed an 11-year-old boy who in the sixth grade his elementary school was controlled by the cartels. They would beat up children as they were coming out of elementary school. "You are going to start using crack cocaine, get hooked on it, and start working for us." And he knew children who had been killed by the cartels for refusing this. So, that's a trauma they face before even leaving on this journey.
What I saw were many children like the boy I wrote about, Enrique, who in their quest to reach the United States – they have no money – they ride on top of freight trains up the length of Mexico, and they face bandits and corrupt cops and gangsters who control the train tops.
They face getting on and off these moving freight trains because they're crossing Mexico illegally. So, they can't get on as these trains are at the stations. And I saw children who had been robbed repeatedly, raped, had lost their arms and legs to that freight train, had lost their lives in this quest to reach the United States. It is a modern‑day odyssey these children go on. Most don't make it through Mexico. Many are killed along the way trying to reach the United States.
And then they face so many traumas when they arrive here. I mean they face a new culture, a new language. They face the greatest hostility towards immigrants since the Great Depression. They worry that when their parents walk out the front door, we have increasingly deputized police departments around the country to serve as de facto immigration agents.
And if their parents don't turn on their left turn signal or commit some crime, they could be pulled over, fingerprinted, and if they're not in the country legally, see their parents deported and never see their parents again. So, these children have faced so many traumas.
And they face the trauma of the separation of their parents; parents who they have not seen in 5, 10 years, sometimes even more. And they have this burning resentment, even hatred towards their mothers for leaving them for so long. They do not understand it. They say, "What happened? You told me you were coming right back or sending for me quickly and you didn't." And so there are these huge conflicts in these homes. These women, parents feel, "My child should be incredibly grateful for what I did for him. I lived without my child for 10 years. I worked three jobs so I could send money back so they could study and eat, study past the third grade, which is all I was able to do."
But these children throw this in their parents' faces and say, "You abandoned me." And so there are these huge conflicts in these homes. And so I think what is incredibly important is that educators understand what these children have been through and address these traumas head on.
Until you address with psychologists in your schools, with counselors, this conflict in these homes, these children cannot focus on their studies. So, I think first of all we need to get these kids and these parents some help so they come to some understanding about these separations. And I think that is the number one thing that needs to be done.
Unique dangers for girls
Girls on this journey face unique dangers because there are gangsters who control the train tops, and they have now joined by the Zetas, the most violent narco-cartel in Mexico also controls the train tops that these girls and children are riding to get north through Mexico. And in fact the narco-cartels today the journey is much more dangerous than when Enrique made it more than a decade ago because the cartels pay the gangs a bounty for every migrant they bring to them.
They kidnap migrants off these trains. And they are kidnapping 18,000 Central Americans every single year. They prefer to grab children because they use that scrap of paper these kids carry with their parents' phone number to demand ransom from parents here in the United States in your communities, and they demand two to five thousand dollars. And if you don't pay, even sometimes if you do pay, they will kill you. And so this journey has gotten even more lethal for these children attempting it today.
But girls face unique dangers from these gangs and these narcos because they rape many of these girls on top of the trains. I had to get protection as I was traveling through the southernmost state of Mexico, Chiapas because I knew my odds of being raped on top of that train were virtually 100 percent.
And I would see girls, they would write, "Tengo SIDA," "I have AIDS," in magic marker on their chest to try to prevent being raped. They would take birth control pills preventively before setting off on this journey because they knew their odds of being raped were so high. Many girls are raped along the way on this journey or they are kidnapped and they never surface again. They are basically kidnapped and put into, sexually trafficked in Mexico.
There are many brothels where you see girls who have been pulled off these trains and forced to work as prostitutes in these brothels throughout Central America and Mexico. So, girls face unique dangers, and that's why parents wouldn't bring their girls until, before, you know, a decade ago only one in four children who would come unaccompanied were girls.
Even with a smuggler, you knew as a parent, you know, "My girl will not be brought up by one smuggler." They're often passed from smuggler to smuggler, three or four smugglers through Mexico because each smuggler controls their territory, they've paid off the corrupt cops, the officials. So, you don't know who smuggler number three is, and they could well rape your daughter. So, people would hold off thinking it's too much of a risk.
But now with the violence so rampant throughout Central America and girls facing, being conscripted to be the girlfriend of the gang leader in my neighborhood, parents are willing to take that risk. And today 40 to 50 percent of the unaccompanied minors coming are girls, and it is because of what they are facing in their home countries.
Good Samaritans in Mexico
There are many wonderful things that happen to these children along the way in Mexico. It's not a completely bleak landscape. And I think those wonderful things are lessons for Americans really in how to treat migrants. When children go through the southernmost state of Chiapas, it really is the heart of darkness. Most of these kids are beaten, robbed, or raped before they get out of the first of 13 states that they have to cross getting through Mexico.
But the south-central state of Veracruz, it just – it lifted my faith in humanity after what I had seen before, because in Veracruz where there would be this curve in the tracks, for some reason this train had to slow down, I would see in these little towns, when people heard that whistle of the train, I'd see 10 or 30 people run out of their huts with these bundles of food in their arms.
And they'd start waving and smiling and shouting out to these migrants on top of the trains. And I'd see them throw up bread or tortillas, whatever fruit was in season at the time. Enrique was pummeled with oranges. I had these huge branches of bananas being thrown up on top of me and rolls of crackers. If people didn't have food, they would throw bottles of tap water. And if they didn't have that, I would see people come out of their huts, they'd line up next to the tracks, and they would put their hands together, and they would say a silent prayer for these migrants as they pass by.
And I was just so moved by this spectacle because these people make a dollar a day. They could barely feed their own children, but they were giving a little of what they had to complete strangers from other lands who they would never see again. And every single one of them told me, "I am doing this because it's the Christian thing to do. It's the right thing. It is what Jesus would do if he were standing in my shoes."
And I think the woman who most exemplified this was, for me really the best part of this journey was this woman named Maria in Veracruz. And, you know, I had some problems with her initially because as an investigative reporter she told me that she was 132 years old. So, I was like "Uh-oh, okay, let's try to get past that fact."
She said that during the Mexican Revolution in 1910 she had been so hungry she would eat the bark of the plantain tree in her front yard. Her hands were completely curled, gnarled with age, but she would force them to make these little bags with tortillas, beans, salsa, whatever she had inside her hut. And when she heard that whistle, she would hand all of these bags to her 70-year-old daughter. And Soledad would run down this rocky slope next to their hut and heave all these bags up to the migrants on top of the train.
And Maria told me that day something I'll never forget. She said, "If I have one tortilla, I will give half away. I know God will bring me more." And I've never seen people live their faith like I saw in Mexico.
What supports do unaccompanied children need?
I think we need more newcomer schools around the country. These are schools where you separate out children who are recent arrivals for a year, sometimes two years. These exist in Queens, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, in Fort Collins in Colorado. It's a recognition that if you separate out these kids, they have a year to kind of regroup without other kids picking on them for being fresh off the boat or the newcomers.
There are more counselors in these schools to deal with these traumas. There are often teachers who have themselves lived these separations who can empathize with what these children have been through. So, I think we need more newcomer schools.
I think we also need to help the parents really understand how to deal with the school system. In other countries there's a lot more support for immigrant parents. In the U.K., they assign a mentor to a new immigrant to spend five hours a month with that person to help them learn the rights and responsibilities of living in this country. In this country we don't do that. And so I think we need programs for parents that help them learn to navigate the school system.
We need more after-school programs to help these children who many of them have never been to a school when they land in a high school to catch up.
And I think finally we need things like the DREAM Act to be passed in this country. That would allow children who have been brought by their parents when they were youngsters – that child, you know, had no role in breaking the law in coming here unlawfully. They were brought by their parent.
To give that child some avenue to legalize because we have 65,000 undocumented students graduating from high schools every single year, and many of them ask themselves well, "Why should I even go to college if when I get out, I won't be able to get a job in the legal economy? I'll have to work as a nanny or as a gardener or something in the underground economy." So, I think we need to push politically for a DREAM Act that would allow those children to feel like they do have a future, that they are part of this society.
We've invested so much K through 12 in educating these kids as taxpayers, and then we basically say, "You have no future here." So, I think there are so many things that we could do as Americans to help these children really grow and progress in our classrooms. And this is critical. Latinos will go from 16 percent of the population to 30 percent by 2050.
We Latinos will become the largest, the majority of the workforce in less than 50 years. And yet Latinos are dropping out of high school. This must change. And this is what educators can do. They can better deal with these immigrant children who have had these traumas, address those traumas so those children, you know, they will be the backbone of our future economy. And I think with the help of educators they can turn this around.
Part III: Enrique's Journey: The story behind the story
Well, Enrique's Journey really is the story of these millions of single mothers who have come from Central America and Mexico. They leave their children behind and they come because they can't feed their children. They can't see them study past the third grade. They want a better life than the grinding misery that they had to grow up in. And they come here thinking it will be a short separation, one, two years. But, you know, life here is a lot harder than they think it's going to be.
And so these separations stretch out 5, 10 years or even more, and these children despair of being with their moms again. So, they say well, "If she's not coming back for me or sending for me, I'm going to go find her." And what I saw was that there was this army of children making this decision to head north each year without a parent, entering the United States unlawfully. So, I wanted to write about this army of children through one boy's story, one powerful narrative that takes you into this very complex issue of immigration and helps you see it more clearly.
I met Enrique in northern Mexico. He was on his eighth attempt to get through Mexico to reach his mother. His mother left him when he was just five years old in Honduras. She came to work in California. And he is just devastated by her departure. He begs his paternal grandmother, who he's left with, "¿Cuándo vuelve mi mami?" "When is she coming back for me?"
He goes from a lonely boy to a very troubled adolescent without her there. And so after 11 years of not seeing her he sets off to go find her. And really he wants the same question answered all these children want answered, does she really love me? Because she said she would return quickly or send for me and she hasn't.
He left with little more than this tiny scrap of paper with his mom's phone number inked on it. And these children like Enrique would stuff that paper in the sole of their shoe. They would hide it in the waistband of their jeans, wrap it in plastic so when they cross rivers in Mexico or it rains on them, hopefully that precious number won't smudge. And he's got his number and he travels the only way he can with little or no money, gripping onto the tops and sides of these freight trains that travel up the length of Mexico.
So, when I met him, he had been on his journey for nearly two months and desperate to reach his mother in the United States. And I wanted through him to really show everything that these children experience on this journey and the desperation, what they are willing to do, what they are fleeing in Central America, the violence and the hope of reuniting with their mother again, what they are willing to do to get through Mexico that no wall will stop a child who is this determined.
It really – it's a story of enormous determination, of a willingness to confront obstacle after obstacle in this quest to reach his mother and what a child will do in this desire to be with their parent again. That's what his story really is about.
Retracing Enrique's steps
Well, I wanted to in writing about Enrique's journey and what he had been through, I wanted readers to really feel like they were up there on top of the train as he's making this journey during the worst of this journey and the wonderful times that he experiences on top of this train as people help him on his quest to reach his mother.
So, I spent a couple of weeks with him in northern Mexico where I found him in Nuevo Laredo, which is a town right across the border from Laredo, Texas. I watched his misery play out as he was trying to survive. He was sleeping out on the muddy banks of the Rio Grande just eating once a day trying to survive. And he told me everywhere he had been on the eight attempts he had made to get through Mexico.
So, I went back to his grandma's house in Honduras and I did this journey step by step just like he had done it a few weeks before. So, I would travel 1,600 miles and about half of that on top of seven freight trains up the length of Mexico.
I had many difficult moments during that journey. I had a branch on my first train ride almost swipe me off the train. It swiped off a child behind me on the train, a car behind me. I was able to grab onto a rail on the side of the top of the car as it swiped me off and crawl back up on top of the train, but it swiped – the same branch swiped off a child right behind me, and he likely died because as these trains move forward, they produce this sucking wind underneath that, as you fall down, it pulls you into the wheels.
I had a gangster lunge at me and try to grab me on top of the train. He was clearly going to try to rape me on top of this train, and I was able to get away from him and hop forward three cars and beg the train conductor to save me from this guy. So, I had the train car right in front of me derail. And one in six trains in the south were derailing at the time. The tracks are so horrible.
So, I had, I could tell you about many other near misses. I had many difficult moments on that train. I did this journey twice, three months each time to, and after I got back after the first three months to my house in Los Angeles, I was having this nightmare every night that this gangster was running after me on top of the train trying to rape me. And I had to go into therapy for about six months to make that stop.
So, I felt tense and filthy and in fear of being robbed or raped or beaten many nights on top of that train. But eventually it would stop and I'd get off and I'd eat a warm meal and sleep in a real bed. And I knew what I had been through was one percent of what these children go through because, you know, Enrique never could buy food. He begged for whatever food he could get. He slept in sewage culverts to hide from the immigration authorities or in trees to hide from predatory animals.
And I knew that these children went through so much more than I had been through. But I think doing this journey, it allowed me to write the story with a detail, with a passion, with an authority that I could not have gotten in any other way, and it really helped me bring these critical scenes in the story, these turning points in the narrative to life, which was what I was trying to do for readers.
Well, what I've seen is students really respond to the story and that we keep trying the same three solutions to solve the immigration issue, guest worker programs, pathways to citizenship, and now border enforcement on steroids to the tune of $18 billion a year, but that's really done very little to permanently slow the flow of migrants.
And while I believe there are many ways in which the U.S. wins because of migration, it's a complex issue. There are winners and losers, and part of the losers are the migrants themselves if you split these families apart. And I know from my own experience in an immigrant family that most people would rather live where they're from if they can, that many migrants feel forced to leave homelands that they love and all the things they love, their family, the culture. So, it would be better to find a way to allow more people to stay where they'd rather be.
And so I've really pushed a conversation about a third way where we really try to formulate a foreign policy that's centered around bringing every tool we have in our toolbox to trying to improve governance, reduce corruption, reduce violence in these four countries that send three-quarters of the folks coming here unlawfully.
And many students have responded to that and readers. They have pushed for different trade policies that allow in more goods from these countries. They have pushed for greater education of girls in these places because when you educate girls, they're more likely to put off having children until they're older, have fewer children. And of course it's easier to feed children if you have fewer of them. If there's one thing that's really lowered migration in recent years, it's been that Mexico for 30 years has promoted family planning. They're gone from seven children per family to two children. That has done more to work than anything else we have tried.
So, I believe that, you know, we can do more microloans. We can do more foreign aid. There's a whole host of things we could do to try to improve conditions in these places so people don't feel forced to leave.
And students have responded. They've started microloan programs. They have built schools. They've built water systems in these countries. They've gone and built homes for single mothers on their spring break. So, they've done great things.
And I've also seen students very motivated to interpret this work, Enrique's Journey, artistically, to bring their own element to this story. So, it's been made into a play three times in – just now in Los Angeles and twice in Colorado. It's been made into a ballet in North Carolina, a concerto performance art in Utah, in Logan, Utah. There are murals in several cities that have been painted on walls like Balmy Alley in San Francisco, in El Paso that are inspired by Enrique's Journey. And I receive I don't know how many paintings. I've received wooden carvings, poetry, you know, all sorts of artistic expressions that students have made that are their way of expressing Enrique's Journey or their way of expressing what their journey meant to them.
And I think that's been amazing. And I think what's been also great for many Latino students is that it's prompted the first conversation many of them have had with a parent about why they came, how they came. And for many students they say this is something that's not discussed in my family either because my parents worried that it was too difficult to talk about this or those were very difficult times for them and they sealed that part of their life off.
But many students write essays with their parents about asking them, interviewing them for the first time, what is our history and why did we come here and how'd we get here and why am I here? So, those have all been great things to see with students.
I think the other thing that educators really need to do with these immigrant children is to give them something to read that they want to read. So many of these children come up to me and say "Miss, Shakespeare is great, but there is such a power in seeing my story told and feeling that it matters and that I am part of the fabric of this nation's story too."
Enrique's Journey has been assigned by 71 universities as a common or freshman read, hundreds of high schools. There's now a young adult version out for middle schools. And the teachers tell me, "I couldn't get them to read anything, but they eat this up because it is their story. " It's a story they identify with, and there's just an enormous pride that their story is being told. And it's so important that other students have to read about their story.
So, I think that there has to be a greater push by teachers to recognize that it's important for students to see themselves and their experiences in what they read. And that motivates them to read. And teachers tell me, "I get to the end of my class and they're reading in class, and they don't want to leave because they want to know what happens because they so identify with this story. It is their story." And I think that's very important for teachers to recognize and to broaden their perspectives of what students read. They all out start saying, ‘I was forced to read your book.' " And this has changed my perspective." And I get those emails every day from students.
I've heard from African American students. There was a girl in Chicago who said, "You know, we are so divided in my high school, Latino and African American students. We sit apart at the cafeteria. But this is the story of my family too I've realized because my grandmother came to Chicago from the Deep South during Jim Crow as part of the great migration of African Americans who fled the South. And she left my mother behind in the South. This is the story of my family. I understand these Latino students better now. I understand what they have lived through because it is what my family has lived through."
So, I think that through these stories if we can broaden what students read, whether it's Rain of Gold or Bless Me, Ultima or Enrique's Journey, to try to broaden those perspectives of what students are reading today.
Excerpt: Enrique's Journey
Hi. I'm Sonia Nazario, and I'm the author of Enrique's Journey. And I'm going to be reading from the young adult version of the book.
"The Boy Left Behind"
"The boy does not understand. Lourdes understands as only a mother can the terror she is about to inflict. She knows the ache Enrique will feel and finally the emptiness. She says nothing. She can't even look at him. Enrique has no hint of what she's about to do.
"What will become of him? He loves her deeply as only a son can. Already he will not let anyone else feed or even bathe him. With Lourdes he is openly affectionate. "Dame pico, Mami." "Give me a kiss, mom," he pleads, pursing his lips. With Lourdes he is a chatterbox. ‘Mira, mami.' ‘Look, mommy,' he says softly, asking her questions about everything he sees.
"Without her he is so shy it is crushing. Slowly she walks out onto the porch. Enrique clings to her pant leg. Beside her he is tiny. Lourdes loves him so much she cannot bring herself to even say a word. She cannot carry his picture. It would melt her will. She cannot bear to hug him. He is five years old.
"They live on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Lourdes, who is 24, makes money going door to door selling tortillas, used clothes, and plantains or she finds a spot where she can squat on a dusty sidewalk next to the downtown Pizza Hut where she sells gum, crackers, cigarettes out of a box. The street is Enrique's playground.
"A good job is out of the question. Lourdes can barely afford food for Enrique and his sister, Belky, who is seven. She has never been able to buy them a toy or even a birthday cake. Her husband, he's gone. She cannot afford uniforms or pencils. Enrique and Belky are not likely to finish grade school. Their future is bleak.
"Lourdes can think of only one place that offers hope. As a seven-year-old child, she glimpsed this place on other people's television screens when she would deliver her mother's homemade tortillas to wealthy homes. On television she saw New York City's spectacular skyline, Las Vegas's shimmering lights, Disneyland's magic castle. The flickering images were a far cry from Lourdes's childhood home, a two-room shack made of wooden slats with a flimsy tin roof. The bathroom was a clump of bushes outside.
"Lourdes has decided she will leave. She will go to the United States and make money and send it home. She will be gone for one year, less with any luck, and come back to Honduras or she will bring her children north to be with her. It is for them she is leaving, she tells herself, but still she feels overpowered by guilt.
"Lourdes will have to split up her children. None of her family members can afford to take them both on. Belky will be left with Lourdes's mother and sister. Enrique will be left with his father, Luis, who has been separated from Lourdes for three years.
"Lourdes kneels and she kisses Belky, hugging her tightly, but she cannot face Enrique. He will remember only one thing that she says to him, ‘Don't forget to go to church this afternoon.' It is January 29, 1989. His mother steps off the porch. She walks away. ‘¿Dónde está mi mami?' Enrique cries over and over that night. ‘Where is my mom?' His mother never returns to Central America, and that decides Enrique's fate."
We Need Diverse Books: Sonia Nazario
We need diverse books because books broaden our horizons. They broaden our perspectives. That's what educators are supposed to do, take us beyond our very limited world that we know in our families, in our immediate history and take us into new worlds that are important so that we understand the broader society. And this is critical today because our society has become so diverse.
Between 1990 and 2010, we saw the largest wave of immigration numerically in our nation's history. Immigrants used to go to six states, and in the last two decades they have gone everywhere. And so we need to understand diversity because diversity, this is – these are our new neighbors in our communities throughout the United States. And without understanding diversity, without understanding our new neighbors, I think we will have a lot more conflict and polarization. So, I think with understanding, with taking people inside those worlds, we bring greater understanding, greater harmony, and greater progress.
Sonia Nazario is an award-winning journalist whose stories have tackled some of this country’s most intractable problems — hunger, drug addiction, immigration — and have won some of the most prestigious journalism and book awards.
A fluent Spanish speaker of Jewish ancestry whose personal history includes living in Argentina during the so-called dirty war, she is a passionate and dynamic speaker. She likes to say that "migration is in her blood" as both her father's and mother's families moved to Argentina to escape persecution, her father's family fleeing Christian persecution in Syria and her mother's family leaving Poland during World War II.
Nazario often is hired by school districts and universities where Enrique's Journey is being used in the classroom to launch discussions around immigration, racial discrimination, U.S. foreign policy, and other issues. Her expertise in immigration makes her as a popular speaker for legislative, legal and philanthropic audiences.
Her humanitarian efforts led to her selection as the Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award recipient from the Advocates for Human Rights in 2015. She also was named a 2015 Champion for Children by First Focus, and a 2015 Golden Door winner by HIAS Pennslyvania.
Nazario, who grew up in Kansas and in Argentina, has written extensively from Latin America and about Latinos in the United States. Enrique's Journey won more than a dozen awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, the George Polk Award for International Reporting, the Grand Prize of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists Guillermo Martinez-Márquez Award for Overall Excellence. In 1998, Ms. Nazario was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series on children of drug addicted parents. And in 1994, she won a George Polk Award for Local Reporting for a series about hunger among schoolchildren in California.
The complete version of this biography is available on Sonia's website.