Sonia Nazario: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s journey has taken her to new heights.
By Sandra Márquez
Los Angeles Times journalist Sonia Nazario won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Enrique’s Journey,” about a Honduran boy’s trek to find his mother in the United States. Enrique traveled 12,000 miles, mostly on top of a freight train through the Mexican countryside, before swimming across the Rio Grande and reuniting with his mother in North Carolina.
Nazario herself spent 3-1/2 months tracing the travels of the boy and spent nearly two years working on the story.
Currently on leave from the Times, she is at work on a book about Enrique to be published in English and Spanish next year by Random House. She also serves as a consultant to HBO, which is adapting the story into a miniseries.
Her own 42-year journey has taken her between the United States and Argentina. Along the way, Nazario’s experiences have proven to be the best education for her unique style of “fly on the wall” social journalism, giving her varied lenses from which to regard reality with a nuanced perspective.
In her mind’s eye, she can draw upon distinct experiences: as the daughter of a college professor; an accidental activist in Argentina during the Dirty War; a teenager waiting tables in Kansas to help support her family; a student at an elite liberal arts college; and a reporter for two of the most influential newspapers in the country.
Her life, she says, has taught her what it’s like “to feel out of sorts in a country, or to feel that you are not of a place.”
“A lot of time when I talk to Central Americans, I can talk about going through political turmoil and talk about some of the issues that people are going through,” she says. “I can connect culturally in that way on many different levels with people I am interviewing. It is a huge help.”
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Nazario attended kindergarten in Buenos Aires before settling in a suburb of Kansas City with her family. Hers was a multiethnic household. She was the daughter of a second-generation Syrian father and Polish-born mother who met in Argentina after their families migrated there in search of religious freedom.
In the Nazario household—father Mahafud was a professor of chemistry and genetics and a Christian, and mother Clara was a homemaker and Jewish—politics were debated, languages such as Spanish, Yiddish and Arabic were spoken, and education mattered.
Nazario’s middle-class existence took an abrupt turn at age 14 when her father died of a heart attack. Her widowed mother took her sister and twin brothers back to Argentina at the outset of the Dirty War. Nazario soon found herself lobbying U.S. Congress members for asylum on behalf of a close relative who was jailed. The sight of a blood-stained sidewalk served as destiny’s tap on the shoulder.
“I asked my mother what had happened and she said that two people had been killed there. And I said, Why? She said that they were journalists. And I said, ‘Why were they killed?’ And she said because they were trying to tell the truth about what was happening here,” Nazario says.
“Somehow, in my warped, sick mind, I decided that that would be a good profession at that moment,” she adds wryly. “I was very idealistic about it. I really wanted to write about what was happening in places like Argentina. I just felt like the world somehow didn’t know. And it should know. And it was a real awakening for a kid from Kansas.”
Within two years, Clara Nazario decided life in Argentina was too dangerous and moved the family back to Kansas. In high school, Nazario worked as a waitress after school and on weekends to help her mother, who struggled financially as a seamstress and cook.
“ I grew up in a household that really valued education. And pushed education and all that,” she says. “But on the other hand, I have seen the effects of working poor. And I have lived it. So I can kind of understand.”
Her good grades got her into Williams College in Massachusetts, where she was “one of maybe five to 10 Hispanics on the whole campus.”
At graduation time, she wrote to the Page One editor at the Wall Street Journal, whose name appeared on a contact list for career advice. During a year abroad in Europe, Nazario had free-lanced for El País in Spain, and she had later started an alternative newspaper on campus. In high school, she had also managed to attend two journalism training programs sponsored by Dow Jones, the Journal’s parent company.
Within two weeks, she was hired as a news assistant in New York. She was soon transferred to the Atlanta bureau, where she catapulted her second assignment—a report on Miami a year after race rioting in Liberty City—into a front-page story and a job offer as a staff writer.
She had accomplished a major feat, but still she had to think about it. She tried explaining to her editor that her dream was to become a foreign correspondent and write about Latin America.
“So I thought about it for four or five days, and I explained to him that I would be covering the South and that this was not my mission in life. He would just look at me and want to die,” she says.
Nazario accepted the job and began her trademark in-depth social reporting, such as a story about why Puerto Ricans were not “getting ahead” in the United States, told through the experience of one family. She later moved to the Miami bureau and worked as the backup Latin America correspondent, reporting frequently from Central and South America.
By 26, she was exhausted. She decided to go to graduate school and earn a master’s of Latin American studies from the University of California, Berkeley. With the change of scenery came new insight. She wasn’t enamored of the foreign correspondent’s life and the people she had seen “who raced from one war to the next.”
“ So I just decided that there was plenty of misery to write about in this country,” she says.
Rick Meyer, Nazario’s story editor at the Los Angeles Times, says she has an eye for detail and a tenacity that won’t quit. “She really goes after sources, finds them and searches them out no matter what it takes. She really sticks with something.”
Nazario took readers on a journey, Meyer says, and they stuck with the story because “it’s a real narrative, in the sense that you don’t know what will be the outcome.” It took Enrique eight attempts before he finally made it to the United States.
Harry Pachón, president of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, a Hispanic think tank at the University of Southern California, says Nazario deserves the title of “trendsetter” for her reporting.
“I think Sonia avoids the Pollyanna issues and gives us the full human dimension of immigration and the Latino community,” Pachón says. “So many people adopt a politically correct attitude. It’s a kind of group mentality that is not good for the community.”
Nazario has received this praise before. Her reporting at the Times has focused attention on the suffering of children. Her series on the children of drug-addicted parents was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1998. Her series on hunger among schoolchildren in California won a 1994 George Polk Award for local reporting—and led to an increase in the number of federally funded school breakfasts issued at public schools in the state.
Readers had an “overwhelming” response to “Enrique’s story,” which in addition to the Pulitzer, won more than a dozen national awards, including the Grand Prize of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Guillermo Martínez-Márquez Award.
She believes Enrique, who left behind a girlfriend and a baby daughter to make his northern migration, has also benefited from the story. HBO has paid him for the rights to his story, which he is using to help support his family. And he is contemplating a return trip home—for good.
“I think he likes the idea of his story being told,” Nazario says.