Facing History and Ourselves is a nonprofit that works in thousands of highs schools and middle schools across the United States. Their goal is to educate teachers and provide curricula aimed at increasing tolerance. They focus on the Holocaust, civil rights, genocide, and immigration among other issues. Here is an interview Sonia Nazario did in May 2015 with the group.
1) Share with us how you learned about Enrique and other children who make these dangerous journeys to reunite with their families in the U.S.
Enrique’s Journey began with a story I heard in my kitchen in LA one morning. I asked Carmen, who cleaned my house twice a month, if she wanted to have more children. Carmen–normally chatty–went silent. She began sobbing. She told me she had left four children behind in Guatemala. Her husband had left her. She couldn’t afford to feed her children three times a day. They would cry out in hunger at night. She left them with her mom and went north to work in LA.
They had been apart 12 years.
I remember standing in my kitchen stunned, thinking: What kind of desperation would it take for a mother to walk away, go 2,000 miles, not knowing when or if they will see their children again? A year later, one of Carmen’s sons came on his own to find her. He said he and thousands of other children were making perilous journeys through Mexico in search of their mothers in the U.S.
I went to Honduras, up the migrant routes through Mexico, and into the homes of women in the U.S. just like my house cleaner, women who worked taking care of other peoples’ children. I discovered they had all made the same promise: to return in one or two years. But life in the U.S. was more difficult than they had imagined. The separations stretched to 5 years, then 10. I discovered that the kids often became desperate to see their mom, and decided to go find her. On their own. I discovered a small army of children heading north to the U.S. unlawfully — 48,000 children a year a decade ago (the number has risen ten fold in the past three years).
I searched for someone who was typical of teenagers making this journey. The average age of a lone child coming to the U.S. [without either parent] and unlawfully was 15 years old [it’s now 14 years old]. Three in four were boys. I wanted a 15-year-old boy coming on top of freight trains and in search of his mother. A nun at a church in Nuevo Laredo put Enrique on the telephone with me. I liked him because he was honest, open, and had been through many of the difficult experiences these children face. He had almost been beaten to death on top of the trains by thugs. I worried he was a little too old; he had started his journey when he was 16 and was 17 when I met him.
When I went to Nuevo Laredo to interview him. I discovered he used drugs and sniffed glue. So I kept searching for what I saw as a more ideal candidate—younger and more angelic. But every younger child I interviewed; 11, 12, and 13 year olds had all been robbed of the slip of paper they carried with their mother’s telephone. They hadn’t thought to memorize it. Enrique at least remembered a number he could call in Honduras to get his mom’s telephone in the U.S. He therefore had the chance of continuing on his journey and finding her. Also, Enrique’s drug use was not uncommon for children who are left by parents; they try to numb their pain by turning to drugs. I called my editor and he said, “The best characters in literature aren’t perfect angels. They are deeply flawed. Readers can’t identify with someone who is perfect.” He urged me to go with Enrique, and it turned out to be sage advice. The fact that Enrique isn’t perfect has allowed the story to be embraced and read in places with enormous hostility towards recent migrant arrivals—and it has given readers there an opening and greater understanding of these migrants.
2) Looking at our history of immigration policy in the United States, we know that it has often been influenced by racial and cultural stereotypes. Enrique’s journey has opened up another way to look at immigration that helps break down some of the stereotypes people have. How do you think Enrique’s story helps other people see beyond certain stereotypes or judgments?
I believe that if I can put you in someone else’s shoes, help you understand their life and circumstances, it creates understanding and empathy. Empathy is what changes perspectives. That doesn’t mean you agree with all the choices that person has made. But you can begin to understand what in their past and present brought them there, and how you might make the same choices. I ask questions of people that help me understand, and in turn help my readers understand and invest in the characters I portray. This is what the best books do. When I recently went to speak in Amsterdam, I toured Ann Frank’s house. I have never read her Diary. I had heard it was a hopeful book. I couldn’t understand how this could be. Then I read and put myself in the shoes of a girl in Nazi Holland, a teenager who felt the flutter of her first love, who wondered at the beauty of the tree outside her window.
Enrique is deeply flawed, and I think that fact helps those opposed to immigration accept his story as truth. But also I think people connect with the story because of the way it is told. I always hope to educate people about the biggest issues of our time in a compelling, engaging way. I want to grab them by the throat and take them on a ride, take them inside a world they might not otherwise see, and educate them about that world.
With Enrique’s journey, I felt it was important to show what is pushing people out of their countries, what children are willing to do to make this journey, and who Americans’ new neighbors are in time of the greatest hostility toward immigrants since the Great Depression. Immersing myself in Enrique’s journey allowed me to write with an authority and passion I couldn’t get otherwise, to convey all the powerful emotions I felt when I witnessed things for the first time.
This kind of immersive non-fiction story telling can not only engage readers, but bring about change. We have seen it time and again: with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Grapes of Wrath, the Jungle. Stories that help us better understand our reality, spur us to want to improve our world.
One boy, one story, has helped humanize immigrants in the U.S. The emails I get from readers provide the most uplifting part of this job. Students tell me they were raised racist and anti immigrant, and that my book and class discussions about the book have changed their perspective about these people. They can at least now see a different perspective, or a range of perspectives.
An African American student at high school in Chicago told me that black and Latino students at her school didn’t really talk, but in reading what Enrique had endured, she finally felt a connection. Her grandmother had come from the South as part of great migration of African Americans during the Jim Crow era and she had left her mother behind. Her mother was an “Enrique.”
The reaction among Latino students is most powerful. For the first time, they see themselves in a story. They feel pride their stories are being told, their narrative is important and part of the fabric of this nation’s story. It has helped many understand they are not alone in their burning resentment towards parents who left. This helps them understand. For the first time many of them have conversations with their parents about why them came to the U.S., why they came, the dreams they had for their children in leaving their homelands.
3) What were some of the ethical dilemmas you faced as a writer and reporter while researching and telling Enrique’s story?
I lived in near constant danger of being beaten, raped or robbed. All along the way, I encountered gangsters, bandits, and corrupt police officers. A letter I obtained from the assistant to the president of Mexico, one of many precautions I took, kept me out of jail three times. In southern Mexico, there were gangsters robbing people at knifepoint on one train. Another day, I ended up in a high-speed car chase of bandits. I was nearly knocked off a train one night by a tree branch; a teen migrant on the boxcar behind mine was swiped off by the same branch and may have been killed falling from the moving train and being sucked into the wheels.
Despite everything I went through, the hardest part was having many migrants each day ask me for help–money or food. Since I was there as a journalist, unless a migrant I encountered was in imminent danger [that is when I feel compelled to help, and I did with several migrants along the way], I told them I couldn’t help them. That was by far the hardest part of this journey.
Reporters often witness subjects in distress when they report stories. Whether the suffering is due to a civil war, an environmental disaster, poverty or crime, a journalist’s job is to stay on the sidelines and report what he or she sees. We are not supposed to change reality and then report on the reality we have altered; that is considered dishonest to readers. Most people accept that news reporters shouldn’t get involved with a story they are covering. Yet some people apply a different standard to reporters following individuals, especially children, over periods of time. As a narrative writer who writes about difficult social issues, I believe that it is sometimes necessary to witness some harm to be able to tell a story in the most powerful way. Your goal is to move people to act in a way that might bring about positive change.
So, seeing people who needed help — but having to decline to help — that was the most challenging ethical dilemma that I faced and the most challenging part of my journey on the trains.
4) You’ve traveled around the country telling this story in range of settings from urban to rural, and heard from many people who have been inspired to action after reading this book. Can you share some of those stories or do you have any tips for students or educators who want to stand up and take action?
This story of one boy has gotten students to act, to extend a helping hand, to try to improve conditions in the four of the countries that send migrants, so mothers don’t feel forced to leave. They have built schools in Mexico and Central America, water systems, homes for single mothers. One reader in Indiana quit her job and went to Honduras to open a café and employ 10 people. A high school in California raised $9,000 selling cookies and used the money to provide a micro-loan to women in Guatemala so they could expand their coffee growing business and hire more workers so fewer women would have to leave for the north.
In their classrooms, in their schools, in their communities, these students are having conversations around an immigration solution focused on addressing the exodus at the source — a solution that would help create change in four countries where violence, corruption and bad governance are pushing people to leave.
Students have confirmed my unshakable belief that with knowledge people can change perspective and act to make things better.
As for tips, I list ways to help on my website.
Students can choose to work with a family one on one in their community, on the politics of immigration and pushing to treat recent child arrivals as refugees, to help people aiding immigrant children en route in Mexico, or on changing conditions pushing people out of places like Honduras through nonprofits doing great work in there. They can also work to change drug policies and drug use in the U.S. because it is the movement of drugs north and the cartels battling for drug routes that generate much of the violence in Central America.
5) What change in readers or in the world do you hope the book contributes to?
I hope the book opens readers’ eyes to the living history of Honduras, to the evolving story of the Enriques and all immigrants from Central America. I hope readers get educated and involved in politics, so there are more people arguing for more U.S. financial support for Central America and better treatment of unaccompanied minors being held in immigration detention centers. I hope that readers who had been raised with anti-immigrant ideas at least become more open and tolerant of their immigrant neighbors and co-workers.
This interview was prepared in advance of a May 2015 event at Facing History and Ourselves in San Francisco.