Review of Enrique’s Journey

WOW Review Volume II, Issue 4

“I cannot do justice to the telling of Enrique’s story in this review; I do not have the ability to capture the senses in the way Nazario does in her writing—a very intentional process; she writes in a way that helps readers experience what Enrique feels, hears, sees, smells, and tastes along his journey. It is an onslaught of the senses, both good and bad that leaves readers reeling.” — Gail Pritchard, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ   FULL REVIEW OF YOUNG ADULT VERSION

Kirkus (Starred Review):

An expanded version of Nazario’s Pulitzer Prize-winning articles, originally published in the Los Angeles Times, about the harrowing journey hopeful immigrants take from Central America through Mexico into the U.S.

The twist on this familiar story is that in recent years, a growing number of America’s illegal immigrants are women. Unable to feed and clothe their children, they leave their homes in Honduras or Guatemala and head for a better life in el Norte. Once in America, Mami sends back as much money as she possibly can and promises to return to her children as soon as she builds up a nest egg. But low-paying jobs as nannies or maids don’t allow the women to save much, so immigrant mothers don’t return home for years, if ever. Their children, too young to understand the heartbreaking calculus of economics and maternal self-sacrifice, feel abandoned. Some of them eventually undertake the pilgrimage through Mexico and across the border, hoping to reunite with their mothers. Nazario’s account focuses on Enrique, left in Honduras by his mother Lourdes when he was six. Eleven years later, he decides it is time to find her. He must avoid immigration officers, who would send him back home, and the gangsters who regularly steal from, rape and even murder migrants. Enrique risks his life, riding through Mexico on the roofs of what child migrants call El Tren de la Muerte (the Train of Death). Enrique makes it to North Carolina, but he and Lourdes are in for an emotional shock. During the long years of separation, mother and son have idealized one another; their reunion exposes resentments that have festered over the years.

This portrait of poverty and family ties has the potential to reshape American conversations about immigration.

Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review):

Soon to be turned into an HBO dramatic series, Nazario’s account of a 17-year-old boy’s harrowing attempt to find his mother in America won two Pulitzer Prizes when it first came out in theLos Angeles Times . Greatly expanded with fresh research, the story also makes a gripping book, one that viscerally conveys the experience of illegal immigration from Central America. Enrique’s mother, Lourdes, left him in Honduras when he was five years old because she could barely afford to feed him and his sister, much less send them to school. Her plan was to sneak into the United States for a few years, work hard, send and save money, then move back to Honduras to be with her children. But 12 years later, she was still living in the U.S. and wiring money home. That’s when Enrique became one of the thousands of children and teens who try to enter the U.S. illegally each year. Riding on the tops of freight trains through Mexico, these young migrants are preyed upon by gangsters and corrupt government officials. Many of them are mutilated by the journey; some go crazy. The breadth and depth of Nazario’s research into this phenomenon is astounding, and she has crafted her findings into a story that is at once moving and polemical. Photos not seen by PW .(Feb. 28)

The Washington Post (Reviewed by Luis Alberto Urrea):

Joseph Campbell would recognize Enrique’s Journey . It’s the stuff of myth. A lone child embarks on a terrible journey through a landscape of monsters and villains. His goal is noble, almost chivalric — he travels through hardship and dangers to find his mother, lost in the far mysteries of the north. To add another layer to the story, it contains a vehicle right out of a fairy tale: a Fury-haunted freight train known as El Tren de la Muerte — the Train of Death.

Sonia Nazario, however, is not writing myths: Enrique’s Journey is true.

The story begins in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where Enrique’s mother, Lourdes, supported several children by selling tortillas and gum on the street. It was a small step up from begging or picking garbage to live. One day, Lourdes saw visions of Las Vegas on a customer’s television screen. It was a revelation — she could risk everything and try to earn enough money to save her children from grinding poverty. But to do so, she had to leave them behind, like thousands of mothers before her. And like thousands of those mothers’ children, when Enrique’s sorrow grew too great to bear, he followed her north. When his mother left, Enrique was 5 years old. He made his own journey 11 years later.

Told in an immediate, sometimes flashy, present tense, the story clacks along, seeming to accelerate as we read. The details of the journey are at turns astounding and wearying, ghastly and lyrical. Nazario has tried to pace the book like a good novel, with climaxes building in force and dread the farther Enrique travels — and the closer he gets to the United States. One knows the whole time that his trouble will really start only when he reaches the border.

Just 16, Enrique clambered aboard the first train out of Tegucigalpa. It carried him into a Latino hell as blood-red as those found in Cormac McCarthy’s fever dreams. He was immediately assaulted by violent men who fashioned a noose from a coat sleeve and tried to lynch him, then beat him and threw him from the train. Bloody and ill, he staggered barefoot down the rails, falling into the hands of hard people who offered no succor. The surreal absurdity of the Third World seemed to be trying to eat him alive.

The grim details accrue. “In Las Anonas, the Red Cross retrieves a seventeen-year-old Honduran boy who lost his left leg,” writes Nazario. “They pick up three immigrants mutilated by the train in as many days. One loses a leg, another his hand; the third has been cut in half. Sometimes the ambulance workers must pry a flattened hand or leg off the rails to move the migrant.” Enrique thought things were bad at home, but he could never have imagined a journey like this. When Enrique asked one rancher for a drink, he was told, “Get lost.” If the riders were not careful atop the train, even in sleep, low branches could snag them and catapult them to their dooms.

How does Nazario know all this? In 2000, she received a phone call from a humanitarian group tending to incarcerated, undocumented entrants. She met Enrique in Nuevo Laredo and spent the next two weeks listening to his story. She traveled to Tegucigalpa, boarding the same train and repeating Enrique’s journey so she could experience what he had. And yet, despite what must have been a harrowing trip of her own, Nazario keeps the focus on Enrique, a microcosm of the massive exodus pouring over the borders of our nations — plural. Enrique’s journey, after all, is not simply a story of “illegal immigration” into the United States; he first illegally entered Mexico through its southern border. Mexico is even less willing to harbor these desperate Central Americans than we are. Enrique’s suffering and bravery become universal, and one cannot fail to be moved by the desperation and sheer strength of spirit that guides these lonely wanderers into the night-lands.

Of course, the border will continue to trouble the dreams of anyone who is paying attention. Nazario points out, rightly, that the median age of the lone traveler is dropping. The face of illegal immigration shifts constantly: Now that all the men are gone, as some villagers joke in Mexico, the women have followed. Nazario writes in her preface: “Each year, an estimated 700,000 immigrants enter the United States illegally. Since 2000, nearly a million additional immigrants annually, on average, have arrived legally, or become legal residents. . . . In recent decades, the increase in divorce and family disintegration in Latin America has left many single mothers without the means to feed and raise their children.” No one knows the exact number of mothers coming north without their children, but a University of Southern California study shows that 82 percent of nannies and one in four housecleaners are women with children left alone in their home countries. And now that these mothers have come north, their children are following. It is now common to find 15-year-old walkers caught in the border patrol nets. But this is a catch-and-release sport, and these fingerlings are tossed back into the bigger pond of Mexico to try their migration again.

Why is this allowed to happen? The undocumented worker can be hired for wages far lower than the American worker; moreover, their presence tends to depress the minimum wage. They lower production costs, they serve as union busters, they save money in terms of benefits, and they are a pliant and compliant workforce. The paradigm has shifted from under-the-table cash payments to formalized employment. Any border patrol agent can explain to you how money withheld from the undocumented worker’s paycheck pours into state and federal coffers. For example, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, illegal workers donate $6.4 billion annually to Social Security. But these illegal workers will never collect benefits from that program. On the other side of the tattered fence, the Mexican government appreciates the stunning $17 billion in remittance money — money sent home from that maid who cleaned your house, that fast-food cook who salted your fries — that arrives each year.

Why does the problem continue? Follow the money. Everybody wins — except the abandoned children. Who can blame them for trying to save themselves the only way they’ve been shown? The U.S. government’s slipshod attempts to bolster security at the borders have made the passage more deadly. In the madness of the harsher border, drug lords and gangsters rule the day. Any border patrol agent will tell you that criminal elements are on the rise — as are violence and the terrible toll of deaths due to heat, cold, misadventure and homicide. The death train is running all night, and it makes stops in Tegucigalpa, Mexico City, Juarez, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.

It would be unfair to spoil the end of the adventure. But it is safe to say that Enrique’s Journey is among the best border books yet written. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Los Angeles Times, it is a stirring and troubling book about a magnificent journey undertaken by a lone boy in a terrible, terrible place. It’s not about invading the United States or stealing social services or jobs from American workers. Enrique’s Journey is about love. It’s about family. It’s about home. (March 2006)