LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)–The idea for Sonia Nazario’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Central American immigrant children who risk their lives to reunite with their mothers in the States came from inside her own home.
Eight years ago, Carmen Ferrez, a 37-year-old housekeeper from Guatemala, asked the 45-year-old Latina journalist a question she had been hearing for years.
“Misses Sonia,” she asked one day after finishing her work, “when are you going to have a baby?”
Nazario, an award-winning projects reporter for the Los Angeles Times answered evasively. Then, in true journalist fashion, she turned the question on her long-time housekeeper.
“Carmen just started sobbing and told me about the four children she left behind in Guatemala,” Nazario said during an interview at a Los Angeles Starbucks, wearing a green suit that set off her dark hair and bright eyes. “She told me how she missed them, how she couldn’t afford to feed them, and how she made the decision to come north so they could eat and maybe get to school past the third grade. She told me she hadn’t seen them in 12 years.”
Nazario, who had been writing for almost two decades on women, immigration, parents and children, knew she had her next big topic.
“I found that Carmen’s choice was incredibly common. How does a mother travel thousands of miles not knowing when she would see her children again? It put the question on my mind and a year later when Carmen’s son came up to finally see her, he told me there are these thousands of kids traveling on the tops of freight cars, clinging for their lives, just to see their mothers again.”
Nazario met one boy–she calls him Enrique–in Nuevo Laredo near the Texas-Mexico border. After hearing his story and the accounts of other child-immigrants she decided to recreate his journey into the United States.
“I traveled more than 1,600 miles, half of which was on top of freight trains,” Nazario said. “I hitchhiked from the same places he did and experienced many of the same dangers he did as well. I was in constant danger of being robbed or raped. But at the end of the ride, I would eat a meal or sleep in a bed. Enrique would go two days without water.”
For three months she traveled from Honduras to the U.S. border and risked her life hitchhiking and riding “el tren de la muerte”–the train of death–to parallel Enrique’s route.
Two years later she chronicled her ordeal in a series for the Los Angeles Times entitled “Enrique’s Journey.” For the book, published by Random House in February, she spent another three months on the road, this time with Enrique and his mother, Lourdes. (Nazario and her editors decided that publishing their last names would make them more identifiable to authorities.)
Nazario has made her career doing a lot of what she calls “fly-on-the-wall reporting,” where she experiences first-hand what she’s writing about and has drawn accolades.
But that style of reporting has also drawn fire.
Nazario’s 1997 series “Orphans of Addiction” explored the plight of children of drug addicts. Nazario described a scene in which a mother injected heroin in front of her 3-year-old daughter and then didn’t feed her for 24 hours. Nazario didn’t intervene or alert authorities. The series, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year, has been used as an ethical test case for training journalists.
Following “Orphans of Addiction,” Nazario said she researched the worst-case scenarios of children riding the trains and decided to “draw the line to help someone if I thought they were in imminent danger.” During her journey she helped prevent a boy’s murder and assisted a girl who had been gang-raped. Because her intervention changed their stories, Nazario excluded them from her final reporting. She believes a journalist’s best efforts are spent revealing truth rather than influencing events.
Each year, about 48,000 children enter the United States from Mexico and Central America; two-thirds will manage to evade immigration authorities. Nazario interviewed and observed dozens of children for “Enrique’s Journey.”
Nazario is the daughter of a Syrian Christian college professor and a Polish Jewish mother who left their home countries seeking religious freedom in Argentina. Before Nazario was born her parents and three older siblings immigrated to Kansas from Argentina for economic opportunity and she grew up in a home where Spanish, Yiddish and Arabic were spoken as well as English. Her life changed at 14 when her father died and her mother took the family back to Argentina. She believes some of her early experiences gave her a passion for social justice.
“When I was in Argentina during the Dirty War I saw blood on the sidewalk where journalists had been killed for telling the truth,” Nazario said, referring to the period between 1976 and 1983 when Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship. The estimated numbers of the “disappeared” range from 10,000, according to a post-junta truth commission, and 30,000, according to human-rights groups. “It left a profound impression and I knew what I wanted to do.”
From Williams to Wall Street
After graduating from Williams College in Williams, Mass., and earning a master’s in Latin American studies from the University of California-Berkeley, she began her career at the Wall Street Journal, where she reported from four bureaus: New York, Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles.
During her last 13 years at the Los Angeles Times she has focused on social issues. In 1994, she won a George Polk Award for Local Reporting for “The Hunger Wars, Fighting for Food in Southern California,” a series about hunger among schoolchildren. She won the Pulitzer in 2003 for “Enrique’s Journey.”
Rick Meyer is Nazario’s editor at the Los Angeles Times. He praises her both as a reporter and a human being.
“She’s a courageous, gutsy woman and an extraordinary reporter,” he said, “intense and a perfectionist. She could have been killed riding those trains and I can remember waiting anxiously for one of her scheduled phone calls. This series took her to the high point of her career. All she has to do now is another one.”
Nazario, who has no children of her own, lives with her husband in Los Angeles and is currently working on other projects involving children, but she learned an important lesson from “Enrique’s Journey.”
“If you’re going to have kids, spend time with them,” Nazario said. “If you don’t, they don’t grow up right.”
Sandra Kobrin is a Los Angeles-based journalist who specializes in criminal justice and women’s issues.
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For more information:
Los Angeles Times–
“Enrique’s Journey: The Boy Left Behind”: