Meeting author Sonia Nazario during her recent visit to UW Madison

Since I  had worked with children in highly vulnerable situations in Honduras, the same country where Enrique’s journey begins, I was especially  interested to meet Sonia Nazario, the author of  Enrique’s Journey, when she came to UW-Madison on October 27th to talk about her book, the 2011 GO BIG READ.

Born to immigrant parents in Madison, Wisconsin (!) Nazario came of age in the dirty war in Argentina, and has spent many years of her life covering social issues as a journalist.   I felt humbled by the extent to which Sonia put herself at risk so that she could accurately tell the harrowing story of Enrique’s journey from Honduras to the United States to find his mother.  As she explained the many safeguards she put in place before she travelled by bus across dangerous borders, spent time in communities rife with social and political tensions, and rode on the tops of trains (students, please don’t try this at home!),  it was clear that she had been brave and selfless. She was also honest and self-critical about some of the harder truths about fly-on-the-wall journalism  –it is your job to watch the suffering play out, and, unless someone is in imminent danger, you offer no help.

The next day I met Sonia at a luncheon with a group of my students who were reading the book for an honors seminar. When I told  her that I had lived in Honduras and worked with orphans for two years, she wanted to know what I thought about children like Enrique.  What should we do?   It impressed me that several years after publication, this prize-winning author, who had already done such thorough research, was still at work on the story, asking questions rather than giving answers, wanting to get it more right.  She asked me to make public-health oriented suggestions for the “how to help” section on the Enrique’s Journey site  There are already some great ideas there, and I am looking forward to working with my students to contribute more!

I did not expect Enrique’s story to move me as it did. The book was covering terrain that I had lived, in a place that I once knew well.   The story of his family of origin was sad and authentically told, but familiar to me.  Like Sonia, I was aware of and disturbed by the family life patterns that are emerging with our global economy, in which domestic workers from many countries come to sweep floors and rock babies in the US, so they can send money home.  But the visceral realities of Enrique’s journey and crossing stopped me cold. The hunger and thirst, the raw cruelties and occasional kindness, the feeling of being hunted. Even I, having lived in Central America, did not know the extent to which children are wandering alone, preyed upon, in places that we are unable to even police.

Sonia Nazario has taken us on Enrique’s journey so that we can understanding the suffering of immigrant youth who make the crossing the way he did. It would be a mistake, however, to read this book as a background piece on Central American immigrants in a “this is their story” kind of way.  Such a reading would be a misuse of a well-written, well-researched story and a denial of the human complexity behind every story.  Enrique and his family are not a prototypes — they are people.  It would be an over-simplification to assert that mothers who are in the US working have all been forced to choose between raising their kids in garbage dumps and migrating  for work. It would be naive not to recognize that it is possible to both run toward love and flee from abandonment at the same time, and I think that is what happened with Enrique.  Some immigrants “go north” because they are desperate, some do it because they are dreamers, and some are both of these at once.   To address the suffering portrayed in Enrique’s story we have to address the root causes of the problem.  While poverty is a primary driver of migration and should be addressed,  substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, family violence, unequal status of women, and the breakdown of the extended family all impacted the lives of Enrique and Lourdes.

Enrique’s Journey, which Nazario describes as the story of one boy, one mother, and one train, is a call to action on behalf of all children in this situation.  I hope that for students at UW-Madison, this Go Big Read is the beginning of another kind of  journey, where they both act on what they learned from this book, and continue to read and study and live in ways that allow them to continue growing in their understanding of issues related to the well-being of children everywhere.