Perhaps the true journey is what happens after one reaches their destination because that’s when expectation meets reality, when mythologizing crashes into being a “stranger in a strange land,” with strangers who share your blood. For migrants seeking a better life in the United States, for their children also seeking a better life, but just as importantly, their mothers’ long-lost embrace, the 1,800-mile journey from Central America is but one facet of a complicated relationship, at once startling in scope and also, strikingly intimate and familiar. To tell this journey after the journey, with such scope through an intimate portrait, we have The Los Angeles Times’ fearless, “fly on a wall” reporter, Sonia Nazario and her Pulitzer Prize-winning six-part-series-turned book, 2006’s, Enrique’s Journey: The story of a boy’s dangerous odyssey to reunite with his mother.
Scores of mothers throughout Central America, largely from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, began leaving behind their children in the 1980s to seek a better life in the United States, with a promise to their children, as much as it was to themselves, that they would a.) send back money and gifts to the children; and b.) return in a few short years after saving up money. Instead, the mothers stayed for a decade or more, some moved on from their children entirely and stopped calling, writing and sending money, and the ones who remained in touch, don’t have any intention of returning to developing countries mired with economic strife and poverty, lawlessness and violence, and no chance of escape, where if they had stayed with their children, they would have all starved together. But as some admit (as do their children), perhaps starving together would have been a better fate because they would still be together.
But the children, think of the children, some of whom are mere infants when their mothers leave, but even the ones old enough to understand can’t possibly understand, and so, along with the pangs of hunger in their bellies, resentment grows, too, toward their departed mothers. Life and its relationships are complicated though, because it is also this resentment manifest from longing and love that powers and motivates these children to make the unfathomably dangerous 1,800-mile trek from their home countries through Mexico and to the United States, risking their own life and limb (literally) to ride atop trains, evade bandits, police, madrinas (regular civilians with machetes who help the authorities), gangsters, and the migra (immigration enforcement authorities), and if you’re a girl or woman (although not exclusively), you also risk rape and gang rape, as well as the familiar pangs of hunger, thirst, uncertainty about tomorrow, and fear. Children as young as seven-years-old make this journey, somehow, some way, to find their mothers. Some, like Enrique, who is at the heart of Nazario’s story, will risk the trek seven times before the eighth time proves successful. Not all of the children are making the trek to find their mothers, some are running from their impoverished home countries where they may have been abused physically and sexually, and others for the same reason most run to the United States, risking it all: for a better life.
Enrique was in the camp of running toward his mother, Lourdes, who left him when he was around six or seven-years-old. She also left behind an older daughter. Then, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, she was pregnant with a third child, another daughter. Think about the aforementioned resentment and how it would fester upon this new child: My mother abandoned me and now a new child that gets to have her affection and love. Prior to deciding to seek his mother in the United States, Enrique was struggling, floating from home to home, first his father not wanting him, then his grandmother having enough of him, same with the aunt, and so on. He took up marijuana, drinking, and worst of all, glue-sniffing. He felt rejected everywhere he turned.
The one bright spot during that time is meeting María Isabel, who becomes his girlfriend. She’s shy and giggly, and also growing up through abject poverty, sharing mattresses and rooms with half a dozen people trying to survive. When Enrique eventually makes his way to the United States atop trains, María Isabel thinks about following him, but can’t do it. Then, she has their child, a daughter named Jasmine. So, as it turns out, Enrique, who for the longest time resented his mother for leaving him behind in Honduras, leaves behind Jasmine to find that same mother. He makes promises Lourdes used to, too: that we would be reunited soon, that I’ll be there for Christmas, that I’ll bring you to the United States after I save up enough for a smuggler.
To make it that far from Honduras to the border with Texas, largely riding atop dangerous trains that rip limbs from men and women, and leaving still others to be buried in unmarked and unclaimed graves, and to evade all the aforementioned roving gangs looking to steal from you, or seeking bribes, or seeking body limbs, or in one brutal instance with Enrique, robbing him and then severely beating him, requires a great deal of luck and grit. It takes the luck of avoiding those who would kill you and/or deport you back to Guatemala and then Honduras. It takes the luck of being able to hop aboard the train without the wheels eating up your feet and legs. It takes the luck of complete strangers’ willingness to feed and clothe you; to help you where others looked away, often in disgust. It takes luck not to be one of the dozens who drown in the Rio Grande when trying to cross into the United States.
And it takes the grit to stay awake on the trains because it’s too dangerous to fall asleep (the trains shift a great deal on the tracks, notwithstanding the dangerous curves and the real possibility of derailment). Grit to go days only on crackers, if even that much sustenance. Grit where you greedily satiate your desperate thirst with collected yellow and green cow spit in ditches, or underneath sewage, and because of your great thirst, it’s the most delicious “water” you’ve ever tasted. Grit, when avoiding the migra, to sleep on cardboard underneath an abandoned house. Grit to keep going despite your swollen feet, yellow, bulbous blisters, a drooping eye (after Enrique’s beating), and inhaling diesel smoke all along the way. Grit to persevere through weeks and months at a time along the Rio Grande making less than $3 a day working 8 hours cleaning cars and directing traffic near a taco stand to raise enough money to call your uncle who will call your mother in North Carolina who hopefully will be able to pay a smuggler to get you across the treacherous river. Luck and grit. All to get here, to the United States, to a better life. To perhaps, the waiting arms of their mothers, who at this point, are akin to strangers.
People are willing to go all that to get here, and we shun, ostracize, and put up barriers. It astonishes me. Instead of taking a measure of pride and sympathy in the fact that people are willing to risk death to cross an a silly line in the sand between Nuevo Laredo and Laredo, we turn them around and tell them not to come again. It’s shameful. Far poorer people in Mexico treat the migrants better than we do (I’m being a bit hyperbolic, I know there are a great number of people and organizations who work tirelessly to help people from this side of the border).
But it’s also worth dwelling on the “luck” of strangers’ kindness along the way, particularly in the rail town of Veracruz, where people are as poor as the migrants they’re helping, but if they have one tortilla for themselves, they give the migrant the other half. Because it’s the Christian thing to do. Because it’s the right thing to do. I’m not sure many Americans know this because they think all people of Hispanic ethnicity are a monolith, but for example, Mexicans look down on Central Americans for being dirtier, poorer, and violent. They dislike the “illegal immigrants” pouring through their country, too! Even the littlest of language discrepancies between Mexicans and Central Americans can mean the difference between continuing on in your journey or being deported back to Guatemala. But the people of Veracruz are different. Specifically, along the way, folks like Olga Sanchez Martinez and Padre Leonardo Lopez Guajardo, who provided sanctuary in their own way for migrants passing through. Olga would help the many migrants who lost limbs to the trains, again, because it is the Christian thing to do. Leonardo clothed, fed, and housed scores of migrants passing through Nuevo Laredo, often giving them his own shirts, selling his own belongings to raise money for them. Because it is the Christian thing to do, often much to the chagrin of his congregation.
As I mentioned, when Enrique does make it to North Carolina to reunite with Lourdes, that isn’t the end of the journey, but the start of another: both of them learning to be mother-and-son again. There are growing pains, considerable ones, as they fight and bicker, with Enrique chastising his mother for abandoning him, and Lourdes wanting her son to study and be more disciplined. Enrique falls into alcohol and glue-sniffing again. Eventually, he’s even arrested and slated for deportation until Nazario steps in with the help of two immigration lawyers willing to work pro bono on Enrique’s case.
Surprisingly, because I didn’t think she would leave Jasmine behind, María Isabel comes to the United States to be with Enrique, and then Enrique, unlike his mother, to be fair, is able to bring Jasmine through a female smuggler into the United States. Thanks to a U visa after Jasmine is robbed at a store, Enrique, María Isabel, and Jasmine are allowed to stay in the United States. Enrique, while in jail, becomes a father again to a second child, a boy named Daniel Enrique.
Nazario’s book is a happy ending of a kind. A journey that was beyond perilous, where even the littlest of details are horrifying to imagine a child having to do, Enrique made it to his family and with his family, and then made it again to overcome both emotional resentment toward his mother and the legal hurdles to being allowed to stay in the United States. His story is not a fairytale story by any stretch — if it was, his reunion with Lourdes would have been perfect from the get-go — but that is also what brings authenticity to Nazario’s story.
Most stories of migrants crossing into the United States are not like that. Instead, they end in deportation, again and again, or rape and other forms of violence, whether by the nature of the journey itself (trains, snakes, heat, hunger, etc.) or the roving gangs, or both. Or death. Lots of death.
Unlike Nazario, I don’t think the solution to this problem of mothers feeling the need to leave their children behind for a better life in the United States and in turn, their children seeking them here, is a problem of origin, i.e., if only the United States could help make Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador better, then people like Lourdes and Enrique wouldn’t leave Honduras, their country with their families and familiar culture and customs. To be sure, we ought to do what we can as a developed, rich country to help developing countries the world over, including in Latin and Central America (and one way to dramatically help things would be to end the War on Drugs, which seeps into international countries, but I digress).
But the real solution is open borders! I just reviewed a book about that, but all of these issues, the perilous journey, the fear of being deported once in the United States, and so on, are symptoms, if you will, of barriers to entry for low-skilled people fleeing violence and economic poverty from developing countries. In the Afterword, when Nazario is discussing these issues, and trying to present information about the so-called “benefit and burden” of immigrants to the United States, she quotes Escalada Hernandez, director of the Casa YMCA shelter for immigrant children in Tijuana, Mexico, as saying, “The effect of immigration has been family disintegration. People are leaving behind the most important value: family unity.”
That’s not the effect of immigration! That is the effect of barriers to immigration! If the barriers weren’t what they are, the mothers would bring their children with them, thus keeping the family intact!
My frustration with that and Nazario’s well-intentioned but misguided solution, in my humble opinion, I thought her book about Enrique’s life, who she had misgivings about covering since he wasn’t an “angel,” makes for a compelling, thoroughly enthralling read. To me, it isn’t even that we relate to imperfect people more than perfect angels, although that’s part of it, but that, when telling the story of migrants to the United States, it is a disservice to the story and to social justice to present the “poster child” for the “perfect migrant.” There are no perfect migrants, and yet, the cause is right, whether you’re Olga or Padre Leonardo and you’re reasoning is your faith, or you just think it’s the right thing on its own terms, as I do.
For those who aren’t as immersed in this world, or even tend to think of immigration from developed countries in a “barriers-first” approach, I think Nazario’s book, which adeptly balances the scope of the problem while also presenting an intimate, authentic portrait of it in equal measure, will open your eyes in profound, unforgettable ways. Even as someone who likes to think of themselves as a convert to the cause, there is no substitute for the harrowing details of the journey children are making on a regular basis to the United States that Nazario provides in her book.