Sonia Nazario (2006) Enrique’s Journey. New York: Random House
What would motivate a single mother to leave her children and travel by herself to live in another country? Once their mother is gone, what happens to the children left behind? These desperate questions are asked every day by the thousands of families caught precariously between the United States and Central America.
A generation ago, Latin American fathers would emigrate to the U.S., sending money home while their wives took care of the children. However, the breakdown of family structure in the region means that more and more households are headed by single mothers. When these single mothers are no longer able to support their families, the option arises to leave their children with relatives and travel alone to the U.S. (often illegally), where entry-level jobs pay ten times as much.
Sonia Nazario, a successful journalist living in Los Angeles, discovered one day that her cleaning lady, Carmen, had left four children behind in Guatemala. Then one day, a year later—which was thirteen years after Carmen had left Guatemala—her son Minor showed up on her doorstep in Los Angeles:
He has missed his mother intensely. He could not stand another Christmas or birthday apart. He was tired of what he saw as his mother’s excuses for why they could not be together. He had to know: Did she leave Guatemala because she never truly loved him? How else could he explain why she left?
Minor’s friends in Guatemala envied the money and presents Carmen sent. “You have it all. Good clothes. Good tennis shoes,” they said. Minor answered, “I’d trade it all for my mother. I never had someone to spoil me. To say: Do this, don’t do that, have you eaten? You can never have the love of a mother from someone else.
Every year, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children cross the U.S. border, most of them from Central America. They are running away from gang violence and poverty, but many are also running towards their mothers, who left them to go to the U.S. years before. Nazario’s book documents the experience of one teenage migrant from Honduras named Enrique.
Typically, the mothers expect to stay in the U.S. for only a couple years but have a hard time returning. Eventually, their children set out after them:
Some were babies when their mothers left; they know them only by pictures sent home. Others, a bit older, struggle to hold on to memories: One has slept in her mother’s bed; another has smelled her perfume, put on her deodorant, her clothes. One is old enough to remember his mother’s face, another her laugh, her favorite shade of lipstick, how her dress felt as she stood at the stove patting tortillas.
Many, including Enrique, begin to idealize their mothers. They remember how their mothers fed and bathed them, how they walked them to kindergarten. In their absence, these mothers become larger than life. Although in the United States the women struggle to pay rent and eat, in the imaginations of their children back home they become deliverance itself, the answer to every problem. Finding them becomes the quest for the Holy Grail.
Enrique’s mother Lourdes went to the U.S. when he was still in kindergarten, leaving Enrique with his grandmother. His sister, Belky, went with an aunt who lived a few miles away. The two siblings rarely saw each other after that. Enrique was too young to understand his mother’s decision; he felt betrayed and totally alone. Belky was older and could see that her mother’s absence provided money for food and school supplies.
For a while Enrique lived with his father, who had long been separated from Lourdes, until his father met a new woman and moved away. As he grew older, Enrique’s loneliness began to harden into anger. He started acting out in school and spent the money his mother sent on drugs and alcohol. Without any emotional support from his mother, he became rudderless. His aging grandmother was too busy to properly look after him. His extended family worried about him, but he resented them. Soon he reached his low point: stealing from his family to pay off his drug debts. After that he decided to attempt the journey to the United States. His family begged him not to go but nonetheless gave him a bit of money for the journey. At the age of 17, he left home carrying a toothbrush, his mother’s phone number written on a card, fifty-seven dollars, and the clothes on his back.
Nazario picks up his story again six months later. By that time he had attempted seven journeys into Mexico, each ending in arrest and deportation back to the southern border. With each attempt he would get a little farther than the last as he figured out the dangers of the journey. Migrants travel across Mexico on freight trains because the bus lines are carefully monitored by the Mexican immigration police. The trains, on the other hand, are only checked by the police at certain locations, and the migrants have discovered tactics for avoiding them.
Arrest and deportation is the most common way for a migrant’s journey to end, but worse fates are also possible. If a migrant slips while getting on or off the moving train, the air flow under the vehicle can suck them down into the moving wheels. Worse still, the region’s drug gangs (who cause the violence that many of the migrants are fleeing from) also prey on the freight trains, robbing migrants of whatever they may have. The gangsters are merciless: rape, torture, and murder are commonly used against the vulnerable travelers.
Nazario tells the story of a shelter for the migrants in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Routinely, a migrant will stumble into town having been beaten to the point of death by outlaws or law enforcement or perhaps missing a limb from an accident on the train. The local hospitals can hardly afford to pay for the migrants’ recovery, so many of them wind up at this shelter run by a local woman. They are in no condition to continue their journey but neither do they feel they can return home. They left in order to provide for their families, but they feel ashamed at their failure, and those who are maimed know they may never work again.
On his seventh journey, Enrique was badly beaten by gangsters. His left eye socket was damaged, leading to a permanently drooping eyelid, and several of his teeth were broken. After being deported back to the border, he immediately re-crossed to begin the journey again.
The local Mexicans in each region respond in different ways to the migrants. In Chiapas, near the border, Nazario reports that they are mostly hostile. In Oaxaca and Veracruz, they are considered more supportive, however, and local priests often lobby the police to prevent migrant arrests. In these states, the local people will often bring food and other supplies to toss up to the migrants on the trains. Mexico City, on the other hand, is so chaotic that no one feels like they can really trust strangers. After all, the gangsters who travel with the migrants often cannot be distinguished on sight.
After making it through Mexico City, Enrique hitchhiked on a truck into northern Mexico. He eventually arrived at a migrant camp at the U.S. border in Nuevo Laredo but was unsure how to cross.
In his iterated journeys he had lost everything he brought with him—most importantly, the scrap of paper carrying his mother’s phone number, which he had not memorized. That meant he needed to call someone back in Honduras to get the number, and then he had to call his mother in the U.S. to figure out how to find her. Enrique lived in the migrant camp for weeks, trying to beg or work to get enough money to pay for the calls. After eventually scrounging the 100 pesos (roughly $10) required for two international calls, Enrique finally got in touch with his mother, who agreed to pay a smuggler $1,700 to get him over the border.
Twelve years after their separation, Enrique and his mother Lourdes were finally reunited. But life together was not the paradise Enrique had made it out to be. He was now a surly, streetwise 17-year-old, but his mother only remembered the kind-hearted toddler whom she left behind. She wanted respect for the sacrifice she had made, but he was still angry at her for abandoning him.
Each of them found employment that made their previous financial concerns seem trifling, but neither could really take advantage of their wealth. Lourdes had gotten pregnant from an abusive boyfriend, and her daughter born in the U.S., Diana, required much of the money she had planned to send back to Honduras. Enrique did no better, squandering the $10 an hour he earned by getting drunk several nights a week.
Furthermore, Enrique had a daughter of his own back in Honduras. He had left behind a pregnant girlfriend. He began sending money home to provide for them, but every time he called home he would try to persuade his girlfriend to leave their daughter with family and join him in the United States.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What happens to a child whose mother is absent, even if she has a clear reason for being gone? Do you know anyone who has grown up with absent parents? How do their feelings compare to Enrique’s?
- Why do you think Enrique wants his girlfriend to make the same decision his mother made?
- Does this story change your feelings about immigration at all? According to Nazario, Enrique says that if he were a U.S. citizen that he would vote to make it harder for more immigrants to come, because they compete with him for jobs. Do you agree or disagree with his conclusion?
This book clearly laments the hazards which Central American immigrants must face in order to make it to the U.S., yet Sonia Nazario explicitly argues that it’s a bad idea for mothers to leave their children behind. This creates a paradox: if we could make it easier for migrants to travel north, then more of them would come. How can we stop people from attempting the journey, while still protecting those who do come? Some people argue that the only solution is to allow more people to immigrate legally, so that families can come together. That way, they argue, there would be less demand for the illegal journey.
Whatever your opinions on immigration may be, our decisions regarding immigration will have a whole host of consequences on families and economies throughout the region. This book is an excellent case study in some of those unintended consequences.
© 2017 CYS