Blood stained the streets of Buenos Aires. After two journalists were murdered for telling the truth, a girl in Argentina vowed to follow in their footsteps.
Now a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Sonia Nazario can say she fulfilled her promise. And by revealing the truth behind the exodus of thousands of migrants fleeing Latin America, she earned a Pulitzer Prize for her book “Enrique’s Journey” in 2003. In Elon University’s McCrary Theatre on Thursday night, Nazario relived her efforts to experience the determination and suffering of illegal immigrants looking to reunite with their families.
“My goal is to grab you by the throat and take you on a ride,” Nazario said, “to take people inside worlds that they might not ever see otherwise.”
The worlds she brought to her readers were filthy. They were dangerous, and for the children of Latin America separated from their mothers, they were lonely.
In hopes of sparing their children from a life of hunger, many women sacrifice the love of their families by moving to the United States, where they can send money home to their children, at a cost.
“A lot of these women leave their own children and come here and take care of other people’s kids,” she said. “They play with them, take them to the park. They’re not there to hear their own kids say their first words, they’re not there on their birthdays or Christmas morning.”
The desperate longing for a child’s mother shocked Nazario.
“I was stunned by the gritty determination of people to make it through Mexico,” she said. “I think Americans do not understand this kind of determination.”
Nazario retraced one determined Honduran boy’s 1,600-mile journey to reunite with his mother in an attempt to discover what it takes to face such adversity as hunger, violence and poverty.
“Gripping onto the tops and sides of these freight trains that travel up the length of (Mexico), it amazed me that there are thousands of children making this journey each year,” she said.
Although many children attempt to make the trip, the train ride and surrounding community posed threatening obstacles.
“They’re torn apart by the train wheels,” she said. “All of them are hunted down from the moment that they cross into Mexico. They face swarms of bandits waiting for them with machetes, with knives, waiting to rape the girls, rob people and sometimes kill them.”
Children on the trains were starving, dehydrated and victimized by the weather. Nazario said she learned there was more for them to overcome than the physical toll of a brutal odyssey.
“I couldn’t fathom this kind of determination that these migrants had,” she said. “Enrique said all of this was nothing compared to the yearning to be with his mother. He was desperate to be with her again.”
Despite the perils of the Mexican railways, Nazario witnessed triumphs of the human spirit. In the south central state of Veracruz, she watched some of the poorest people in Mexico give their food to the immigrants.
“They threw bread, they threw tortillas, they threw whatever fruit they had in season,” she said. “I remember they were pelting me with bunches of bananas. These folks were making a dollar or two a day and they could barely feed their own kids, but they were giving food to total strangers from other lands.”
After six months of living through Enrique’s hardships, Nazario came to understand the desperation that brought migrants like his mother to America in the first place. Mothers who chose to stay in Latin American poverty forced their children to live in squalor. Many children worked in dumps, searching for food and recyclables.
“I worked for 25 years as a reporter and never have I been in a place where I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “It was such an assault on the senses and yet there were very young children working in this place.”
Nazario shares determination with those children who dreamed of escaping such poverty. Although she never made a perilous migration, Nazario had known relentless ambition. She grew up fighting for recognition in the shadow of her sister’s academic success and was forced to start working at 15 following her father’s sudden death.
“I was lacking in many qualities, but determination was not one of them,” she said. “I think that determination was really part of my DNA.”
Nazario said she felt this determination that day she bodies of the journalists killed in Buenos Aires.
“When I saw that blood on the ground, that was the first day that I really saw the power of words, the power of story telling,” she said. “The lesson of that day never left me, and I became very determined to tell stories that I hoped would matter.”