Skip to content
Ask the Reporter and Photographer
Sonia Nazario and Don Bartletti received more than 200 letters about their work on "Enrique's Journey." Here are their responses to readers' most common questions.
How did you come to write this story?
Sonia Nazario: Ive spent my newspaper career writing about social issues. I often try to find a way to write about major social issues-drug addiction, hunger, immigration-in a way that will entice readers to want to read about these topics.
In the mid-1990s, I met a woman, a Guatemalan immigrant, who talked about how she and many other single mothers from Central America had come to the United States and left their children behind. She had been separated from her sons and daughters for 12 years. She talked about the immense heartache. When her teenage son came on his own to find her, I spoke with him about the journey, about the trains. I knew it was an important, untold part of the story of immigration to the United States. It was a way for The Times to take readers on a ride, tell a good story, and maybe cast a little light on the modern-day immigrant experience. For a while, I sat on the idea. I knew that if I did this story, and saw things up close enough to write a vivid account, I would have to travel through Mexico with migrants on top of freight trains. I had talked to several immigrants about the dangers involved. I was afraid. Afraid of the gangsters, the bandits, the Mexican police, of being beaten, robbed, raped or losing a leg to the train. I did a lot of research into the specific dangers, and tried to find ways in which I could ameliorate those dangers. A Times colleague helped me obtain a letter from an assistant to Mexico's president. The letter asked any Mexican authorities and police I encountered along the way to cooperate with my reporting endeavors. That letter helped me convince an armed migrant-rights group, Grupo Beta, to accompany photographer Don Bartletti and me on the trains through Chiapas, Mexico, the most dangerous leg of the journey. I obtained permission from the four companies that operate the freight trains up the length of Mexico to ride on the tops of their trains. That way, the conductor would at least know that Don and I were aboard. I devised a signalI would wave a red jacket that I had tied around my waistif I was in dire danger. With these measures, I felt the story was worth doing.
_ _ _
How did you find Enrique?
Sonia Nazario: I knew that I wanted to tell this story through the experiences of one boy. As part of preparing for this story, I had interviewed dozens of children in Los Angeles schools and in four detention centers used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Many had ridden on the freight trains. From those conversations, I knew that it would be impossible to start in Central America and stick with one boy. The odds of being seperated while running from police, bandits, or gangs, was enormous. That would never work. So I decided to find a boy on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border, and follow him to his mother in the United States. I spent weeks visiting and calling various immigrant shelters along the border in Mexico. One church in Nuevo Laredo, the Parroquia de San Jose, seemed to get a fair number of these kids. During one call, one of the church's nuns mentioned that two children had arrived at the church for a meal, a 15-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy. Both were trying to reach their mothers in the United States. She arranged for me to interview them on the phone. The boy was Enrique.
_ _ _
Does the INS try to deport the subjects of such stories?
Sonia Nazario: Sometimes, the agency moves to deport the subjects of newspaper stories who are in the United States illegally, other times it doesnt.
_ _ _
How did you go about doing the story?
Sonia Nazario: Once I had found Enrique, photographer Don Bartletti and I spent two weeks with him on the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo. We followed him around, and I interviewed him. Then, we followed him to North Carolina. Over several days of interviews, I got more of the blow-by-blow details of Enriques entire journey. I interviewed his mother, Lourdes, his sister, Diana, and others.
Then, Don and I traveled to Honduras. I spent a week interviewing Enrique's family. We traveled through Central America and Mexico as Enrique had. We took buses through Guatemala. We began riding atop freight trains in Chiapas, Mexico. We rode seven freight trains up the length of Mexico. We got off the trains in San Luis Potosi, as Enrique had. We took the same bus he took to Matehuala, Mexico. There, we hitchhiked on an 18-wheeler, just as Enrique had done.
In reconstructing his journey, I tried to carefully follow in his footsteps, to see and experience things as he had seen and experienced them. Along the way, I interviewed many of the people Enrique had encountered during his journey, as well as other immigrants. I showed a photograph of Enrique to people in Mexico so that I was sure we were talking about the same child.
Don and I sometimes rode with other children going to find their mothers in the United States, including a 12-year-old boy who was trying to reach his mother in San Diego.
My travels helped me come up with many additional questions for Enrique. After three months of travel, I returned to North Carolina to ask Enrique if he had or had not seen and experienced some of the things I had seen during the journey. This helped add rich details to the story.
_ _ _
What was the hardest part of doing this story?
Sonia Nazario: Figuring out a way to do it that would result in the best story with the least danger to myself and photographer Don Bartletti.
Finding the right boy to focus on. Many of the children I encountered in Nuevo Laredo had been robbed of their mothers' telephone numbers. I knew I needed a boy who had the potential to make it to his mother in the United States.
On an emotional level, the story was difficult. It was wrenching to interview mothers in the United States who had spent years separated from their children. It was hard talking to women in Mexico, on their way to the United States, who had just walked away from children one month old. Or interviewing a girl who had been gang raped the previous day along the rails. Or talking to a boy who had just lost a leg to the train. My mission was to chronicle what this journey is like for these children, and to do it to the best of my abilities. To take readers inside this world, to explain. But watching these human dramas unfold before my eyes was very difficult. I often felt inadequate and useless.
Living with the near-constant danger of being beaten, robbed or raped over a period of months was also difficult. I rode on top of a fuel tanker one night when there was rain and lightning. Once, a branch hit me in the face and nearly sent me sprawling off the train top. On that same ride, a child was plucked off the train by a branch. Another time, a train derailed right in front of ours. There was the time I interviewed a girl who had been gang raped along the tracks in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, and realized that I had been alone at that same spot just one day before the rape. Gangsters were aboard some of our trains. Once, as I rode between two train hoppers, I watched a teenager come close to losing both feet to the train.
On the Rio Grande, I worried about so-called "river bandits" and Don and I were approached by Mexican police with their guns drawn.
That said, Don and I endured nothing even minimally close to what immigrants go through on this trek. At the end of a long train ride, I could pull out my credit card and go to a hotel and sleep. I ate. We had so many advantages these immigrants didn't have that I can't even begin to enumerate them.
_ _ _
Give me an update on Enrique, his girlfriend, Maria Isabel, and their daughter, Katherine Jasmin.
Sonia Nazario: To this day, Enrique lives in North Carolina with his mother, Lourdes, his stepsister, Diana, and Lourdes' boyfriend. He still paints houses, but the weakened economy has meant he has struggled to remain employed full time. Enrique continues to send money to relatives in Honduras, and to his girlfriend, Maria Isabel. He is working to save enough so he can pay a smuggler to bring his girlfriend to the United States. When and if that happens, Enrique and Maria Isabel still plan to leave behind their infant, Katherine Jasmin.
_ _ _
How can I help, either by giving money or getting involved?
Sonia Nazario: For specific information, contact Gisselle Acevedo Franco in the Los Angeles Times' communications and public affairs office. Her e-mail is: Gisselle.AcevedoFranco@latimes.com.
The Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) has established a trust for contributions to Enrique and his family. They are also providing assistance to anyone who wishes to contact or donate money to churches or other institutions that assist immigrant children as they travel through Mexico. They can be reached at: (213)385-7800, ext. 127. Checks made payable to CARECEN/Enrique can be sent to: CARECEN/Central American Resource Center, 2845 W. 7th St., Los Angeles, CA, 90006.
_ _ _
How did you take the photograph of the children riding a horse in Chiapas, Mexico?
Don Bartletti: There have been many reader reactions to the photograph of the youngsters on the horse. It remains a favorite of mine.
I was clinging to the top of a Pemex gasoline tank car as the train rocked side to side along the mushy, weed-covered track bed in Chiapas, Mexico. Excessive train speed had caused freight cars to tip over in this region. Suddenly, on the right side of the tracks, the youngsters galloped into sight from behind a stand of sugar cane. They overtook us and raced out of sight into the woods. I had only a few magic seconds to fire off of a sequence of about six frames. This is the best of her angelic smile and wild locks floating in mid-air. The racers thrilled two young Honduran migrants riding next to me. They whistled and yipped, drawing smiles in return. _ _ _
How many camera bodies and lenses did you carry for this assignment?
Don Bartletti: For this assignment I traveled light, carrying fewer lenses and gadgets than usual. I used two smallish Nikon F-100 model film camera bodies, a wide-angle zoom lens, a telephoto zoom and a flash attachment. While on the rails, I slung one camera around my neck, the other over my shoulder. I became adept at leaping between moving cars, dropping to my belly under low-hanging tree branches and shooting with one hand while hanging on to train cars that violently rocked side to side. When I sensed a touchy situation, or it began to rain, I'd quickly stuff the cameras inside a pack around my waist. Sometimes I'd wiggle it around to the back so I could climb, run or crawl.
_ _ _
How much time did you spend taking photographs?
Don Bartletti: Over the five months on the project, I photographed for about three months.
_ _ _
Weren't you afraid for your personal safety, let alone that of your camera gear?
Don Bartletti: Daily, whether riding trains, walking the streets, with migrants on rooftop hideouts or riverside camps, I was always wary of being robbed. As I gathered photographs day by day, the exposed rolls of film became more valuable than anything I carried. As a hedge against losing unrepeatable images, I shipped film, journal notes and ID's to The Times whenever possible. Two and a half months into the trip, I was robbed of everything on a train in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Fortunately, I'd sent film home the previous day.
_ _ _
How did you interact with the migrants and authorities?
Don Bartletti: I never disguised my identity or intentions from anyone. I explained my belief to each traveler I encountered that he was in the midst of a life-changing experience. Some were shocked that anyone but a thief, law enforcement officer or priest would even care. I always asked if I could ride, walk or rest with them. Some moved away, some stayed. One 20-year-old emerged from the trackside brush in Ixtapec, Mexico, slid a machete out of his pants leg and asked what was in the pack. It was tense until the train horn sounded in the nearby switching yard. I decided not to jump that train.
Most asked for money. It wasn't easy refusing to help, it was essential. I was obligated to not affect any situation as much as possible. Usually, migrants I followed accepted my denials. "Don't bother asking," one boy said to a new stowaway who hopped on in Oaxaca, Mexico.
When law enforcement or train crews confronted me, I produced a letter from the office of the president of Mexico that The Times secured prior to the assignment. It explained my intent as a photojournalist and requested that I not be interfered with.
_ _ _
What lasting impressions did this assignment have on you?
Don Bartletti: One afternoon, just north of the Guatemalan border in Chiapas, Mexico, a Grupo Beta undercover security officer described the possible risks of riding the trains. His platoon could protect me through only 200 miles of the worst of gang-infested territory. He said sometimes, when a train can't depart because of a crash, the crush of northbound migrants builds up in the Tapachula freight yard. When a train finally leaves, he said there are so many on board it looks like "El Tren Peregrino, the Pilgrim Train." On several occasions during subsequent weeks riding alone through Oaxaca and Veracruz, I aimed my telephoto lens back along the trains and focused on the crowd of men and boys clinging to rusty brown box cars, oily tankers, cement-encrusted hoppers and gondolas loaded with greasy railroad ties. I saw 40-50 different faces, unified in their resolve, their stoic gazes forward like masks covering personal shortcomings, national failures and their uncertain futures. I thought of the 1907 Alfred Stieglitz photo titled "The Steerage," depicting European immigrants about to disembark at Ellis Island. In the summer of 2000, as I bore witness to this migration for opportunity aboard the Pilgrim Train, I imagined Stieglitz subjects. It was a different century amid different politics but the same story.