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?