Feminist Texican Reads will be featuring a variety of fiction and nonfiction books by/about Latin@s throughout Latina/o Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15).
Enrique’s Journey spent a long time on my TBR pile. I definitely wanted to read it, but I was also dreading the descriptions I would find. Based on a series of Pulitzer-winning Los Angeles Times articles by Sonia Nazario, Enrique’s Journey tells the harrowing story a teenager who leaves his Honduran home to find his mother, who had left her children in Honduras eleven years earlier work as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. Once life in Honduras became intolerable, Enrique was determined to make his way up through Mexico and across the border to North Carolina. To do so, he would have to make a perilous journey through Guatemala and El Salvador, then ride Mexico’s notorious “death trains” up to the border at Laredo, TX.
The remarkable (and depressing) thing about Enrique’s Journey is that Enrique could be almost any other undocumented Central American immigrant in the United States. Immigration is a touchy subject in the United States, but most will acknowledge that many undocumented immigrants suffer various abuses and often risk their lives crossing the Mexican border.
What most people aren’t aware of is that Central Americans face even greater risks crossing up through Guatemala, El Salvador, and certain parts of Mexico; each of these countries has harsh immigration policies and deports undocumented immigrants at astounding rates. Just as some Americans look upon Mexican immigrants as filth, Mexicans, too, have a disdain for Central American immigrants in their country. Those who aren’t caught are left vulnerable to the violent abuses of immigration officials and bandits. Once they make it to Mexico, immigrants can try to jump on top of the trains that travel the length of Mexico all the way up to the U.S. border. But even there they are not safe; if they aren’t trying to hide from police officials, they’re often trying to stay under the radar of the gang members who often jump on board to rob or rape people. As if that weren’t bad enough, it is also easy for people to fall off trains and be maimed or killed on the tracks.
To properly tell Enrique’s story, Sonia Nazario interviewed Enrique and his family, as well as many of the people Enrique encountered along the way. She also attempted to recreate his journey herself, even riding the train up through Mexico at certain points (albeit with the protection of a patrol group). In the U.S., she interviews various immigration officials and visits some detention centers to get a well-rounded story.
I live about five miles from the Mexican border and have visited Mexico countless times. I have friends and students who came from Mexico; most are documented, some are not. Growing up on the border, where probably more than 90% of people are of Mexican descent, and having an interest in immigration issues, I thought I had a pretty decent idea of what Enrique’s journey would entail. I didn’t. I had no idea that they men who try to wash your windshield as you wait to cross the bridge back to Mexico–or the men who try to guide you into a parking space for some spare change as you prepare to do your shopping–are likely not impoverished Mexicans, but Central Americans who are struggling to survive. For all their hustling, they can make under a dollar a day.
I had no idea that many of the people who ride those death trains are little children trying to find their parents in the United States. Those children are even more vulnerable to being killed or maimed as they try to jump on or off the trains, and are often targeted by gangs for robbery and rape. I knew that rape was prevalent, but Nazario noted that at one youth detention center about half an hour from where I live, 1 out of 6 children reported being raped on their journey to the United States. And that statistic just reflects the children who lived and were caught by the Border Patrol. The thought is haunting.
But while some of the stories in Enrique’s Journey will leave you aghast with their brutality, Nazario also includes portraits of some of the best sides of humanity, where rural Mexican villagers come together on behalf of the immigrants, and where poor people will offer what little they have to ease the suffering of some of the people they encounter. Though the book tells Enrique’s story, it is still very much a book about the thousands of nameless immigrants who make the same journey each year and the countless others who are directly affected.
I won’t go into the last part of the book, but I will say the effects of foreign trade and immigration policies are devastating all around. Regardless of your thoughts on “illegal immigrants” (I use scare quotes because I find the term highly problematic and try to avoid it at all costs), there’s a lot that can be taken from this book. I wish everyone would read it.