Enrique’s Journey chronicles the life of a young Central American boy, and his quest to reunite with a mother who left him at the age of five to find work in the United States.
Enrique's mother, Lourdes, struggles in Honduras to support her young children, Belky and Enrique. She knows she will not be able to send her son and daughter to school past the third grade, and does not want them to grow up as she did, in extreme poverty. Like many other single Latina mothers in the recent decades, Lourdes leaves her home and family to travel to the United States so that she might send money home for her children.
Young Enrique has no idea why his mother has left, and his family in Honduras does not give him straight answers. Over the years, Enrique is shuffled from one family home to another, while his sister Belky attends a good school and is well cared for by their aunt. Enrique is forced to sell food and spices when still a child, in order to help pay for family expenses. He lives with his paternal grandmother for most of his young life, but is eventually kicked out of her home when he begins to rebel. Frustrated with his mother, his own issues of abandonment, and the death of his beloved uncle, Enrique turns to drugs for comfort. His family and his girlfriend, María Isabel, try to intervene but make little headway.
In the meantime, Lourdes discovers that life in the United States is more difficult than she expected. She works a series of low-paying jobs, and becomes pregnant. After she gives birth to her daughter, Diana, Lourdes loses her factory job, and becomes a fichera, a type of prostitute. Eventually, she finds steady work again, and is able to send money, clothing, and toys to her children in Honduras.
Although Enrique and Belky appreciate the gifts, they are no substitute for their mother’s physical presence. Enrique’s drug problems continue to escalate until his drug dealer threatens to kill his cousin over unpaid debts. Enrique steals his aunt’s jewelry to pay off his dealer, but is caught by the police. Later, he is kicked out of his home again, and although he does not want to leave María Isabel, who is pregnant with their child, Enrique feels compelled to journey to his mother, the only person he believes might understand and love him.
So begins Enrique’s journey through Central America and Mexico on his way to the United States. He departs with little money, a change of clothes, and his mother’s phone number written on a scrap of paper. Enrique attempts the dangerous journey eight times before he succeeds. During his first seven attempts, he is severely beaten, robbed, deported, and humiliated. However, he never gives up.
To travel north, Enrique, like other migrants, rides the tops of freight trains, a most dangerous endeavor. Many migrants have been killed on the trains, by being pulled under the wheels or by falling off. Gangsters rule the tops of the trains, robbing, beating, raping, and killing migrants. Bandits and robbers are also a threat. Equally dangerous are corrupt police officers and la migra, the Mexican immigration officers who have been known to rob migrants before deporting them. Lastly, migrants must weather the threats of starvation, dehydration, and exhaustion. Many migrants fail to make it as far as the U.S./Mexican border, but Enrique is not one of them.
On his eighth attempt north, Enrique waits on the banks of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. It is a dangerous setting, but he is protected as part of a small encampment. He raises enough money to call his mother, who helps pay for a smuggler to take him across the river and into the United States. Enrique crosses the river in an inner tube and is taken to Orlando, Florida. He is soon reunited with his mother for the first time in over a decade. He and Lourdes embrace each other, but they do not cry. Soon enough, he moves in with Lourdes and her roommates, and begins to work.
The idealized reunion they both imagined is soon shattered by reality. Like many children who travel north to find their parent(s) in the United States, Enrique had created a larger than life image of his mother; he felt that if he found her, all of his troubles would go away. Lourdes, on the other hand, expects respect for the sacrifices she had made, but is met only with resentment and occasional cruelty. Enrique returns to using drugs and alcohol as a means of coping with his disappointment.
Meanwhile María Isabel is raising their daughter, Jasmín, in Honduras. Enrique, like Lourdes before him, sends money to his girlfriend and baby. Enrique wants to save enough money to hire a smuggler to bring María Isabel to the Untied States, so that they might work together to provide a better life for their daughter. Initially his personal problems and conflict with Lourdes distract him from sending much money back. However, time passes and he comes to peace with his resentments, and saves more. After these few years of indecision and miscommunication, Enrique pays a smuggler to bring María Isabel to the United States. Jasmín remains in Honduras, to be cared for by Belky.
Throughout Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario exposes the harsh realities of immigration. In many ways, her own perspective is as much a character as Enrique is. She suggests that the separation between a mother and her child, as experienced by Lourdes and Enrique, is not beneficial in the long run. Resentment, anger, and frustration lead to lasting emotional damage and misunderstandings. Nazario also explores the many questions - political, social, economic, and personal - of immigration through interviews and explanations as Enrique makes his journey. However, these many problems are ultimately presented as less profound than that of family deterioration.