Enrique's Journey

Enrique's Journey Summary and Analysis of On the Border


An American Border Patrol agent yells into his bullhorn, “You are in American territory. Turn back. Thank you for returning to your country” (137). Enrique is stymied. He has been in Nuevo Laredo, living in an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande, for days. He has no idea if is mother is still in North Carolina. He does not have her phone number or enough money to call her. He knows his mother must have learned from relatives that he is gone. He decides to earn money to buy phone cards, so that he can call his former employer in Honduras (he remembers that number), to try and obtain his mother's number. Each card costs fifty pesos each; he decides to wash cars to earn it.

Enrique stays at an encampment for migrants, coyotes, drug addicts, and criminals. It is hidden from the U.S. immigration authorities by high reeds, thereby enabling the migrants to watch the agents and their sports utility vehicles. Enrique knows he will have to cross the river in order to get to the U.S., but so far has no idea how to achieve this. Some migrants swim over, while others use inner tubes.

Each evening, Enrique takes a bucket and two rags to a popular taco stand. There, he attracts potential costumers with a red rag. He earns very little money. Luckily, two local parish centers offer free meals to migrants. Though overcrowded, Enrique benefits from the charity, and meets other children who have similar stories to his own.

The encampment is run by a man called El Tiríndaro, a patero who smuggles people into the U.S. by pushing them across the river in an inner tube. He is a heroin addict who finances his drug use through tattooing people, petty theft, and smuggling. In Mexico, heroin is called la cura (the cure).

Enrique, known in the encampment as El Hongo (the mushroom) because of his shyness, continues to explore options as he lives under the protection of El Tiríndaro, who considers him a potential customer for smuggling. For $1,200, El Tiríndaro can not only get a migrant across the river, but also set him up with a smuggling operation that will get him further into the country. Luckily, many migrants in the camp look after him because of his age, which allows him to explore options. Each night, when he leaves to wash cars, he is scared to be outside of their protection.

Unfortunately, Enrique is not making enough money for phone cards, and feels guilty when he uses his meager savings on food. El Tiríndaro helps Enrique by taking him to sell the clothing left behind on the riverbank by migrants. Finally, Enrique saves enough to buy two phone cards. To celebrate, he gets a tattoo which reads “EnriqueLourdes” across his chest. He knows his mother will not be pleased. The next day, hungry, he trades one of his phone cards for money to buy food. He begins to sniff glue again, to battle his hunger, fear, and loneliness. Then, someone steals his washing bucket, and he must beg to make money for another phone card.

Enrique considers crossing the river by himself, but he cannot swim and if he were caught, he would be deported. Trains going from Mexico into Texas are out of the question, as they are searched several times and scanned with infrared telescopes to sense body heat. He also cannot walk through Texas, as he is unfamiliar with the terrain. Migrants have been known to die of dehydration in 120 degree weather, or to end up shot by Texan ranchers.

Nazario discusses the extent of security at the border. The INS has hired 5,600 additional agents since 1993 to staff the border. Some agents can track the footprints of migrants as they walk through the Texas desert. Others can tell how old the footprints are and in which directions the migrants are headed. Agents are paid to bring migrants in, and are given a bonus for catching them. They also insist that they actually work in the best interest of migrants, since migrants are too often wounded or killed by rattlesnake bites, train injuries, dehydration, or animals like coyotes and bobcats. In the depressing, difficult terrain, many migrants are thankful when apprehended.

Enrique decides to hire a smuggler, and chooses El Tiríndaro because of his high success rate. Before he can call his family in Honduras, someone steals his right shoe in the middle of the night. Enrique is furious; shoes are almost as important as food in the encampment. He has gone through seven pairs during his journey north. Desperately, he searches for a shoe and finds one on the riverbank - unfortunately, it is a left show, and so now he has wears two left shoes.

On May 19th, Enrique visits Padre Leo, a local priest and advocate for migrant care. Padre Leo is a disheveled but lovable man who rides a blue bicycle. Migrants call him their "champion" because he literally gives them the shirt off his back and the shoes from his feet (175). He also allows the migrants to use the church phone, which Enrique does to call his old boss, who eventually connects him with his relatives, who in turn give him Lourdes's phone number. He next calls Lourdes collect, and they begin preparations to hire a coyote for $1,200.


From the banks of the Rio Grande, the overwhelming sight of the United States represents not only the illusive imagery of the American dream, but also the culmination of Enrique’s journey. His mother feels nearby, although he has no idea whether she is still in North Carolina and has no way to reach her. The promise of the U.S. stands in stark contrast to to the harsh poverty of Nuevo Laredo, where Enrique thanklessly washes cars but can barely save anything.

One of the photographs by Don Bartletti, included in Enrique’s Journey, shows Enrique washing cars at night. Nazario first met Enrique in Nuevo Lardeo during this time period. Her personal insight into the encampment, the stories of other child migrants, and the information she relates about the U.S. Border Patrol all work together to provide a well rounded and insightful image of what life is like for Enrique without compromising the narrative. Bartletti’s photographs further enhance the overall story, giving faces to the names, which naturally underscores the reality of Enrique’s situation.

Nazario's authorial interjections do not detract from Enrique's position as a protagonist. It is an exciting development from a narrative standpoint - our hero has almost reached his goal, but suddenly finds himself facing a new set of overwhelming odds. We continue to root for him, even as setbacks like losing a shoe make his success seem impossible. The chapter ends with something of a cliffhanger - he will get the money! - but clearly, there are more challenges to face.

The phone cards serve as physical representations of Enrique's hope. When he trades one of them for food, it is a visceral reminder of the poverty that grounds him even at his strongest. Were he to fail now, he would have to start over for a ninth time. Two symbols are juxtaposed in this section to exhibit his conflict - his tattoo expresses his unshakeable hope, while the phone card, which he sells the next day, represents the inescapable demands of money and food. These are the forces that compete throughout the story, and no matter how close he gets, the conflict continue to resonate.

Other mothers in the encampment are less enthusiastic or hopeful. As Mother’s Day passes, the young women Nazario speaks to relate how worried they are for the children they have left behind. Mother’s Day is a harsh reminder of the distance between themselves and their children. These mothers pray for their children’s safety, too. One mother says she fears she will lose the love of her children if she stays too long in the United States. On the other side of the Rio Grande, Lourdes worries for her son and prays to St. Judas, patron saint of those in need as well as those who are lost.

Drug use, a distressing but dominant motif within the text, reappears at the end of “On the Border” when Enrique begins to sniff glue again. What is heartbreaking is that we understand the forces that lead him in that direction - his fear, his hunger, his loneliness - but also know that such activity could compromise his mission. His love for her has not faltered, but it now competes with his more physical pain. Narratively, the book stays intriguing as we wonder not only whether Enrique will make it to the U.S., but also whether he will be able to find personal happiness there.