Lourdes has decided to leave Tegucigalpa, Honduras for the United States. She is frightened for her son, five-year old Enrique, but she does not hug him or say a word as he clutches her pant leg. She cannot take his picture with her because it will break her resolve, and Lourdes knows she must leave if she is to earn a decent wage with which to create a better life for herself and her children.
In Tegucigalpa, Lourdes can barely afford food and clothing for her two children, Enrique and his seven-year old sister, Belky. Lourdes is a single mother at twenty-four years old. She washes other people’s clothes in the river for money, and sells tortillas, used clothing, and plantains. Next to the Pizza Hut in downtown Tegucigalpa, she squats at the side of the road to sells gum, crackers, and cigarettes. Her future is bleak, and she knows she cannot afford to send her children to school past the third grade.
When she was seven years old, Lourdes saw images of New York City, Las Vegas, and Disneyland on the televisions at other people’s houses. The dream of living in America, so far from a two room shack made of wooden slates with no bathroom, is thrilling for her.
Like many other women of similar circumstances, she decides to embark on the dangerous journey north, to find work in the United States so that she might send the money to her children. She plans to leave for one year, and then to return home. She has asked her sister, Rosa Amalia, to care for Belky while she is gone, and expects Enrique's father to take care of him. Lourdes does not say goodbye to Enrique - it is too hard for her. Instead, she tells him something he will always remember: “Don’t forget to go to church this afternoon” (5). It is January 29, 1989, and Lourdes never returns.
The separation between mother and son dictates Enrique’s future. He will eventually set out after her, and become one of 48,000 children from Mexico or Central America who enter the U.S. illegally. Nazario details this phenomenon. Most children who travel north are looking for their mothers, while others seek work or are escaping abusive homes. Half of them travel with smugglers, and the rest go alone. Hunted like animals by gangs, bandits, and corrupt police, the children are often robbed, beaten, and raped several times. Some are killed. Setting out with little money and often only a tentative idea of where their mothers live, the children cling to the tops of freight trains. To avoid the Mexican and U.S. authorities, they jump from moving trains, and sometimes fall into the wheels.
Though fifteen is the average age for migrants, children as young as seven travel alone, using only their wits and determination to guide them. Their mothers often leave when they are young, and these migrants begin to idealize them, believing their mothers to be larger than life. “Finding them becomes the quest for the Holy Grail” (7).
Lourdes travels with a smuggler, and crosses into the United States during of the largest immigrant waves in U.S. history. She enters the country at night through a sewage tunnel, and makes her way into Los Angeles. Her plan is to go to Miami, but her smuggler abandons her at a Greyhound bus station. She waits three days for him to return, but hunger and desperation drive her to find a job at a factory. There, she sorts tomatoes for $14.00 a day. Eventually, she locates a friend of her brother in Los Angeles who helps her obtain a counterfeit Social Security card and a job. Working as a live-in nanny, she moves into a Beverly Hills home to care for a three year old who reminds of her Enrique. Her employers pay her $125 a week, and Lourdes is able to send money, clothes, and toys to her children in Honduras.
Back in Honduras, Enrique asks after his mother everyday, but she does not return. His father remarries and moves out to start a new family. Enrique is left in the care of his paternal grandmother, María Marcos, and eventually grows to hate his father. Belky is living with Rosa Amalia in a nicer part of town, and is able to attend school thanks to the money Lourdes sends. Although she loves the clothing and stuffed animals her mother has given to her, she is deeply distraught by her mother’s absence and finds comfort in befriending other young girls whose mothers have left.
The home Enrique shares with María Marcos is considerably less refined than that of Rosa Amalia. It is a four room hut built from wooden slates, with minimal electricity. There is no running water; the bathroom is a hole in the ground next to two large buckets used for bathing. Lourdes sends $50-$100 a month, but it is not enough for school supplies. Both Enrique and his grandmother work - she sells used clothing, and he sells tamales, spices, and plastic bags filled with juice.
Enrique makes a Mother’s Day card for his grandmother, and rarely speak to Lourdes anymore. They do not have a phone, and he can only speak to her when she calls their cousin’s home, but he is often not close enough to fetch when she calls. One year, Lourdes does not call at all.
Lourdes is struggling with her life in the U.S., and finds that the television images she once saw do not reflect reality. She now shares an apartment with three other women, and sleeps on the floor. An old boyfriend from Honduras, Santos, moves in with her and she unintentionally gets pregnant. Now working in a fish factory, Lourdes struggles through the pregnancy and a difficult relationship with her boyfriend. Santos does not take her to the hospital when she goes into labor; instead, he spends the night at a bar. She gives birth their daughter, Diana, and is only allowed to stay at the hospital for two days.
Two months after Diana’s birth, Lourdes is fired from her job at the factory. She gets a new job at a pizzeria and bar. One night, Santos punches her in the chest because he is jealous of her friendship with one of her male coworkers. A year later, Santos returns to Honduras with their savings of several thousand dollars to make investments. He squanders the money on a drinking binge and on a fifteen year old girl.
Santos does not return and, within two months, Lourdes is forced to give up her apartment and car. She rents a garage for $300 a month, where she and Diana share a mattress on the floor. The garage roof leaks, and slugs crawl onto their mattress. Diana grows ill, but Lourdes cannot afford medicine.
Lourdes becomes a fichera, a type of prostitute who gets bar patrons to spend money on drinks. Nine months later, she finds work cleaning offices and houses by day, and work at a gas station by night. She works ten hour shifts, and then picks up Diana from school and drops her off at a babysitter’s house. Lourdes sleeps one or two hours, then returns to work until two o’clock in the morning. She takes side jobs, working at a candy factory for $2.25 an hour. Lourdes is able to send money to Enrique and Belky again.
Furious about the new baby, Belky withdraws emotionally from her mother. When he can talk to her on the phone, Enrique continues to ask when she will return home. Around this time, Enrique has the idea to travel north in search of her. Meanwhile, Lourdes wants to become an American citizen and legally bring her children to the country. Unfortunately, she spends $3,850 on fraudulent storefront immigration counselors who steal her money.
One year, Lourdes promises to come home by Christmas. Enrique waits by the front door for her, but she never arrives. He asks his grandmother how Lourdes got to the United States and she replies “maybe…she went on the trains” (19).
Lourdes is afraid that returning to Honduras will prohibit her from ever returning to the U.S. She fears the smugglers (called coyotes) who are often alcoholics or drug addicts. Lourdes knows all too well of the dangers. One of her friends had paid a smuggler to bring her sister to Long Beach, California. In Mexico, the sister and others were put in a overloaded boat which capsized and killed most of them. They were buried in a shallow grave on the beach.
Children face particular danger if entrusted to smugglers. They are often abandoned and left to the care of the foster homes in Mexico or the United States. Pictures of these children are broadcast over the television in the hopes that someone will recognize them and bring them home again. Smugglers charge up to $3,000 per child, and sometimes as high as $6,000. To bring a child over by commercial air costs $10,000, and Lourdes does not have enough money to send for even one of her children.
In Honduras, Enrique begins to rebel. He hits other children and is suspended from school three times, though he does eventually complete elementary school. Now fourteen years old, he spends most of his time on the streets of Carrizal, playing soccer and refusing to sell spices. His grandmother beats him with a belt, but Enrique continues to misbehave. Upset but determined, Marìa Marcos asks Lourdes by letter to find Enrique a new home, since she is too old to take care of a rebellious youth. Lourdes arranges for Enrique to stay with her brother, Marco. Enrique likes the new arrangement and developments a strong relationship with his uncle.
A year passes, and Lourdes moves to North Carolina to work as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. Away from the big city, she can save more money to hopefully bring her children to the U.S. She meets a house painter from Honduras, and they soon fall in love.
Enrique begins working for his uncle, washing cars and changing money on the Honduran border. Tragically, Marco and his brother Victor are killed during an exchange. To pay for their funerals, Lourdes sends all of the money she had saved to bring her children to America. Within days of Marco’s funeral, Enrique is forced out on the streets by his uncle’s girlfriend, who has no use for him.
Enrique next stays with his maternal grandmother, who shares her house with two of his aunts and four of his cousins. Enrique descends into a deep depression, and becomes introverted. He misses Marco terribly, and drops out of school. He begins to sniff glue, until his grandmother throws him out of the house. He is forced to live in a stone hut on their property; it has no electricity.
Soon after Marco’s funeral, Enrique meets and falls in love with María Isabel, who has also been shuffled from home to home during her youth. Enrique wants to have a child with María Isabel, so that they can start a family together and he will therefore never feel alone or abandoned again. Regrettably, Enrique develops a worse drug habit, sniffing glue from baby jars and smoking marijuana. His family tries to intervene, but he continues to spiral out of control. Enrique begins to hallucinate - he does not recognize his family, and once tries to throw himself off a hill. The family chooses not to tell Lourdes of his condition.
On his sixteenth birthday, Enrique makes his first attempt to ride atop the trains. He and his friend Jóse leave Honduras on a bus headed to Guatemala, which is near the Mexican border. They eventually cross into Mexico and board a freight train, but are robbed by police officers and then arrested. They are released, and then board another train. For the first time, Enrique jumps from car to car on the slow-moving train. He slips and falls, but luckily lands onto a padded surface. They are caught near Tierra Blanca in Veracruz, and again deported. He and Jóse sell coconuts for bus fare, and then return home.
Enrique sinks deeper into drugs, until he owes 6,000 lempiras (about $400) to his dealer. He does not have the money. The dealer threatens to kill his cousin if Enrique does not pay up. In desperation, Enrique steals jewelry from his Rosa Amalia, who then reports him to the police. When confronted, Enrique claims he was too high to know what he was doing, and warns the family that his cousin is in danger. Enrique's uncle then gets him a job at a tire store, where he earns $15 a week. Despite the pleas of both his family and Marìa Isabel, Enrique continues to use drugs. One day, he gets into a heated argument with his aunt, and hits her in the buttocks. His grandmother kicks him off of her property.
Marìa Isabel is urged to leave Enrique, but she loves him and thinks she is pregnant with his child. Enrique believes the only person who can help him is his mother, but he has no money for a smuggler, and he dreads leaving Marìa Isabel behind. Nevertheless, Enrique finally sells his belongings and says goodbye to his family and girlfriend. On March 2, 2000, with only $57, a change of clothes, and his mother's phone number written on a scrap of paper and inside of the waistband of his jeans, Enrique sets out for the United States.
Enrique’s Journey opens with a photo of a young Enrique looking sadly into the camera while wearing his kindergarten graduation gown and hat. His expression is somber, which sets the tone for the first few sections of the book, in which a young Enrique adjusts to life without his mother. It also implicitly establishes one of Nazario's main purposes: to consider how a child copes with harsh realities, of both poverty and perceived abandonment.
The chapter The Boy Left Behind includes many of the book's central themes - abandonment, family, and love. Lourdes has made the fateful decision to go to the United States to seek work so that she might send money, food, and clothing back to her two young children in Honduras. However, this decision has a myriad of consequences. What Nazario is most interested in here are the emotional consequences. Both Lourdes and the children must combat feelings of guilt and shame because of what poverty has led her to do. The book is powerful partly because it neither judges nor justifies Lourdes. Both potential decisions - to leave or to stay - can lead to terrible and heartbreaking consequences. Nazario is content to explore the issue, and to present both sides of the argument, and how each impacts family, love, and feelings of abandonment.
Enrique is established here as a protagonist, which is interesting considering that the book is primarily a work of journalism rather than fiction. However, it is an effective choice to set him up as a character with a clearly established goal. It creates a dramatic momentum summarized in the final question of the prologue, and which leads a reader to root for him as he undertakes this journey. While Nazario's book is based on reality and documented interviews, she nevertheless structures it with a dramatic shape - the character is put into a difficult situation in this opening chapter, and he decides to undertake a journey to improve his life.
The imagery in this chapter is striking. Lourdes's poverty is drawn with a myriad of specific details - for instance, at one point she sits next to a Pizza Hut, an American food chain, while Enrique rides a broomstick, pretending it’s a donkey. Marìa Marco’s home, a shack of wooden slats that she built herself, with no running water and little electricity, exemplifies not only the theme of poverty, but its visceral nature. Nazario's strength as a journalist serves her well as she establishes the reality of the challenges these families face.
Ironically, Lourdes's commitment to family produces a disintegration of the family. It is more than just her absence. Enrique's father leaves him to start another family, and both Enrique and Belky must confront their feelings of abandonment. Whereas Belky is able to compartmentalize and turn emotionally from her mother, Enrique seems to idealize her even as his emotional scars lead him to bad, harmful behavior. His disrepect towards the family that takes care of him only emphasizes how Lourdes's attempt to be a strong mother have in some ways hurt her son.
Nazario also explores the irony of the American promise. Symbols of the American dream - Disneyland’s magic castle, the lights of Los Vegas, the size of New York City - flutter in the background of Lourdes’s mind as she travels to the United States. The reality she faces is markedly different. Los Angeles is full of cruelty and poverty, all of which bite particularly hard since they are forced reminders of what she has left behind. And yet she is able to make money by embracing these aspects of American society. Again, Nazario makes no easy attacks, but is content to explore the irony of both sides.
The details on smugglers are particularly intriguing. Firstly, they are clearly expensive, a particular challenge considering their customers tend to be poverty stricken. Secondly, smugglers, especially those who traffic in children, are notoriously cruel, according to the United States Border Patrol. Smugglers, who often drink or use drugs on the journey, have been known to rape their charges, to leave them in the desert, at bus stations, or at the first sign of danger. Children who are abandoned by their smugglers now face the world alone; some die of exposure while others, luckily, are picked up by immigration officials and are taken to shelters. Although not an ideal situation, they are at leat safe.
Enrique's rebellion towards the end of the section provides the most in-depth manifestation of the abandonment theme. He is not only rebellious, but also mean. He makes a teacher cry, and hits other children. When he finally does turn inward, he is cruel to himself through his glue-sniffing. This behavior isolates him from others, and leaves him feeling that nobody loves him. His only possible reprieve is the mother he had idealized, the mother who the reader knows faces her own challenges. Though he leaves his girlfriend - who he believes might be pregnant with his child - it is clear that staying in Honduras will likely mean his end, whether by arrest or death. His journey has begun.