The author, Sonia Nazario, was at her home in Los Angeles on a Friday morning. When her maid, María del Carmen Ferrez, arrived, they began to talk of children. Sonia was shocked to learn that Carmen had four children who still lived in Guatemala.
Carmen’s story began like those of many other single Latina mothers from Mexico and Central America who have traveled to the United States in search of a better life for their families. After Carmen’s husband left her for another woman, she decided to travel to the U.S. in search of work. Leaving her children behind in Guatemala, Carmen embarked on a dangerous journey north, eventually arriving in Los Angeles. She now sends clothing and money back to her children, but feels the emotional strain of separation.
The following year, Carmen’s son Minor arrived unannounced in Los Angeles. He had traveled from Guatemala to California, having faced threats, robbery and the shame of begging in order to reunite with Carmen and determine whether she still loved him. Nazario was intrigued by their story, and so began to investigate why so many Latina mothers and children are immigrating to the U.S. The author states that there is an insatiable need in the United States for cheap service and domestic workers. Every year, approximately 700,000 immigrants arrive in the U.S. illegally, while nearly a million others enter legally or eventually become citizens. The recent wave of immigrants from Central America and Mexico is historically unique - as the divorce rate in Latin America has risen, so have more mothers become unable to support their children and hence decided to brave the journey.
The same increase in immigration occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, when so many American women began working outside of the home for the first time. Responding to a need for cheap labor, floods of women from the Caribbean and Central America arrived in the U.S. to work as nannies and in nursing homes. In the 1980s, the number of domestic workers within Los Angeles doubled. Nazario states, “a University of Southern California study showed, 82 percent of live-in nannies and one in four housecleaners are mothers who still have at least one child in their home country” (xiv).
The U.S. has a complex history concerning immigration. The author states that the presence of immigrants in the U.S. “is deemed good or bad, depending on the perspective” (xiv). Nazario theorized that if she were to tell the story of one immigrant’s journey, perhaps it would better illustrate the issue of immigration as a whole.
Nazario began to research the harrowing journey that young children from Central America and Mexico take. Usually, they travel on the tops of trains which they call El Tren de la Muente (The Train of Death), in the hopes of reaching their mothers in the United States. First, Nazario learned everything she could about the journey and its dangers, such as the “gangsters who rule the train tops,” “the bandits along the tracks,” the Mexican police who “rob and rape,” and most importantly, the risk of "loosing a leg while getting on and off a moving train” (xv).
Nazario understood the threats of the journey. She was told of a man who lost his foot in the wheels of the train, and of a young girl thrown to her death by the gangsters. She knew she could get herself killed. In preparation for her trip, she laid down rules for herself, such as promising never to jump from a moving train (a rule she only broke once). She obtained a letter from the personal assistant of the President of Mexico, which promised her the cooperation of Mexican police/authorities during her investigation. The letter kept her out of jail three times. She also instructed the train conductors to watch for her while she was onboard. They would know her by her red jacket.
Nazario talked to dozens of children being held by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) in California and Texas. She decided, after speaking to the children who rode on the trains, that instead of following one child’s journey, she would reconstruct the trail of a child who had already successfully made it to the United States.
Nazario next needed to locate a child who had made the journey. She went to shelters and churches that took in immigrant children, and eventually found Enrique in Nuevo Laredo, on the banks of the Rio Grande in Mexico. She learned everything she could of Enrique’s life, including details on his family and on his motivation for finding his mother. Traveling to Honduras and to Enrique’s home, Nazario interviewed his family and retraced his route all the way to the United States.
Traveling over 1,600 miles in Enrique’s footsteps, Nazario encountered gangsters, and regularly feared being robbed, beaten, and raped. She almost fell off the top of a train when a branch struck her in the face, and she in fact later learned that a child had fallen off the same train and had presumably died. Nazario watched as a train derailed in front of her, she witnessed a kidnapping, and she took part in a high speed chase. Nazario was often hungry, wet, dirty, cold, and miserable. However, she always knew that what she was experiencing was only a portion of what the children on the trains went through - she could always quit.
Because of her own heritage as a child of Argentinean immigrants, Nazario understands the desire for the freedom of the United States. She believes that “no number of border guards will deter children like Enrique” from entering the U.S. (xxiv).
Nazario ends her Prologue by stating, “Children who set out on this journey usually don’t make it. They end up back in Central America, defeated. Enrique was determined to be with his mother again. Would he make it?” (xxvi).
The Prologue introduces the style of the author’s narration, a cross between traditional storytelling and investigative journalism. The examination of one young immigrant’s journey, coupled with Nazario’s own experiences as she retraces Enrique’s steps, provides first-hand knowledge of the perilous journey north that so many Mexican and Central American men, women, and children take each year in the hopes of entering the United States. By exploring the intricacies of the journey itself, Enrique’s story gives a face and a name to the often abstract, misunderstood topic of immigration.
The book's structure is chronological - in fact, it begins with Nazario's first exposure to the trend of mothers leaving their children behind. It will later follow her own journey in reconstructing Enrique's struggle. Once Enrique becomes a protagonist, it follows his own chronology. However, the structure also employs a type of journalistic omniscience; interspersed throughout the text are relevant statistics, other immigration stories, and corroborating evidence to support Enrique’s personal insights. Similarly, the tone and setting change as Enrique’s circumstances do; for instance, the setting of Mexico City and its tone is vastly different than that of Honduras.
The Prologue also serves to illustrate the many dangers of the journey. As Nazario lists the cautionary preparations she undertook to ensure her own safety, she establishes a dramatic quality for the reader. By introducing us to the many threats, we expect at any time that the characters we meet might perish under them. Part of what makes the book successful is that it can balance itself between journalistic investigation and dramatic story.
Nazario's own presence in the story also personalizes it. For instance, while traveling, Nazario gathered testimonials from migrants about their experiences. Nazario describes her interview with a fifteen year old girl named Karen, who had been raped in the same place that Nazario herself had visited the day before. Because of this interview, Nazario had recurring nightmares in which she was being pursued on a train, was in danger of being raped. By including her personal insight and reflections, Nazario creates an open dialogue with the reader, inviting discussion and analysis.
Nazario’s work was originally published in the Los Angeles Times in 2002, as a series of articles which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. To expand the work, Nazario conducted hundreds of interviews in the United States, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. She interviewed Enrique’s family, friends, and anyone willing to collaborate. She traced Enrique’s route twice, and traveled through thirteen states in Mexico. Her experiences on the train, at checkpoints, and at migrant shelters all enhance the narrative, by lending credence to the certainty of her tone. For instance, her description of the Nuevo Laredo encampment paints a clearer picture of what Enrique endured to get to the United States than a purely second-hand account would have painted. This allows the reader not only to learn of Enrique’s journey, but to walk with him somewhat. It makes Enrique into both a real human being and a character in a narrative.