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The Train of Death

Migrants riding freights north from Central America risk their lives to reach the U.S.

| Fri Mar. 3, 2006 3:00 AM EST

Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario exemplifies the adage about “learning by doing.” In reporting a series that eventually won her paper two Pulitzer Prizes, Nazario spent five years hopping freight trains through Mexico, re-tracing the dangerous route from Honduras to the United States taken by a teenager named Enrique, who endured unimaginable hardship to reach his mother in the United States.

Thousands of parents and children make similar journeys each year, lacking the money to make it north from Central America except by clinging to the tops and sides of trains. Dodging Mexican immigration authorities, they must jump on and off the moving cars, which they call, generically, El Tren de la Muerte, the Train of Death.

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Nazario's book based on the series, Enrique’s Journey, centers around an intimate portrait of Enrique and his mother, Lourdes, but it's also a larger story of broken families, poverty, and immigration, and the world of undocumented workers.


Nazario has been writing about social issues for more than two decades. In addition to the numerous awards she received for this series, she was a 1998 Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series on children of drug addicted parents, and a 1994 George Polk Award recipient for Local Reporting for a series about hunger among schoolchildren in California. Prior to working at the Los Angeles Times, she was a reporter at Wall Street Journal bureaus in New York, Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles. She recently spoke to Mother Jones by phone from her home in Los Angeles.

Mother Jones: What motivated you to write about the journeys of Central American migrants to the U.S.?

Sonia Nazario: In the late 1990s, one morning my housecleaner, who like me is Hispanic, told me about the four children she had left behind in Guatemala; how she hadn’t seen them in 12 years; how the youngest girl was one year old when she left. She left because her husband had left, and she simply couldn’t feed them. They would ask for food, and she couldn’t give it to them.

I was struck by the choice that women like my housecleaner make every day to walk away from their children and not see them for years on end in order to help them. I learned how often their children would become desperate to see them and would set off on their own to come find them in the United States. Some of them were as young as seven years old, coming up through Mexico the only way they could with no money, which was clinging to the tops and sides of freight trains. I thought it was an amazing story. I wanted to show how the face of immigration to the United States is changing. Most people think of illegal immigration as overwhelmingly male, and that has changed.

MJ: How did you meet Enrique and why did you think he was the best main character for the story?

SN: I knew that among the thousands of children who come into the U.S. alone without a parent each year that the average age of a child who’s caught is 15, and typically they’re boys. That’s what I was looking for. I knew that I couldn’t start in Central America and follow a child all the way up to Mexico because it would be too difficult and dangerous to stick with one kid. It would probably be impossible because they run from all these different dangers. I wanted to find a 15-year-old boy who had made it as far as the Mexico-U.S. border, but was still on the Mexican side, spend time with them and hope they reach their destination, debrief them on everything they had been through trying to make it through Mexico, and then go back and retrace their journey and try to flesh out the story in that way. So I starting calling all these churches and shelters on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, along these 2,000 miles, saying this is what I’m looking for, if you have somebody like that today. A nun at a church in Nuevo Laredo, which is across the border from Laredo, Texas, said, “Let me put this boy on the line,” and I spoke with Enrique. His story seemed typical, in terms of the harrowing things that I heard from so many children who had come up on the freight trains from Mexico. And he agreed to do it. He was very honest and forthright.

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