Every year, thousands of children from Mexico and Central America make their way north on “El Tren de la Muerte” — the Train of Death.
They cling to the tops of speeding trains, wade through swift rivers and cram themselves in poorly ventilated boxcars. They encounter corrupt cops and vicious gangs, and entrust their lives to expensive, untrustworthy smugglers.
Time and time again, these children risk rape, robbery, mutilation and even death — sustained only by their dreams of rejoining their families in the United States.
“It’s a modern-day odyssey in terms of what these kids go through,” said Sonia Nazario, the author of “Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite With His Mother.”
Based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Los Angeles Times, the best-selling book focuses on a Honduran teen who traveled more than 1,600 miles to join his mom in the United States.
“I’ve always empathized with people who felt like outsiders,” explained Nazario, whose parents emigrated here from Argentina.
Nazario will speak Thursday as part of Cuesta College’s Book of the Year program.
Her visit coincides with a month of art exhibits, film screenings, panel discussions and poetry readings, all centered on the immigrant experience.
An investigative journalist with 20 years experience writing about social issues, Nazario said inspiration for “Enrique’s Journey” grew out of a conversation with her Guatemalan housekeeper.
When asked about her children, the woman tearfully told Nazario that she had left two sons and two daughters behind when she ventured north to work. She had not seen them for 12 years.
“I was just incredibly moved by this story,” Nazario recalled. “I asked myself, what desperation drives a mom 1,200 miles away? What choices does she make?”
A year later, when her housekeeper’s son arrived in Los Angeles, Nazario decided to find others who had made the same dangerous journey.
After interviewing dozens of children in May 2000, the journalist discovered Enrique, a 17-year-old making his eighth attempt to reach his mother, Lourdes.
Nazario spent about a month interviewing Enrique in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and, upon his reunion with Lourdes, in North Carolina.
Then, she spent three months retracing his perilous passage from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to the U.S.-Mexican border — riding atop seven trains through 13 of Mexico’s 31 states.
“(My) goal as a writer was to make you feel like you were there with him on the train,” Nazario said, “experiencing everything he felt — the dangers and the joys, the heat and the cold.”
The trek that Nazario describes in “Enrique’s Journey” is a harrowing one.
Readers witness Enrique’s daily struggles with hunger, exhaustion and the elements, his brutal beating at the hands of a train-top gang. He is robbed repeatedly, injured frequently and captured multiple times by “la migra” — migration officers — only to be shipped back to Honduras.
Nazario also addresses what happens once families are reunited and long-buried resentment comes bubbling to the surface.
“To be able to leave everything you know — your country, your language, your people — you have to be an inherently incredibly optimistic person,” Nazario explained. “I wanted to say to Latinos, ‘Yes, you know all the benefits of coming here, but let’s discuss the costs as well.’ ”
According to Nazario, the reaction to “Enrique’s Journey” has been overwhelmingly positive. The book has been selected for student reading programs at 30 universities and numerous high schools, as well as citywide reading programs in San Diego, Laredo, Texas, and Yuma, Ariz.
Cuesta librarian Carina Love said “Enrique’s Journey” was a perfect fit for the school’s Book of the Year program. Organizers look for books with a broad appeal to multiple disciplines that promote dialogue on campus and in the community, she said.
“People seem to be really, really enjoying it,” Love said.
In addition to three movies, a ballet and several artworks, “Enrique’s Journey” has inspired countless readers to reach out to migrant communities, Nazario said. (One of the films, “Under the Same Moon,” will be screened April 30 as part of Cuesta’s Book of the Year program.)
A group of Fort Worth, Texas, businesswomen created a micro-loan program to help Central American entrepreneurs. Schools in California and New York held dance-athons to raise money for prosthetic limbs for migrants mangled by trains.
Others have traveled to Mexico to personally thank the people who give food, clothing and medical care to migrants, opening their churches and their homes.
“It stirs in a lot of people that generosity we all have,” Nazario said.
“Enrique’s Journey” also encourages further dialogue about illegal immigration and its implications.
As of January 2009, 10.8 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics.
“I don’t take an open border stance,” Nazario said.
However, she believes that the United States’ current approach — fiercer border patrols, mass deportations and widespread anti-immigrant legislation — will be ultimately ineffective.
The only solution, Nazario said, is to create jobs south of the border. People can get involved by creating micro-loan programs, buying fair trade products and pushing politicians to support overseas ventures.
“Ultimately it’s the only thing that’s going to slow down the number of people who want to come here,” she said.
Sonia Nazario The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author will speak at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Cultural and Performing Arts Center at Cuesta College. The event is free. For more information, call 546-3100 or visit http://library.cuesta.edu /book/index.htm.
BOOK OF THE YEAR AT CUESTA COLLEGEA series of free events, offered as part of Cuesta College’s Book of the Year program will take place at the school’s San Luis Obispo campus (unless otherwise noted). Visit http://library.cuesta. edu/book/index.htm for more information.
‘With Our Own Eyes/Con Nuestros Propios Ojos’
What: This exhibit features photographs taken by young adults with indigenous roots whose families emigrated from Mexico to the United States.
When: Various times, Monday through Thursday
Where: Cuesta College Art Gallery, Room 7120
Paso Robles Curpite dancers
What: Originally from Michoacán state in Mexico, these dancers continue a tradition that predates the Europeans’ arrival in the New World.
When: Noon Wednesday
Where: Cultural and Performing Arts Center courtyard
Films and discussions
What: See three documentaries about illegal immigration in one sitting: “Mojados: Through the Night,” “The Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon” and “Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary.”
When: 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., April 22
Where: Room 2401, Cuesta College North County Campus, 2800 Buena Vista Drive, Paso Robles
‘Poetry in Translation’
What: Cuesta students read original and translated poems dealing with immigration and life’s journeys.
When: 7:30 p.m. April 28; 7:30 p.m. April 29
Where: Georgia O’Connor Boardroom, 602-G Orchard St., Arroyo Grande; Room 3219, Cuesta North County Campus.