Every year in Central America and Mexico, thousands of divorced and jobless mothers abandon their children to grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They sneak across the Mexican border into the US, where they look for work in factories and restaurants or in homes, cleaning and caring for other mothers' children.
Years pass. What little these women save, they send back to their families. But their gifts of shoes and toys that arrive in the mail fail to console their children. Unwilling to endure life without Mami, many kids eventually venture north on their own. Some perish on the long, treacherous journey; others face deportation, starvation, injury at the hands of bandits, and maiming by the freight trains they cling to in the hopes of reaching US soil.
In the book Enrique's Journey, award-winning L.A. Times journalist Sonia Nazario tells the story of one Honduran boy's determination to find his mother in North Carolina. It is a tale of desperate circumstances and desperate measures, the bonds between a mother and son, and the untold perils and paradoxes of illegal immigration.
The book opens when Enrique is 5, on the day that his strung-out single mother leaves their shack in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, for the US. The writer, perhaps short on material here, skims through the next decade or so of Enrique's life. Still, she manages to paint a bleak picture of Honduras as a country beset by poverty, corruption, and crime.
At age 16, Enrique joins the stream of illegal migrants heading north. He makes seven attempts to ride the freight trains, also called the Train of Death, to Mexico's border. Seven times he is sent back to Honduras. It is his eighth attempt that fills the bulk of the book.
Nazario's reporting first appeared as a series of articles that ran in the L.A. Times and won her a Pulitzer Prize. The book expands on the articles. In addition to conducting countless interviews over five years with Enrique, his mother Lourdes, and their extended family in Honduras, the author retraced Enrique's journey.
All 1,600 miles of it. She rode atop freight cars, suffered wayward branches and downpours, and eluded authorities and bandits.
Readers fed up with the ongoing turf wars between fact and fiction, take note: Here is fantastic stunt reporting that places this sometimes hard-to-believe story squarely in the realm of nonfiction.
The depths of Enrique's adventure are both gripping and harrowing: "Enrique's head throbs. The sun reflects off the metal. It stings his eyes, and his skin tingles. It drains the little energy he has left. He moves around the car, chasing patches of shade. For a while, he stands on a narrow ledge at the end of a fuel tanker. It is just inches above the wheels. He cannot let himself fall asleep; one good shake of the train, and he would tumble off."
Some of the most poignant passages involve individuals and communities, Good Samaritans, who give what little they have to migrants passing through on the trains. "A stooped woman, Maria Luisa Mora, more than one hundred years old, who was reduced to eating the bark of her plantain tree during the Mexican Revolution, forces her knotted hands to fill bags with tortillas, beans, and salsa so her daughter, Soledad Vasquez, seventy, can run down a rocky slope and heave them onto a train."
Nazario also does well at illuminating cultural differences and deep prejudices between Mexicans and Central Americans. A reporter to the bone, she is not so much interested in pronouncing judgments and drawing conclusions about illegal immigration as she is concerned with complicating the issue - showing us its ragged, imperfect shape and cyclical nature.
But too often the book moves along like an endlessly spinning wheel of misery.
Nazario overstuffs parts with anecdotes (verified, of course) of children suffocating in train cars, being beaten senseless by bandits, raped and left for dead, to the point of redundancy. It's as if she couldn't let a single interview go unpublished - her journalistic impulse to be thorough at odds with her desire to simply tell one person's compelling story.
A more skillful, more literary writer may have better captured Enrique's individuality, his shortcomings and charms - the unique fabric of his journey that is unlike the 48,000 other Hispanic children estimated to cross the US-Mexico border illegally each year.
Still, Nazario has certainly identified a story begging to be told. Illegal immigration increases annually, and according to "Enrique's Journey," it is likely to continue as long as deeper causes persist.
• Samar Farah is a former Monitor editor and writer.