When it comes to Enrique’s Journey, the national bestseller by Sonia Nazario ’82 that chronicles the experiences of a Honduran teenager seeking his mother in the United States, there is good news and bad news. The basic framework for the narrative comes from a collection of reporting that Nazario wrote for The Los Angeles Times in the early 2000s. After further revision and addition, she published Enrique’s Journey in 2006, creating the book-form production that Williams Reads has chosen this year.
The good news is that nobody can deny the poignancy and emotional impact of the personal story of Enrique, Nazario’s protagonist. Regardless of our political stances on immigration, or how best to confront any of the myriad political and social issues raised in the volume, Nazario excels in making one feel intense sympathy for the young Enrique, who isn’t much younger than College students ourselves. We all have mothers. Many of us may have been separated from them at some point and some of us may have lost them altogether. Not even the most cynical reader could balk at Nazario’s description of Enrique riding by train into the freezing mountain ranges of southern Mexico, lacking adequate clothing and recovering from injuries and wounds. In moments like these, Nazario shines as an author.
She also succeeds in clearly, if not eloquently, giving readers a sense of underdeveloped areas of Honduras and Mexico, places plagued by gangsters, smugglers and all sorts of criminals who exploit vulnerable or compromised migrants such as Enrique. In a New York Times review of Enrique’s Journey published on May 7, 2006, Sarah Wildman writes, “Nazario has immersed herself completely in this world, giving it depth and texture.” These two attributes of the writing are best manifested in the portrayal of familial difficulties – when Lourdes’s family members must care for Enrique in her absence while also raising their own children, for instance – and in Nazario’s care to interview many sources, including border security agents, other migrants, Texan ranchers operating near the Mexican border and people involved in religious charities, to name a few. Perhaps the author, true to her keen journalistic instincts, did too much research for Enrique’s Journey, and here is where things start to fall apart.
This work is fundamentally confused about how it wants to serve its readers. Nazario, struggling to harmonize narrative flow and journalistic brevity, has built a strange, disconcerting limbo between reportage and adventure writing. A rather elementary style, choppy at best, hardly enriches the story and leaves readers scratching their heads, wondering why, when she has so much first-hand knowledge of Enrique’s life and relationships, Nazario does not command the language to describe them in more detail. Pieces of hard data also dot the story and, though informative, more often than not do nothing more than interrupt the prose. Digressions of four to six pages about other migrants do not do the story any favors either. Finally, with at least a dozen sentences beginning, “Enrique is …” or “Enrique feels …” Enrique’s Journey often fails to follow the classic English class dictum: “Show, don’t tell.”
Readers certainly learn that when mothers migrate from Central America seeking work in the United States, the absence causes some damage to their relationships with their children. Enrique’s case was no exception. But we have nothing more explicit than that; what has been lost? How will Enrique and Lourdes both face not only pragmatic concerns, but also interpersonal ones? Questions abound about the characters in this real-life story. We cannot, however, even begin to answer them when we don’t know the characters well enough.
Instead, we know only their actions, making them even harder to identify with. Enrique, for example, does not fit into a heroic persona, as few real-life people do. Yet merely by titling her work Enrique’s Journey, and subtitling it The story of a boy’s dangerous odyssey to reunite with his mother, heroism is clearly on her mind, or at least on her publisher’s mind. There must have been some desire, then, to construct a marketable heroic tale, rather than another sobering exposé on immigration.
So when considering this observation in light of the previous ones, Enrique’s Journey does not totally make sense. There is no doubt this book is full of emotion and can even be considered moving at times, but ultimately Enrique’s Journey is a bit of a misfit in a reading world that strictly divides the genres of novel and the newspaper column.