On Sept. 30, the Williams Reads program brought Sonia Nazario ’82, author of Enrique’s Journey, the summer reading book for the Class of 2019, to speak to students and faculty in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance.
Nazario is the child of two immigrants. Both her father and her mother’s families headed for Argentina, her father’s fleeing from Christian persecution in Syria and her mother’s from Jewish persecution in Poland. Shortly after Nazario’s birth, the family moved to the United States in search of a better opportunity.
“I knew something about adversity and grit and determination. This was imbedded in my DNA,” Nazario said.
Nazario faced many obstacles growing up in Kansas, including academic difficulties. Nazario enjoyed spending the majority of her time riding horses as opposed to studying and working like her sister. When she was 13, her father passed away and the family moved back to Argentina. Unfortunately, at the time in Argentina, the military was about to take power. “I lived in fear every day,” she said. “The military would roam the streets in unmarked cars and pluck people off the street.”
She discovered her calling to journalism when she was walking down the street. Suddenly, she came across a pool of blood on the sidewalk. The day before, the military had killed a couple of journalists in the same spot. Nazario’s mother explained, “They were trying to kill some people who were trying to tell the truth.”
“I saw the power of words that day, the power of storytelling,” Nazario said.
Nazario had never considered college until her boyfriend suggested the idea. She got into the College and struggled immensely. Her determination and her mentors saved her from her struggles. Upon graduation, she became the youngest reporter highlighted by the Wall Street Journal. She received the Williams Bicentennial Medal in 2004 and the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for the stories that would become her book, Enrique’s Journey.
Her writing interests mostly focused on social issues and justice. Her inspiration for Enrique’s Journey came from a conversation with a nanny, who told Nazario how she had left her children behind to immigrate to the United States for a better opportunity.
“I asked myself what level of desperation would it possibly take for a mother to go 2000 miles away?” Nazario said.
As she began her research, she realized that the majority of the immigrants were single mothers coming from Central America and Mexico, who were leaving their children behind.
Four out of five nannies who have immigrated to the United States have a child left behind. This is part of one of the largest waves of immigration in U.S. history. About 200,000 immigrants come to the United States unlawfully every year, and many have the same story. They tell their children that they will return within one year, two at most. But as a result of the difficult reality of American life, they typically do not return for another five to 10 years. As a result, the children become desperate and flee in order to reunite with their mothers.
This is the story Nazario tells in Enrique’s Journey. She retraced the steps of Enrique, a young boy who left at the age of 14 to find his mother. Nazario rode on the top of the trains just like the child immigrants, who were as young as seven years of age. “I love dropping myself right in the middle of the action, whether it’s riot zones, crack houses or dangerous places,” Nazario said. The scenes she witnessed traveling north horrified Nazario. “They were hunted like animals all the way up to Mexico.”
“This journey crushed my faith in humanity,” Nazario said. “But then kind people appeared who restored it.”
She was amazed by the generosity of some of the less fortunate citizens of Mexico. As she watched people run out of their homes with bundles of food and kneel in prayer, she started to feel like there was some hope for change.
Nazario wrote the book as a call to action.
“I wish that everyone would join me as a voice for refugee children,” she said. “If a child is there actually knocking at your door, we should open that door.”
She continues to investigate and advocate for immigration reform while also working on the board of Kids In Need of Defense, a program that helps represent unaccompanied minors and children in need during deportation proceedings.
“If a girl like me could actually win the highest award in writing, if [the less fortunate citizens of Mexico] can give some of what they have, if Enrique can make it into his mother’s arms, I know that anything is possible.”