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FOR USE IN SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES ONLY. Describes one Honduran boy's difficult and dangerous journey to find his mother, who had made the trek northward to the United States in search of a better life when Enrique had been five years old, but who had never made enough money to return home for her children, in a poignant account that addresses the issues of family and the implications of illegal immigration.
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Sonia Nazario (www.enriquesjourney.com) has spent 20 years reporting and writing about social issues, most recently as a projects reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Her stories have tackled some of this country's most intractable problems: hunger, drug addiction, immigration.
Nazario, who grew up in Kansas and in Argentina, has written extensively from Latin America and about Latinos in the United States. She is a graduate of Williams College and has a master's degree in Latin American studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She began her career at the Wall Street Journal, where she reported from four bureaus: New York, Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles. In 1993, she joined the Los Angeles Times. She is now at work on her second book.
The boy does not understand.
His mother is not talking to him. She will not even look at
him. Enrique has no hint of what she is going to do.
Lourdes knows. She understands, as only a mother can, the
terror she is about to inflict, the ache Enrique will feel, and finally
What will become of him? Already he will not let anyone
else feed or bathe him. He loves her deeply, as only a son can.
With Lourdes, he is openly affectionate. “Dame pico, mami. Give
me a kiss, Mom,” he pleads, over and over, pursing his lips.
With Lourdes, he is a chatterbox. “Mira, mami. Look, Mom,” he
says softly, asking her questions about everything he sees. Without
her, he is so shy it is crushing.
Slowly, she walks out onto the porch. Enrique clings to her
pant leg. Beside her, he is tiny. Lourdes loves him so much she
cannot bring herself to say a word. She cannot carry his picture.
It would melt her resolve. She cannot hug him. He is five
They live on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, in Honduras.
She can barely afford food for him and his sister, Belky, who is
seven. She’s never been able to buy them a toy or a birthday
cake. Lourdes, twenty-four, scrubs other people’s laundry in a
muddy river. She goes door to door, selling tortillas, used
clothes, and plantains.
She fills a wooden box with gum and crackers and cigarettes,
and she finds a spot where she can squat on a dusty sidewalk
next to the downtown Pizza Hut and sell the items to
passersby. The sidewalk is Enrique’s playground.
They have a bleak future. He and Belky are not likely to finish
grade school. Lourdes cannot afford uniforms or pencils.
Her husband is gone. A good job is out of the question.
Lourdes knows of only one place that offers hope. As a
seven-year-old child, delivering tortillas her mother made to
wealthy homes, she glimpsed this place on other people’s television
screens. The flickering images were a far cry from Lourdes’s
childhood home: a two-room shack made of wooden slats,
its flimsy tin roof weighted down with rocks, the only bathroom
a clump of bushes outside. On television, she saw New York
City’s spectacular skyline, Las Vegas’s shimmering lights, Disneyland’s
Lourdes has decided: She will leave. She will go to the
United States and make money and send it home. She will be
gone for one year—less, with luck—or she will bring her children
to be with her. It is for them she is leaving, she tells herself,
but still she feels guilty.
She kneels and kisses Belky and hugs her tightly. Then she
turns to her own sister. If she watches over Belky, she will get a
set of gold fingernails from el Norte.
But Lourdes cannot face Enrique. He will remember only
one thing that she says to him: “Don’t forget to go to church
It is January 29, 1989. His mother steps off the porch.
She walks away.
“¿Dónde está mi mami?” Enrique cries, over and over. “Where
is my mom?”
His mother never returns, and that decides Enrique’s fate.
As a teenager—indeed, still a child—he will set out for the
United States on his own to search for her. Virtually unnoticed,
he will become one of an estimated 48,000 children who enter
the United States from Central America and Mexico each year,
illegally and without either of their parents. Roughly two thirds
of them will make it past the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization
Many go north seeking work. Others flee abusive families.
Most of the Central Americans go to reunite with a parent, say
counselors at a detention center in Texas where the INS houses
the largest number of the unaccompanied children it catches.
Of those, the counselors say, 75 percent are looking for their
mothers. Some children say they need to find out whether their
mothers still love them. A priest at a Texas shelter says they
often bring pictures of themselves in their mothers’ arms.
The journey is hard for the Mexicans but harder still for
Enrique and the others from Central America. They must
make an illegal and dangerous trek up the length of Mexico.
Counselors and immigration lawyers say only half of them get
help from smugglers. The rest travel alone. They are cold, hungry,
and helpless. They are hunted like animals by corrupt police, bandits, and gang members deported from the United
States. A University of Houston study found that most are
robbed, beaten, or raped, usually several times. Some are
They set out with little or no money. Thousands, shelter
workers say, make their way through Mexico clinging to the
sides and tops of freight trains. Since the 1990s, Mexico and
the United States have tried to thwart them. To evade Mexican
police and immigration authorities, the children jump onto and
off of the moving train cars. Sometimes they fall, and the wheels
tear them apart.
They navigate by word of mouth or by the arc of the sun.
Often, they don’t know where or when they’ll get their next
meal. Some go days without eating. If a train stops even briefly,
they crouch by the tracks, cup their hands, and steal sips of
water from shiny puddles tainted with diesel fuel. At night, they
huddle together on the train cars or next to the tracks. They
sleep in trees, in tall grass, or in beds made of leaves.
Some are very young. Mexican rail workers have encountered
seven-year-olds on their way to find their mothers. A policeman
discovered a nine-year-old boy near the downtown Los
Angeles tracks. “I’m looking for my mother,” he said. The
youngster had left Puerto Cortes in Honduras three months before.
He had been guided only by his cunning and the single
thing he knew about her: where she lived. He had asked everyone,
“How do I get to San Francisco?”
Typically, the children are teenagers. Some were babies
when their mothers left; they know them only by pictures sent
home. Others, a bit older, struggle to hold on to memories: One
has slept in her mother’s bed; another has smelled her perfume,
put on her deodorant, her clothes. One is old enough to re-
member his mother’s face, another her laugh, her favorite
shade of lipstick, how her dress felt as she stood at the stove patting
Many, including Enrique, begin to idealize their mothers.
They remember how their mothers fed and bathed them, how
they walked them to kindergarten. In their absence, these mothers
become larger than life. Although in the United States the
women struggle to pay rent and eat, in the imaginations of
their children back home they become deliverance itself, the
answer to every problem. Finding them becomes the quest for
the Holy Grail.
Enrique is bewildered. Who will take care of him now that his
mother is gone? Lourdes, unable to burden her family with
both of her children, has split them up. Belky stayed with Lourdes’s
mother and sisters. For two years, Enrique is entrusted to
his father, Luis, from whom his mother has been separated for
Enrique clings to his daddy, who dotes on him. A bricklayer,
his father takes Enrique to work and lets him help mix mortar.
They live with Enrique’s grandmother. His father shares a bed
with him and brings him apples and clothes. Every month, Enrique
misses his mother less, but he does not forget her. “When
is she coming for me?” he asks.
Lourdes and her smuggler cross Mexico on buses. Each afternoon,
she closes her eyes. She imagines herself home at
dusk, playing with Enrique under a eucalyptus tree in her
mother’s front yard. Enrique straddles a broom, pretending it’s
a donkey, trotting around the muddy yard. Each afternoon, she
presses her eyes shut and tears fall. Each afternoon, she reminds
herself that if she is weak, if she does not keep moving
forward, her children will pay.
Lourdes crosses into the United States in one of the largest
immigrant waves in the country’s history. She enters at night
through a rat-infested Tijuana sewage tunnel and makes her
way to Los Angeles. There, in the downtown Greyhound bus
terminal, the smuggler tells Lourdes to wait while he runs a
quick errand. He’ll be right back. The smuggler has been paid
to take her all the way to Miami.
Three days pass. Lourdes musses her filthy hair, trying to
blend in with the homeless and not get singled out by police.
She prays to God to put someone before her, to show her the
way. Whom can she reach out to for help? Starved, she starts
walking. East of downtown, Lourdes spots a small factory. On
the loading dock, under a gray tin roof, women sort red and
green tomatoes. She begs for work. As she puts tomatoes into
boxes, she hallucinates that she is slicing open a juicy one and
sprinkling it with salt. The boss pays her $14 for two hours’
work. Lourdes’s brother has a friend in Los Angeles who helps
Lourdes get a fake Social Security card and a job.
She moves in with a Beverly Hills couple to take care of
their three-year-old daughter. Their spacious home has carpet
on the floors and mahogany panels on the walls. Her employers
are kind. They pay her $125 a week. She gets nights and
weekends off. Maybe, Lourdes tells herself—if she stays long
enough—they will help her become legal.
Every morning as the couple leave for work, the little girl
cries for her mother. Lourdes feeds her breakfast and thinks of
Enrique and Belky. She asks herself: “Do my children cry like
this? I’m giving this girl food instead of feeding my own children.”
To get the girl to eat, Lourdes pretends the spoon is an
airplane. But each time the spoon lands in the girl’s mouth,
Lourdes is filled with sadness.
In the afternoon, after the girl comes home from prekindergarten
class, they thumb through picture books and play. The
girl, so close to Enrique’s age, is a constant reminder of her son.
Many afternoons, Lourdes cannot contain her grief. She gives
the girl a toy and dashes into the kitchen. There, out of sight,
tears flow. After seven months, she cannot take it. She quits and
moves to a friend’s place in Long Beach.
Boxes arrive in Tegucigalpa bearing clothes, shoes, toy cars,
a Robocop doll, a television. Lourdes writes: Do they like the
things she is sending? She tells Enrique to behave, to study
hard. She has hopes for him: graduation from high school, a
white-collar job, maybe as an engineer. She pictures her son
working in a crisp shirt and shiny shoes. She says she loves him.
Enrique asks about his mother. “She’ll be home soon,” his
grandmother assures him. “Don’t worry. She’ll be back.”
But his mother does not come. Her disappearance is incomprehensible.
Enrique’s bewilderment turns to confusion
and then to adolescent anger.
When Enrique is seven, his father brings a woman home.
To her, Enrique is an economic burden. One morning, she
spills hot cocoa and burns him. His father throws her out. But
their separation is brief.
“Mom,” Enrique’s father tells the grandmother, “I can’t
think of anyone but that woman.”
Enrique’s father bathes, dresses, splashes on cologne, and
follows her. Enrique tags along and begs to stay with him. But
his father tells him to go back to his grandmother.
His father begins a new family. Enrique sees him rarely,
usually by chance. In time, Enrique’s love turns to contempt.
“He doesn’t love me. He loves the children he has with his
wife,” he tells Belky. “I don’t have a dad.”
His father notices. “He looks at me as if he wasn’t my son,
as if he wants to strangle me,” he tells Enrique’s grandmother.
Most of the blame, his father decides, belongs to Enrique’s
mother. “She is the one who promised to come back.”
For Belky, their mother’s disappearance is just as distressing.
She lives with Aunt Rosa Amalia, one of her mother’s sisters.
On Mother’s Day, Belky struggles through a celebration at
school. That night she cries quietly, alone in her room. Then
she scolds herself. She should thank her mother for leaving;
without the money she sends for books and uniforms, Belky
could not even attend school. She reminds herself of all the
other things her mother ships south: Reebok tennis shoes, black
sandals, the yellow bear and pink puppy stuffed toys on her
bed. She commiserates with a friend whose mother has also
left. They console each other. They know a girl whose mother
died of a heart attack. At least, they say, ours are alive.
But Rosa Amalia thinks the separation has caused deep
emotional problems. To her, it seems that Belky is struggling
with an unavoidable question: How can I be worth anything if
my mother left me?
“There are days,” Belky tells Aunt Rosa Amalia, “when I
wake up and feel so alone.” Belky is temperamental. Sometimes
she stops talking to everyone. When her mood turns dark,
her grandmother warns the other children in the house,
“¡Pórtense bien porque la marea anda brava! You better behave, because
the seas are choppy!”
Confused by his mother’s absence, Enrique turns to his
grandmother. Alone now, he and his father’s elderly mother
share a shack thirty feet square. María Marcos built it herself of
wooden slats. Enrique can see daylight in the cracks. It has four
rooms, three without electricity. There is no running water.
Gutters carry rain off the patched tin roof into two barrels. A
trickle of cloudy white sewage runs past the front gate. On a
well-worn rock nearby, Enrique’s grandmother washes musty
used clothing she sells door to door. Next to the rock is the latrine—
a concrete hole. Beside it are buckets for bathing.
The shack is in Carrizal, one of Tegucigalpa’s poorest
neighborhoods. Sometimes Enrique looks across the rolling
hills to the neighborhood where he and his mother lived and
where Belky still lives with their mother’s family. They are six
miles apart. They hardly ever visit.
Lourdes sends Enrique $50 a month, occasionally $100,
sometimes nothing. It is enough for food but not for school
clothes, fees, notebooks, or pencils, which are expensive in
Honduras. There is never enough for a birthday present. But
Grandmother María hugs him and wishes him a cheery ¡Feliz
cumpleaños! “Your mom can’t send enough,” she says, “so we
both have to work.”
Enrique loves to climb his grandmother’s guayaba tree, but
there is no more time for play now. After school, Enrique sells
tamales and plastic bags of fruit juice from a bucket hung in the
crook of his arm. “¡Tamarindo! ¡Piña!” he shouts.
Sometimes Enrique takes his wares to a service station where
diesel-belching buses rumble into Carrizal. Jostling among
mango and avocado vendors, he sells cups of diced fruit.
After he turns ten, he rides buses alone to an outdoor food
market. He stuffs tiny bags with nutmeg, curry powder, and paprika,
then seals them with hot wax. He pauses at big black
gates in front of the market and calls out, “¿Va a querer especias?
Who wants spices?” He has no vendor’s license, so he keeps
moving, darting between wooden carts piled with papayas.
Younger children, five and six years old, dot the curbs, thrusting
fistfuls of tomatoes and chiles at shoppers. Others offer to
carry purchases of fruits and vegetables from stall to stall in rustic
wooden wheelbarrows in exchange for tips. “Te ayudo? May I
help you?” they ask. Arms ta...
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