President Obama has said that he will bring up immigration reform next year, promising for a lively debate in the middle of an economic recession.
I heard many sides of that debate this fall as I journeyed to 22 places across the U.S. to speak about Enrique's Journey and immigration. I wanted to share some of the wonderful things that happened as part of my travels.
For one, I was able to see Olga Sanchez Martinez, the woman who began a shelter for migrants mutilated by trains in Chiapas, Mexico. Olga had been nominated by Lorri Barra and her mother-in-law, writer Isabel Allende, for the Dalai Lama award. Olga came to San Francisco to receive the award. It was wonderful to hear about how she had been able to build a new shelter, and how readers of Enrique's Journey had helped her fund that endeavor. She prayed that readers would continue to help. Olga, Isabel and I spoke together at the San Domenico school in Marin County about migrants and immigration.
The second very moving experience this fall was going to Laredo, Texas. I had been in Laredo twice to report Enrique's Journey. This time I was returning because the city had chosen Enrique's Journey for its "one city, one book read."
I could never have imagined the enthusiasm and warmth with which I was received. At the airport, four ladies greeted me. One was the high school librarian (Carmen Escamilla), two were English teachers (Annie Trevino and Beverly Herrera), and the fourth was the local bookseller (Mary Benavides). They came in a stretch white limo with disco lights inside!
For two days, these wonderful book-lovers and I cruised the city. They hustled me from one venue to another, and at the end of my brief time in Laredo I had spoken to about 4,000 people.
This in a city of some 200,000. It was overwhelming--and wonderful.
Before arriving, I had pre-signed stickers for 1,500 books. And yet as I spoke to high school students, many wanted me to sign their book a second time. Hundreds wanted to take a photograph with me. I remember in particular one boy, who came up with his class for a group shot. He is blind. His classroom aide asked if I could sign his book again. "Look Cruz, what she wrote in your book," the aide told Cruz. He started crying. Then, the aide started crying. I nearly burst out crying.
Many of the students told me it was the first time they had seen themselves, or something of their experiences, in a book. Many teachers told me what I had often heard among those who teach predominantly Latino students--tht these students would read this book when they were generally not interested in reading.Why? They saw themselves in the book.
My second night in the city, the civic center was packed with 1,000 people. Folks waited in line for well over an hour for me to sign their book. Many offered me their well wishes. One woman gave me a silver rosary.
Many people in Laredo told me that before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1847 they had been one city with those across the Rio Grande. When the U.S. told folks on the north side of the river to choose, many who had lived in Laredo for generations dug up their dead and headed south of the river. Despite that division, many in Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico have thought of themselves as one people. Increasingly, people told me, the crack-down on the border has shattered that and divided families. So has the violence that has infested Nuevo Laredo. An educator, himself Mexican, who worked at a college in Laredo told me he had not crossed the bridge into Nuevo Laredo in three years because of fears of kidnapping.
My visit ended with a lovely dinner in Nuevo Laredo with the mayors of Nuevo Laredo and Laredo. I had requested that Padreo Leonado Lopez Guajardo "Padre Leo" be invited. It was wonderful to see him as well, although I was dismayed to hear that he had been pushed out of his job running the migrant shelter he worked so hard to build and open in Nuevo Laredo. He told me that other priests had been brought in who were disciplined in running an organization. But other sources at the dinner told me Padre Leo had proved to be a little bit too much or a radical for Mexico's Catholic church. Padre Leo continues to do work with prisoners in Nuevo Laredo, and prays that some day he will be able to return to working with migrants.
This fall I also went to speak in Iowa, and again saw Carmen Ferrez, the woman who once cleaned my house in Los Angeles but now lives in Iowa. She was the one who gave me the idea for my book. We spoke together at Central College in Pella, Iowa, and it was difficult to hear Carmen talk about how the separation from her children created so much resentment in her children. Carmen clearly said she regretted the decision she made to leave her children behind.
As she put it, "If I knew then what I know now, I would never have left them," in Guatemala. "This has destroyed my family."
Finally, I wanted to give a brief update on Enrique and Lourdes and their family. This year, Lourdes returned to Honduras for her first visit since leaving in 1989. For the first time, she was able to see her three year old grandson, Belky's son, Yaseth.
She told me she is depressed about the state of Honduras. She said things seem to be worse than ever. There are so many young children, ages four and five, selling fruit and other items as they scurry between lanes of traffic. Lourdes told me this wasn't the case when she left Honduras. Yes, Enrique was by her side as she sold items from a box on the sidewalks of Tegucigalpa, but he was playing, not working. She is disgusted by the corruption in her country, and the rampant poverty.
In November, Lourdes' mother died. She had been taking care of the three children of Lourdes' sister, Mirian. As I recounted in Enrique's Journey, Mirian had left her children in 2003 to come and work in the U.S. Like most mothers who leave their children, Mirian had planned to be gone for a short time--one year. Lourdes tells me she plans to return to Honduras in February, now that the only one left to take care of Mirians' children is Belky. Lourdes told me that so far Mirian's children haven't voiced any resentment over their mother being gone so long (and so much longer than she promised). Lourdes quickly adds, however, that the resentment might well surface when Mirian returns to them.
Recently, I chatted with Jasmin, Enrique's daughter, on the telephone. She has an incredibly sweet voice. I'm told she looks just like Enrique and that she is doing well.
Finally, a little update about myself. I have been spending a lot of time this fall on the road, but have also begun work on my second book for Random House. It is due in three years.
It's been very gratifying to see how Enrique's Journey has been embraced by so many countries. It has now been published in nine languages around the world. The last to come on board is Poland. It's exciting to see it coming out in the country that my mother left as a seven year old girl as she and her family fled poverty and the anti-Jewish sentiments tide that was swelling in the years preceeding World War II.
for freshman orall-campus reads. They asked me to share how the book had been received on
Here it is......
Sonia Nazario talks about her experiences when writing her book Enrique's Journey to a
packed Ardrey Auditorium on Wednesday. Chad Sexton / The Lumberjack
(Note: This was taken as I spoke to 1100 students at Northern Arizona University)
President Obama has vowed that in 2010, he will put immigration reform on the front
burner. That means that student discussions around Enrique’s Journey, already made freshman read by 27 colleges and universities, will no doubt become heated as this national debate resumes.
In the fall of 2009 alone, I traveled to nearly 20 colleges and universities to talk with students about Enrique’s Journey. Institutions in Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, Arizona
and North Carolina used the book for their freshman read.
These visits led to incredibly interesting and moving encounters with students.
There was the 53-year-old grizzled man, with a large gray beard, who tapped my shoulder before my talk at Idaho State University in Pocatello. “I’ve never read a book cover to cover,” he told me. “This is the first one. I couldn’t put it down.” Two students at University of North Carolina, Greensboro told me the same thing, producing pride-- and horror. All three times I said, “That’s great. Now read some more books! Do you want some suggestions?”
Students have different responses to my book. Many non-Latino students tell me they had no real concept of the poverty that pushes many migrants out of places like Honduras. They say they find the story of what Enrique and other migrant children are willing to do to reach the U.S. not only moving, but instructive. Many tell me that the book and class discussions have forced them to re-evaluate the values they were raised with about immigrants. Then they give
the book to their parents to read, and the real discussions begin.
Students often say the book prompts them to view their new neighbors in a different light. One African-American student in Chicago told me how her grandmother had moved
from Mississippi to Illinois and left her children behind, an experience common among African-American women leaving the South. She said the book gave her a deeper bond with people south of the border.
Often Mexican-American students tell me they have a better understanding of the tensions between Mexicans and Central Americans in the U.S. The hostilities stem, they realize, from what many Central Americans have gone through crossing Mexico on their way to the U.S.
The most moving responses, however, are from Latino students who say this is the first book where they could see some glimmer of their own lives and experiences. They—or
someone in their family—made the journey to the U.S. on top of freight trains, or were separated from parents in the process of coming to the U.S.
Immigrant students—whether from China, Russia, or Poland—told me they lived these separations as well.
Often, when they recount their experiences, they are crying.
Perhaps the most moving of my trips this fall was to the city of Laredo, Texas, a town of 200,000 where in two days I spoke to a total of 4,000 people. At the civic center, people stood in line for well over an hour for me to sign their books. Many students told me that they, too, wanted to become writers.
At Towson University in Maryland, two women recounted very personal stories after my talk. One mother, sobbing, said she had left a daughter behind in central america. The other student said she had been separated from both parents in the process of coming to the U.S.
Finally, a male student, Gerardo, spoke about coming north with his mother from El Salvador. Part of the journey was atop freight trains in Mexico. He spoke of his terror as a boy crossing the Rio Grande with a mother who didn’t know how to swim.
What has been most promising is to see students’ clear desire to act to try to alleviate the situation I describe in Enrique’s Journey. As one UNC-Greensboro student put it so beautifully, when the U.S. decided to put a man on the moon, they said it would take 10 years. It actually took just eight years. Some of the astronauts on that moon mission were 18 years old when the commitment by the U.S. was first made. “I’m 18,” he told me. “If we can put a man on the
moon in less than 10 years, surely we can make progress in helping to create jobs in Latin
America in the next decade.” He planned to get involved.
Another student at Greensboro had chosen to volunteer at a local Latino organization three times a week.
Some choose to help the heroes I describe in my book. At Whittier College, one class raised $1000 for Olga Sanchez Martinez, a woman who runs a shelter in Mexico for migrants mutilated by the trains. Moved by his students’ generosity, the professor matched the amount.
Others have taken to heart the idea that the only true solution to this migration is to create jobs in places like Mexico and Honduras so fewer mothers feel forced to leave their children. Some students demand that their college cafeterias buy fair trade coffee, so coffee farmers and pickers in Latin America receive a living wage. Others have hooked up with various microloan organizations I describe on my website, www.enriquesjourney.com, that have proven track records in helping to create jobs for women in Central America and Mexico.
Some take a more personal approach. At Sonoma State, one woman said the book inspired her to take her vacation working with migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border. One staff member at an Illinois university said the book prompted her to quit her job and start a café in Honduras,
where she now employed 10 people.
Some universities have encouraged further and deeper study. At Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, administrators were planning a spring trip for students to the border to spend time with migrants in the shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where Enrique had been during his journey north.
The woman who administers the freshman read program at Northern Arizona University said they had chosen my book for many reasons.
It appealed to male and female students. The protagonist is close to the students’ age. The book, she said, is a compelling read that broadens students’ awareness of cultures not their own. It is about a hot current issue.
The university liked that Enrique’s Journey addressed certain themes: survival, community, education, family, diversity, racism, violence, drugs, redemption, foreign relations, politics, and the immigration issue. They also liked that it touches on emotions some first year students might be dealing with, such as loneliness, connection to family, and the temptation to succumb to violence and drugs.
What I have enjoyed most about my discussions at these universities is that it has taken a highly polarizing issue, an important issue, and forced students to see it in a nuanced way. Because for me, even as we head into renewed and heated debates about immigration, this is an issue with many shades of gray.