Recreating the Migration Experience

By: Sasha Abramsky

A long way from anywhere, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, two police officers approached Sonia Nazario, with their guns drawn. Having heard stories about brutal officers attacking would-be migrants in the remote borderlands, the Los Angeles Times feature writer was only too happy to be able to whip out a letter from the personal assistant to the president of Mexico. The letter urged authorities to cooperate with Nazario in her attempt to document the experiences of child migrants making the long, vicious, and even deadly, journey north in search of their mothers. It was an attempt that paid off last week when she won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

Nazario had been interested in the topic of child migration for several years, ever since her house cleaner told her about the son she had left behind in Guatemala as she sought work in the United States. Annually, Nazario learned, about 48,000 minors set off from Mexico and Central America in search of their absent mothers — smuggling themselves over the Mexico-U.S. border, hopping freight trains, braving murderous gangs, and battling extremes of hunger and thirst.

Armed with this general knowledge, she set to work looking for a suitable narrator in U.S. government facilities and church refuges that dot the border region — and then, after she found him in the person of a 17-year-old Honduran named Enrique, she recreated his odyssey, literally retracing it step by step. “It’s a story everyone can empathize with,” Nazario says. “A boy setting out in a hostile world, looking for his mother.”

Recreating Enrique’s migration experience, Nazario and photographer Don Bartletti — who last week won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for this work — rode on crowded, gang-controlled roofs of freight trains. They took buses and hitched rides on 18-wheeler trucks. They encountered hundreds of men and women whom Enrique had met on his journey, people who helped him after he suffered near-fatal beatings, people who gave him money to speed him on his way: doctors, farmers, ordinary Joes. They stayed where he had stayed, slept where he had slept — gathering material that would be used not just for the L.A. Times but also for a book and an HBO miniseries.

For Nazario, the theme of migration was particularly evocative. Her parents were from Argentina, and her childhood was divided between there and the United States. During the “Dirty War” of the 1970s, the family made the decision to permanently migrate. “I’d see journalists who’d get killed for telling what was going on,” she says. “Some of my family was jailed and tortured. I decided I really wanted to be a journalist. I started working in journalism in high school in the U.S., and right out of college I started at The Wall Street Journal in New York.”

Later, Nazario was assigned to Atlanta and then Miami. After a time-out to earn a master’s degree in Latin American studies, she rejoined the Journal, this time as a correspondent in Los Angeles. Then, in 1993, the L.A. Times hired her.

“Sonia is an exceptional reporter,” says L.A. Times Editor John Carroll. “She is capable of pursuing a subject in great depth and detail over a long period of time without losing her way.”

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