Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Latina Author in my Neck of the Woods

Sonia addresses the crowd in Perry, Iowa

On Sunday afternoon I had the privilege of listening to Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize winning writer of ENRIQUE'S JOURNEY. I read the book back in 2006 or 2007 when it first came out. Warren heard her speak, bought me the book, and had it signed. It has since disappeared (which is weird because I'm fiercely protective of my books, especially those signed by Latina authors), and I've been meaning to replace it and read it again. It's a fascinating story that chronicles the deadly trip Enrique took, as an unaccompanied eleven year-old from Honduras to the United States. He encountered severe weather conditions, bandits who beat and robbed him, hunger, thirst, fear and the constant threat of falling off the train and being sucked beneath it.

Nazario not only wrote about the experience from interviews, she re-traced Enrique's steps, riding atop the same train cars Enrique rode, referred to as The Beast by migrants because of how dangerous and high risk the ride can be. She endured the breaking points her subject endured. She felt the burning heat that made it hard to hold on to the metal on the train. She nursed the cuts and bruises from branches hitting her in the face as the train moved through the jungle. She shivered during freezing cold nights as the train snaked across the desert at night. As a woman making that journey, she put herself in constant peril as many females are raped during the journey north.

In the process of writing the book, Nazario was changed. She became invested in the stories of these children. She followed the news about how drug cartels took over the trains so that migrants had to fear their threats and violence. They were forced to surrender what little they had to these thugs, most often their clothes, shoes and the phone number of their parents in the United States, who the cartels would call and demand ransom, torturing and killing the kids of those who could not pay.  
How you can learn more and support migrant children.
Nazario made several visits to Honduras, where Enrique began his ordeal. She talked to kids as young as seven who are forced to become drug addicts who have to work for cartels to support their habit. Other kids are forced to be mules and lookouts, even hit men as young as ten. The girls are marked as property for gang members even before their first periods, and they will most likely be raped several times before their QuinceaƱera. These are the lives these kids are fleeing. It is safer to ride atop of a moving train from Central America through Mexico, and walk across a desert to the United States, than stay in their home countries. 

She kept it real. She didn't sugar coat anything. She admitted that as a journalist she shouldn't have become so personally invested. Yet, as a decent human being, how could she not? She was talking to kids who could be brutally murdered at any moment by gang members and drug lords who see no value in human lives - even those of children. She was made aware of her privilege as an American, and it made her want to do more for those who can't even imagine what her life of safety is like.   

Sonia Nazario signs books after her presentation.
The stories and photos she shared were heart-breaking and thought-provoking. I don't know how anyone could listen to them and not be moved to question their own privilege, their humanity and their true heart. This issue is at the forefront of the upcoming presidential election, and on the minds of many, regardless of their political affiliations. She said that her book continues to be updated as new developments happen in Enrique's life as his case to stay in the US progresses. She's written the book over a dozen times, and can probably write twenty more books from the research, experience and accounts she's collected over the years. To my delight (and soon-to-be addition to my bookshelf), Nazario wrote a middle grade version that is often used as part of middle school curriculums.

Sonia signs her latest New York Times cover story
Aside from being an accomplished writer, Nazario is a poised and enthusiatic speaker. Her topic was heavy, yet she inserted humor and lighter fare into her presentation. She shared about her life, and how she got into journalism at a time when they were targeted and killed across Latin America. She brought a guest, a woman who had shared her story with Nazario over fifteen years ago and opened her eyes to the plight of migrant mothers who leave behind children who risk it all to be reunited. It was a great coincidence that the woman, named Carmen, had moved to Iowa and was able to attend the event. Nazario brought Carmen on stage and you could tell that she had the utmost respect, admiration and love for her. That was part of what made Nazario feel so genuine. She's won several awards, degrees and accolades, yet she joked with the kids in the audience, and took her time meeting each person who came through the line to get a book signed or asked for a photo. 

Sonia adds an encouraging message for young readers
As I watched Nazario interact with attendees, I got a warm feeling inside my gut, excitement that one day that could be me. Lately I've been feeling that my writing isn't getting anywhere. That I'm stuck in an endless cycle of revisions that is killing my writing spirit, making me question my dream. Nazario was the shot of reality I needed to reassess my feelings. She didn't get to where she is by letting feelings of frustration and being "stuck" stop her from writing the stories that needed to be told. She kept on, writing version after version of ENRIQUE'S JOURNEY until she had a story that would make it into people's hands. A story that would change the lives of those who learned more about these children, and all they endure to have a safe life with their mothers.

Women from the Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines pose with Sonia
While Nazario and I have very different writing styles, as she specializes in adult non-fiction and I in fiction for younger readers, we share the same burden - we want to tell compelling stories that do right by our readers. This is the universal goal of authors who love what they do. I have come to learn that as a writer, you must love it or it will haunt you, drive you crazy because even when doubts and frustrations are high, the need to tell a story is relentless and demands to be honored.

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