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 the emptiness.
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 years old.
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 magic castle.
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 this afternoon.”
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 Service.
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 killed.
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
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 tortillas.
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.
CONFUSION 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 three years.
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
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
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
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
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
Excerpted from "Enrique's Journey" by Sonia Nazario. Copyright © 2007 by Sonia Nazario. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.