Sonia Nazario doesn’t work well chained to a desk. Clinging with bare hands to the top of a sizzling freight train, though, is a different story.
“I’m pretty stubborn and determined, so I never thought about giving up — even when a branch swiped me off the train,” said Nazario, journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Enrique’s Journey. “I almost fell off the top of the car, and it swiped off the kid behind me and likely killed him.”
Her mission: to take readers inside the world of Central American immigrant children and their journeys to reach the United States.
Nazario’s will deliver today’s morning lecture at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater. Her book follows teenage Enrique’s perilous journey through Central America to find his mother in the United States.
The young reader’s adaptation of Enrique’s Journey is also the Week Three selection for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Young Readers program.
Nazario is an expert in what she calls “fly on the wall” journalism.
The time she spent riding the tops of freight trains through Mexico was originally for a six-part series she did for the Los Angeles Times under the same title in 2002.
Her goal was to tell the stories of immigrant children in the most in-depth, compelling way possible.
“I’ll be showing these very powerful photos of the journey these children have made on top of freight trains, and I’ll be talking about my own journey on top of freight trains — how it changed my view of immigrants and some of the things I went through,” Nazario said.
In addition, Nazario will be teaching a master class on non-fiction reporting from 3:30 to 5 p.m. today in the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall Ballroom.
“I’m going to talk some about my life and the power of determination, and thinking that I was such a determined person given the many obstacles I faced early in my life,” Nazario said.
“I had really no idea what determination was until I saw what women and children are willing to do to reach the United States.”
Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services, said Nazario has been incredible in working to share her experience as a journalist and advocate of social justice with Chautauquans while she is here.
“Sonia has been dedicating herself to this for decades, and I hope we have an opportunity to explore this work with her,” Ewalt said. “She has been amazing in working with us to offer a master class to teenagers and adults on immersive journalism.”
Nazario’s work with migrants exposed her to immense danger and unbelievable circumstances. She attributes her success in compiling Central Americans’ gripping accounts of love, loss, rape, robbery and fate to proving to them what she was willing to do to tell their stories.
“I was covered in soot. There was one day where I didn’t go to the bathroom for 16 hours,” Nazario said. “They could see that I was on top of this train, and I did not eat or drink water when I was on the train because I didn’t know if the kids I was with would have any.”
Nazario said she chose to throw herself — quite literally — into the lives of migrant children.
“I saw kids who had lost a leg to that freight train get back up on the train three weeks later because they’re so determined to reach the opportunities I take for granted every day,” Nazario said. “So, I think this is a very critical time to be debating how do we deal with these immigrants and what aspects of this migration is good and what aspects are bad, and how can we change how we approach this issue to a much more productive way.”