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Sonia Nazario: A Journalist’s Journey
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Sonia Nazario: A Journalist’s Journey

This post was written by Hilary Powell, an Indiana-based television reporter and a 2014 Immigration in the Heartland Fellow.

In writing, there is nothing like the gut feeling of finding a good story. What began as a chat between journalist Sonia Nazario and her house cleaner about having children, bloomed into a sweeping tale about some of the youngest migrants who risk robbery, rape and death on a trek to the United States.

When Nazario’s housekeeper, María Carmen, revealed that she had been away from her four children for 12 years, she sparked a story that sheds light on a lesser-known thread of the immigration tapestry. Nazario said she was a little judgmental at first — What kind of mother would leave her children behind? She soon realized that these women are facing a no-win choice: To provide for their children’s physical needs, they must leave them. To stay with their children means a life of wrenching poverty.

With simple curiosity, Nazario found her story: Children who leave their homelands in Central America to try to reunite with their parents. For several months, she traveled atop freight trains to retrace the steps of one boy’s pilgrimage from Honduras to the United States. Her story for the Los Angeles Times resulted in the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, and later became a book, “Enrique’s Journey.”

The story of Enrique has become one of the most cited books about immigration and is required reading for many college freshmen. Although the original article was published a decade ago, the story has become even more relevant. In 2012, U.S. immigration authorities apprehended about 10,000 unaccompanied minors. This year, government officials expect the number to top 60,000. The children are making the dangerous journeys not just to reunite with their parents, but to flee the increasing violence in Central America.

At IJJ’s Immigration in the Heartland program, Nazario urged reporters to tell the stories of these children and their families. “It’s a huge issue for our society,” she said.

Some of the stories she suggested for reporters to tell on both a national and local level included:

How are the parents who are in the United States coping with the choice of having their children face the dangers of migrating versus the violence in Central America?
Are there enough safeguards in place to make sure that U.S. authorities are releasing detained migrant children to proper guardians? Advocacy groups have gathered anecdotes about the same person picking up several children.
How are school systems dealing with an increased population of migrant children? Is there a need for more “newcomer” schools and other special services?
What are the emotional conflicts between parents and children after they finally reunite?
To aptly capture stories, Nazario encouraged journalists to write the five senses on the cover of their notebook as a reminder to bring the audience along. Polarizing subjects such as immigration calls for journalists to humanize the issue, she says.

In researching “Enrique’s Journey,” she traveled with migrants on top of trains through Mexico, retracing the teen’s steps. She spent 16-hour stretches without peeing (doing so could have caused her to fall off the train). One night, someone on the train tried to rape her. Nazario says her trials were only a shadow of the horrors experienced by the migrants. “I thought I knew what resilience was,” she said, “until I met them.”

Nazario said she uses a “fly-on-the-wall” reporting technique to observe social issues. She gave a list of tips every journalist can use to help pinpoint powerful stories:

  • Look for universal themes.
  • Look for conflict.
  • Look for questions that need answering.
  • Look for great characters.
  • Look for stories with a beginning, middle, and an end.
  • Look for characters that grow.
  • Look for stories that take the audience into worlds they would not otherwise see.
  • Nazario’s experience shows reporters should also trust their sixth sense: that inborn vibration that if the story matters to you, it will likely resonate with others.

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