by Sonia Nazario, author of Enrique’s Journey
President Obama has vowed that he will soon raise the issue of immigration reform anew, likely igniting heated debates in homes around the country.
Yet in many high schools nationwide, teachers have already sought to help students better understand their newly arrived neighbors through discussions of Enrique’s Journey. Already, scores of high schools from Bay Shore, New York to Santa Monica, California—places that have seen a sudden surge of newcomers from other countries—have used my book about one Central American boy’s quest to reach his mother in the U. S. to take students inside the world of migrants, a world many know little about.
My visits to high schools all over the country have led to incredibly interesting and moving encounters with students, who reveal different responses to my book. Many non-Latino students tell me they had no real concept of the poverty that pushes many migrants out of places like Honduras. They say that they find the story of what Enrique and other migrant children are willing to do to reach the U. S. not only moving, but instructive, forcing them to reevaluate their preconceptions about immigrants. One African-American student at a Chicago high school told me how her grandmother had moved from Mississippi to Illinois, leaving her children behind—an experience common among African-American women leaving the South. That student said the book gave her a deeper bond with people living south of the border.
Mexican-American students often tell me that, after reading Enrique’s Journey, they have a better understanding of the tensions between Mexicans and Central Americans living in the U. S.
The most moving responses, however, are from Latino students who say this is the first book they have read in which they can see some glimmer of their own lives and experiences reflected. They—or someone in their family—have made the journey to the U. S. on top of freight trains, or have been separated from their parents in the process of coming to the U.S.
Immigrant students—whether from China, Russia, or Poland—tell me that they lived with these separations and difficulties as well. Students say my book has led to first-ever conversations with their parents about how they arrived in the United States. Often, high school teachers tell me that they normally can’t get their students to read anything, but their pupils devoured this tale.
What has been most promising is to see students’ clear desire to try to alleviate the situation I describe in Enrique’s Journey. At La Jolla Country Day School, near San Diego, students launched a campaign to raise money to provide microloans to women in Guatemala. These loans provide women with the necessary start-up capital to create businesses and generate income, thus allowing them to stay with their children in their home country.
Students at Crawford High School in San Diego were so taken with the book that they worked with the local public broadcasting station to produce an Emmy-winning short film for television based upon the book and its characters. They also created pop-up books based on Enrique’s Journey, and took them to elementary schools to discuss immigration.
In Logan, Utah, high school students interpreted Enrique’s Journey artistically. Before a crowd of parents, they performed poems, played piano concertos, and displayed sculptures inspired by my book. As they did so, several members of the audience cried. The mostly white, Mormon students said the book gave them a much better understanding of the Latino students at their high school (many of those Latino students had seen their parents deported during a raid on a local meatpacking plant).
High school teachers have told me the book appealed to them as a common read and worked for many reasons: It appealed to both male and female students. The protagonist is close to the students’ age. The book, they say, is a compelling read that broadens students’ awareness of cultures not their own. Simply, it is about a hot current issue.
Administrators and teachers appreciate how Enrique’s Journey addresses key themes, such as: survival, community, education, family, diversity, racism, violence, drugs, redemption, foreign relations, politics, and, of course, immigration.
What I have enjoyed most about my discussions at these high schools is seeing that Enrique’s Journey has taken a highly polarizing and important issue, and has forced students to reconsider it in a nuanced way. For me, even as we head into renewed and heated debates about immigration, this is an issue that, as much as any other, deserves to be explored through research, reflection, and most importantly, conversation.