Interview: Award-winning author Sonia Nazario to speak at ThreeSixty Journalism fundraiser

Acclaimed author Sonia Nazario captured the harrowing experience of immigrant children in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Enrique’s Journey." She will be the featured speaker at ThreeSixty Journalism's annual Widening the Circle fundraiser on Friday.
“I wrote about social justice, about people who don’t have enough representation. I’ve always felt very passionate about writing certain kinds of stories and writing about immigrants.”

Editor’s note: Award-winning journalist Sonia Nazario will be the featured speaker at a Friday fundraiser for ThreeSixty Journalism in downtown Minneapolis. A former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of national bestseller “Enrique’s Journey,” Nazario will address the important role journalists play in society and how investigative reporting makes a difference in the lives of disenfranchised citizens everywhere.

ThreeSixty alum and Twin Cities-based journalist Ibrahim Hirsi recently spoke with Nazario about her Pulitzer Prize winning book, what it took to overcome an impoverished upbringing in Kansas and how Enrique’s inspirational travels continue to guide her.

Not many journalists would sit on top of moving freight trains, live in the near-constant danger of being killed and travel thousands of miles away from their spouse to tackle the unknown in the name of investigative reporting.

Sonia Nazario, however, did all these things to tell a mind-blowing tale of a Honduran teenager, Enrique, who traveled through a perilous world while riding on deadly train tops to the United States to find his mother, Lourdes, who left him behind when he was a starving 5-year-old.

For Nazario, there wasn’t a better way to research the experiences of children hitchhiking on up to 30 trains to come to America. So she tagged along with them — even though it meant the risk of being raped or robbed, getting beaten by gangs or falling off trains and losing limbs or life to the rolling wheels.

“I wanted to put the reader on top of that train alongside Enrique,” Nazario said in a recent phone interview. “I wanted them to feel the terror that he felt when he was beaten, the fear that he lived in and all he had been through every step along the way.”

TAKING A JOURNEY

Nazario captured these harrowing journeys six years ago in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Enrique’s Journey, exposing a little-known story of the immigration wave from Mexico and Central America to the United States.

However, she didn’t stop where the book ended. Nazario has continued to follow the legal cases of immigrant children in courtrooms and detention centers.

“When these kids go before an immigration judge to argue the right to stay here, whether they have the right or not, they’re not entitled to a government attorney,” said Nazario, a former Los Angeles Times reporter. “I saw kids of five-to-seven years old, coming to immigration courts in L.A. They’re supposed to make a case before the immigration judge.”

Nazario felt the need to stand up for them. She helps recruit attorneys to represent these unequipped kids for free. In fact, last Wednesday, Nazario gave a talk before the Philadelphia Bar Association in Denver, Colo., asking lawyers to help the estimated 100,000 children who come alone to the United States from Mexico and Central America each year.

Nazario is no stranger to the plight of those immigrants she advocates for and writes about. Her father, Mahafud Nazario, of Syrian descent, was born in Argentina. Her mother, Clara Nazario, was born in Poland but fled to Argentina during World War II. The couple later moved to the United States, escaping Argentina’s dictatorship government, which suppressed academic freedom.

They gave birth to Sonia in 1960 in Madison, Wis.

Growing up in Kansas, Nazario lost her father to a heart attack when she was 13. Her mother decided to move back to Argentina with the family during its bloody Dirty War in the late 1970s, which claimed an estimated 30,000 people.

One day, as she walked with her mother, Nazario spotted the blood of two journalists on the sidewalk of her hometown, Buenos Aires.

“But why were they killed?” Nazario asked.

“Because they were trying to tell the truth about what was going on here,” Clara said.

That was when Nazario saw the power of storytelling and realized that a functioning democracy isn’t possible unless society is educated about what happens around them. At 14, she wanted to become a journalist.

And she did.

FINDING HER PASSION

Clara felt Argentina was too dangerous, and within two years, the family returned to the United States, resettling in Kansas. It’s where Nazario attended high school and worked as a waitress after school and on weekends to help her financially struggling family.

A 1982 graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts, Nazario quickly found work at the Wall Street Journal, reporting from four bureaus: New York, Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles. She also wrote about Latinos in the United States and reported from Latin America.

In 1993, Nazario joined the Los Angeles Times as a projects and urban affairs reporter. Among other issues, she wrote about immigration, hunger and drug addiction before she left the paper in 2008.

“I wrote about social justice, about people who don’t have enough representation,” Nazario said. “I’ve always felt very passionate about writing certain kinds of stories and writing about immigrants.”

Nazario, who is working on her second book, spends three to four months a year travelling across the world to talk about “Enrique’s Journey.” After her visit in the Twin Cities, Nazario will take her speaking tour to Missouri, Florida, New York, and finally, Barcelona, Spain.

ThreeSixty Journalism’s annual Widening the Circle fundraiser takes place from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in downtown Minneapolis. Click here for ticket and raffle information.

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