A decade ago, when journalist Sonia Nazario found out her housekeeper, Carmen, left four children behind in Guatemala and hadn’t seen them in 12 years, she was pretty judgmental, she told a Madison audience Thursday night.

“What kind of a lousy mother leaves her children?” Nazario wondered. It was a question that would eventually lead her on a harrowing journey.

The Pulitzer Prize winner talked about her 2006 book, “Enrique’s Journey,” before a rapt hall of 1,000 people at Union South. The nonfiction story of a Honduran boy who made eight attempts to reach the U.S. in search of his mother was this year’s pick for Go Big Read, the UW-Madison’s common-reading program, now in its third year.

Nazario, who was born in Madison, said she has written about immigration for more than two decades, but there was a lot she didn’t understand about it until she made the journey herself, “step by step,” riding on the tops of freight trains with the impoverished children.

“I wanted to put readers like you on top of these trains,” she said, noting that she traveled 1,600 miles on top of seven trains across Mexico. She made the journey twice, three months each time, all the while in fear of being robbed, beaten and raped. At one point she was almost thrown off a train by a big tree branch.

She met one boy who went two days without water and began to feel his throat closing. “I couldn’t fathom this type of determination,” she said.

During her travels, she learned about the “gritty determination” that leads thousands of Central American children to risk their lives to find their mothers in the United States.

Nazario said she hopes to humanize immigrants through her writing. Immigrants are people who leave everything that they know and love to go to another place, she said.

Even in a bad economy, 300,000 undocumented immigrants are coming into the United States each year, she said. “They find out that life in the U.S. is a lot tougher than advertised.”

In Wisconsin, there were 10,000 undocumented workers in 1990 and there are 100,000 now, Nazario said. When something happens in such a short period of time it’s often hard for people to understand it, she said.

What she wants people to realize is that illegal immigrants do a lot of the backbreaking work that Americans won’t do. A study by the National Research Council shows that undocumented workers help drive the economy, she said.

Nazario said she was under the impression that most illegal immigrants were men, but discovered that 51 percent of the 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. without permission are women and children.

In 2000, when she first started looking into the children coming in search of their mothers, there were 48,000 children entering the U.S.; now, that number is up to 100,000, she said.

Most are coming to find a parent who left them behind. One conductor told her he saw a boy as young as 7 making the journey alone. “Can you imagine?” asked Nazario, noting that here in Madison parents won’t even let a 7-year-old go to the grocery store by themselves.

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