Journalist Sonia Nazario and Su Teatro shed light on the horrors and the uplifting moments of migrant life

The play Enrique's Journey, adapted by Su Teatro artistic director Anthony Garcia from the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nazario, debuted last weekend in Denver, bringing to light the harrowing story of Central American immigrants who risk life and limb riding the tops of freight trains north, in search of a better life in the United States. As reported by Nazario, who joined those migrants on their journey, the dangerous trip, riddled with gun-toting gangsters who control the train tops, offers an incredible look at just how far people will go to escape the poverty they left behind. Using her sharp reporting, the play morphed into something dramatically palpable in Garcia's hands.

When he was developing the play at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Garcia met with local members of the Latino community, partly in hopes of gaining insight into Central American lingo. "I wanted to see if there were any Central Americans there, to help me add authenticity to the script," he says. "I can cuss like a Mexican, but it's different down there. I've learned a lot over the past year."

By luck, he found more than he was looking for, Garcia recalls: "I was telling them a story from the book: A group of migrants go through Chiapas and rocks were thrown at them, they were spit on and the police robbed them. So, when they go through Oaxaca, people run at them and throw things, and the migrants are afraid. But then they realize that the people are throwing food and bottled water and shoes. I asked them what they thought had happened, and one woman said: 'Son milagros. I traveled those trains, I came from Nicaragua.' It was a moment of art crossing over to reality, incredibly powerful."

Paired with Nazario's embedded reporting, Garcia was able to build a moving tribute to a faceless mass of humanity. For the reporter, though, the story began in Southern California, where Nazario, a L.A. Times reporter, entered the migrant world through the portal of her housekeeper's immigration experience.

"I had a conversation one morning with her, when she came to my home in L.A. with her son," she recalls. "That morning, I asked her, 'Do you think you will have any more children?' She started crying and told me that she had left four behind in Guatemala. She was a single mother, her husband had left, and most days, she might not have been able to feed her children more than once or twice. They would cry with hunger. She left them in Guatemala to come to work in the U.S. and had not seen them in thirteen years. I was amazed by her story. What kind of desperation would it take to come from 2,000 miles away, never knowing when and if she would ever see them again? That's an incredible story to me."

"She defensively said that there are millions of women who leave their children behind. Once, her son came to find her, taking a series of buses, yet thousands of children in this modern day make that same odyssey on tops of freight trains," Nazario continues. "I thought it was an incredible story, one with a beginning, a middle and an end, with built-in conflict, incredible characters and questions you want answered. I also felt this story shows the face of who's coming to us and how that's changed. Fifty-one percent of the eleven million immigrants here without permission are women. These are your neighbors. You should know about these people."

Taking to the train top -- albeit with armed guards accompanying her and the option to get off if she wanted to take a shower or sleep in a hotel -- was another story, however. "I loved inserting myself in the middle of the action," she says. "That immediacy is what brings power to a story. All of that allowed me to build in a level of narrative detail, to write about the journey with a certain authority." And though she remained relatively safe, her journey came with its own wounds: lingering PTSD brought on by terrible memories. "I saw a teen boy who lost his legs on the train, and it was two weeks before I would get back on," Nazario says. "I needed therapy to stop the nightmares. Now, I wake up more grateful for what I have."

Would she do it again? Not if her husband can help it. "He wasn't going to let those gang bangers kill me," she jokes, "because he was gonna have to kill me first."

In town this week as the 2011 Richard T. Castro Distinguished Visiting Professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver, Nazario will offer a keynote address at 11 a.m. this morning; she'll also be at Thursday night's performance of Enrique's Journey.

For a complete schedule of Nazario's appearances, visit the MSCD website. Performances of Enrique's Journey continue through October 30; tickets are $17 to $20.

And to keep up with the Froyd's-eye-view of arts and culture in Denver, "like" my fan page on Facebook.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd