Hall Family Speaker Series Brings Award-Winning Journalist to Campus

Sonia Nazario, this year’s Hall Family Speaker, says she was “born a rabble-rouser.” Her childhood nickname was “the troublemaker,” and the award-winning journalist, author, and activist still has a nose for trouble—good trouble.

On Monday, Nazario held students and professional-community members spellbound as she recounted her exploits as an “expert in immersion.” In reporting jobs at the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, she covered stories that not only tugged at readers’ heartstrings but often resulted in broad social reforms and policy changes. 

Nazario’s visit tied into this year’s DEI theme of Engaging Across Differences, which focuses on examining and strengthening our community’s ability to curiously, courageously, and productively engage with those whose backgrounds, views, and experiences are different from our own, in the service of cultivating a caring, respectful, and collaborative environment.

Nazario has covered such topics as childhood hunger and drug addiction, but she is best known for “Enrique’s Journey,” a six-part LA Times series that won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and was later turned into a best-selling book. At Monday’s keynote speech, and at later sessions meeting with Upper School and Middle School students, her focus was on that book and on the hot-button issue of immigration. “I hope to give you food for thought and debate on the most polarizing issue in our country,” she told the audience, adding that a recent Gallup poll had named immigration as Americans’ top concern heading into a divisive presidential election. 

Immigration is part of Nazario’s own story. Both of her parents fled prosecution—her father from Syria, her mother from Poland—and landed in Argentina. They later immigrated to the U.S., where Nazario was born. But when she was 13, her father died suddenly, and her mother made the decision to move back to Argentina. Her timing was particularly poor, noted Nazario, as that country was on the verge of entering the “Dirty War” of repression and brutality. Thousands of ordinary citizens were tortured, killed, and “disappeared”; Nazario recalled her mother burning books, including Alice in Wonderland, in the backyard, lest owning them provoke the wrath of the regime. One day, while walking with her mother, they came across a pool of blood in the street. Her mother explained that journalists had been murdered there for “trying to tell the truth.”

It was at that moment that Nazario decided to become a journalist. She didn’t love writing, she said, but she saw it as a pathway to advocacy and understood the importance of the work. “No democracy can flourish,” she said, “without a vibrant press that is willing to hold people in power accountable.”

She soon learned, however, that accountability and advocacy are two separate matters. At her first reporting job, at the Wall Street Journal, her boss took her to task for putting a “U.S. Out of El Salvador” bumper sticker on her car. Broadcasting her opinions, she was told, was a violation of journalistic ethics—a framework she came to appreciate as she advanced in her career and realized that her own views and biases might prevent her from getting the full story. And, she added, “The more I learned, the more I saw that things had shades of gray. The more you know, the murkier it gets.”

But a journalist can still advocate, in choosing what to cover and how to cover it. Nazario’s series about children going hungry led to a dramatic increase in California public schools’ participation in free breakfast programs. Her work on children of drug addicts, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, created a storm of public outcry. Nazario had a knack not just for reporting but for bringing her subjects’ stories alive.

The work for which she’s best known also represents her greatest efforts in “immersion journalism.” The inspiration for “Enrique’s Journey” came through a chance conversation with a Guatemalan cleaning woman. Carmen, it turned out, had left four children behind when she came to the U.S. to pursue better opportunities, and her case was not unusual: Nazario found out that millions of children have stayed behind as their parents immigrate—and that tens of thousands brave the dangerous journey north in an effort to reunite with those parents.

Enrique was one such child, growing up in Honduras. When Nazario met him, he was a teenager who’d made eight attempts to enter the U.S. Typically, much of the journey is made by hitching rides on the roofs of freight trains, where the travelers are beset by gangs, bandits, corrupt cops, and other perils. 
To truly report the story, Nazario decided she had to make the journey herself, and she set out from Tegucigalpa, spending three grueling months following the path of the young would-be immigrants. She faced the dangers, but she also witnessed the kindness of villagers along the way—poor people willing to share their food, water, and prayers with the travelers. “They were poor,” said Nazario, “but they did it because it was the right thing to do.”

The trip changed her, she told the audience. The series won the Pulitzer that year, but it also propelled her out of full-time journalism and into advocacy. Today, she is deeply involved with a nonprofit that helps provide legal aid to unaccompanied immigrant children. She has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and pens opinion pieces about immigration for the New York Times

Nazario acknowledged that immigration is a political football, and that she’s “tired of listening to politicians scream at each other.” But she believes a solution is possible. "We can have a pragmatic policy that offers more compassion on the front end and is tougher on the back end. We can address the root causes behind immigration, by providing aid that reduces violence and corruption and increases economic opportunity and development."

The presentation was deeply moving for students and adults alike. “Sonia’s talk was so compelling, from the most heart-wrenching details of individual migrants to her forthright ideas for immigration reform,” said trustee Alison Hall P’19, whose support helped launch the speaker series in 2019. “I know the Equity and Engagement team did a lot of work to get students thinking about immigration before Sonia’s visit, so they were really ready to engage with her messages.” 

Later, Nazario led Q&A sessions with groups of Upper School and Middle School students. The Middle School students had read some of Enrique’s Journey in book form to prepare for the visit. “What did you think of it?” Nazario asked. “Did you hate it? Love it? Did it make sense?”

"I really liked it," said one. “It stuck to the truth and wasn’t sugar coated.”

“It's a really heavy book,” added another. 

At one of the two Upper School sessions hosted by BRIDGE in Hutton Hall, students asked questions ranging from “How do you move on from the experience of researching ‘Enrique’s Journey’?” to “How can I get involved?” 

One student asked Nazario how her views on immigration have changed over the years. Given the veteran journalist’s experience and background, her answer came as no surprise: “They’ve gotten more complex,” she said.  
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