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As the daughter of a Polish Jew mother and an Argentinian father, it seemed almost preordained that Sonia Nazario would develop a keen interest in immigration.
“My family has been migrating for the past 100 years,” Nazario said Wednesday during a program at Shasta College. Her mother moved from Poland to Argentina as a child to escape persecution by Nazis; her father’s family fled Syria to avoid persecution as Christians.
Nazario, who was born in the United States, split her childhood between Buenos Aires, where she was considered a “gringa” or outsider, and in Kansas, where people thought she was simply “weird.”
That background helped form the basis for her journalism career and provided her with insight that she shared with a packed Shasta College Theater audience during a talk entitled “On Immigration and Journalism.”
Nazario, who is now an opinion writer with the New York Times, was joined on stage by Oakland-based journalist Joaquin Alvarado, a cofounder of Studiotobe, a content development and production studio, and the former CEO of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The event was presented by California Humanities in partnership with the Shasta College Foundation.
Although immigration is a front-burner topic today—President Trump devoted 15 minutes to the topic during Tuesday’s State of the Union address—Nazario said her interest in the issue was sparked 20 years ago during a conversation with the woman who cleaned her home in Los Angeles.
Nazario learned the woman had left four children behind in Honduras to move north and find work. The cleaning lady had not seen her children in 12 years. Nazario, who was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, went on to learn that thousands of single mothers had migrated north.
News that the abandoned children were making the long and dangerous journey to America in hopes of reuniting with their mothers prompted Nazario to begin researching a six-part Times series, “Enrique’s Journey,” that went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and became a bestselling book.
Nazario discussed that project and her repeated visits to Honduras, including a four-week visit that she just returned from on Tuesday, the role journalists can play in informing communities on the myriad issues surrounding immigration, and shared some thoughts on the Trump administration’s asylum policies.
Why is immigration such a difficult and inflammatory topic today, Alvarado asked. Traditionally, Nazario said, when the country’s economy is good, people don’t care as much about immigrants coming into the country. When the economy takes a downturn, immigrants become the scapegoats.
Currently “it’s strange: the economy has improved but the resentment has continued,” Nazario said. “I think people feel afraid and a bit off-kilter.”
Nazario painted a bleak picture of Honduras, an impoverished and broken country whose citizens are fleeing in droves to escape widespread violence from narco cartels. During her most recent visit, she watched as another caravan of asylum seekers left, on foot, at 1 a.m. in a driving rainstorm. Many in the group were mothers carrying babies in their arms. “That is voting with your feet,” Nazario said.
Wednesday’s conversation was part of California Humanities’ yearlong CA 2020: Democracy and the Informed Citizen Initiative, a project that brings Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists to California community college campuses to highlight the link between democracy and journalism.
During a Q&A session after the on-stage conversation, Nazario said she decided to become a journalist after two reporters were killed near her home in Buenos Aires. The journalists had been reporting on atrocities committed by the military junta during Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War.”
In response to a question about the need for objectivity, Nazario said she began her career as an advocate but “I had that beaten out of me by editors … people can smell bias from a mile away.”
Nazario and Alvarado both emphasized the importance of supporting journalism, especially with corporate-controlled newspapers slashing newsrooms and other media companies struggling to develop effective business models in a digital environment dominated by Facebook and Google.
“I believe journalists are fundamental to democracy,” Nazario said.