Nazario opens the book by describing the moment that inspired her to find Enrique’s story. One Friday morning at home in Los Angeles, she gets into a conversation with her housekeeper Carmen on the topic of raising children. She soon discovers that Carmen has four children that she has had to leave behind in Guatemala. Carmen has not seen them for 12 years.
Carmen's story raises the issue of immigration from Central America and shows how it splits up families. Nazario's lack of awareness of Carmen's situation indicates how these problems affect Central American immigrants largely unnoticed by United States citizens. Nazario’s goal is to make these stories public and in the process to "humanize" the people who endure them.
Carmen explains her story to Nazario, telling her that her husband left her for another woman, that she could not provide for her children alone, and that she finally decided to come to the U.S. to better the lives of her children. She also knows that the separation has put an emotional strain on her relationship with her children and that there have been many downsides to her decision to leave Guatemala. She tells Nazario that her situation is common amongst Central American and Mexican mothers facing poverty with few alternative options.
Carmen, left to care for her children on her own, shows perseverance in her choice to leave behind her family in search of work in the US. And the perseverance isn’t only in the journey to reach the US. She must persevere to pursue employment, send home money, and maintain her familial relationships over long distances. Her dilemmas are shared by single immigrant mothers from all over.
The next year, Carmen’s eldest son, Minor, driven by his uncertainty about his mother's love for him, arrives unanticipated in Los Angeles after embarking on a journey to reunite with her. Nazario hears about his trip and, following up, learns about the dangers he faced hitchhiking through Guatemala and Mexico. Interested in the story of Carmen and Minor, Nazario investigates the reasons motivating the difficult choices each has made, and discovers how common their story is: how many other single mothers have left their families to come to work in the Unites States in order to send financial support back home, eventually to be followed by their own children desperate to reunite with their mothers.
Minor’s doubt about his mother's love shows the extent of this family's disintegration. It was in fact Carmen's profound love for her children and her desire to give them a better life that led her to come to the US, but they experienced her departure not as a sacrifice she was making for them but as abandonment. His journey through dangerous areas in Mexico also requires him to persevere through hardship.
Nazario outlines the changes in immigration to the United States in recent years, with about 700,000 immigrants entering illegally per year. Furthermore, the transforming family dynamics in Latin America, most importantly the rise in divorce rates in recent times, has resulted in an increase of single women immigrating to the U.S. to find work. In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. experienced a similar period of increased immigration, with single mothers from the Caribbean seeking work in New York City, New England, and Florida. Later in the 1980s, the same phenomenon occurred, this time with Central American mothers heading to Washington, D.C., Houston, and Los Angeles. Nazario points out how the growth of immigrants in the U.S. has led to their demonization. She hopes to restore their humanity by taking a close look at one immigrant’s story.
These changes highlight the increasing complications of immigration and how it relates to family life. They also show the changing gender dynamics in immigrant populations from Central and Latin America. At the same time, this description of the dynamics at play behind the changes in immigration also illustrate how the various waves of immigration have resulted in people becoming seen as merely statistics. As a journalist, Nazario's interest is to humanize these people's stories, which have been reduced to data points or ideological talking points in political arguments.
Nazario decides to learn as much as she can about the treacherous journey that children like Minor make, and talks to young people who have made the journey and now live in jails and shelters in California and Texas. Many have made their journey atop freight trains through Mexico, which these migrants have come to call The Train of Death. They have had to survive against corrupt cops, bandits, and gangsters looking to mercilessly exploit them.
Even this brief glimpse of what the immigrants have endured to come to the United States is shocking. The perseverance, desire for a better life, desperation, and yearning for family togetherness that drives the immigrants is not a part of the debate in the United States about immigrants.
Nazario’s plan is to experience for herself the trip that young migrants make to reunite with their mothers. Before embarking on the journey herself, she decides to retrace the steps of one boy who had already made it to northern Mexico. Looking for a child who would provide the story for the book she wants to write, Nazario finds out about Enrique from a nun at a church in Nuevo Laredo, near the Rio Grande in Mexico. She travels there to talk to him about his experience. From Enrique’s description, she begins to reconstruct the journey of the many children who follow the same route. Then, following Enrique’s path, Nazario traverses 13 of Mexico’s 31 states and travels atop trains for much of the journey. She interviews many of his family members, other migrants, and compassionate people whom Enrique encountered along the way.
Nazario’s dedication to capturing Enrique's story, and the story of other similar immigrants, makes her push beyond just listening and interviewing (though she does that too). She feels the need to experience firsthand what Enrique experienced—not just to hear about his trip, but to make that trip for herself. This is a bold move, and one that speaks to Nazario's recognition that true understanding, true compassion, requires opening oneself up to the same experiences, requires walking in someone else's shoes.
Nazario’s reconstruction of the journey requires her to face serious danger, witnessing the near death of migrants jumping trains and hearing the testimonies of rape victims. She takes great risks to research and retrace Enrique’s path. However, though she was often miserable, exhausted, scared, and in danger along the way, Nazario makes clear that, unlike the migrant children, she always had the option of just stopping, of simply escaping from the hellish journey and going back to her established life in Los Angeles.
The hardships faced by the immigrants only become more gruesome and terrible as more details are revealed. And Nazario experiences all of these hardships as fully as she can. Yet she realizes that she can never be as vulnerable, either physically or psychologically, as the actual immigrants. At the back of her mind Nazario always know that when the journey is done—or if she gets into dire trouble along the way—she can go back to her life (while for immigrants that is only another beginning).
Towards the end of the prologue, Nazario lays out her own background to show the ways that she relates to these stories. Herself the child of immigrants, she understands the desire for new possibilities. Furthermore, her father’s death during her adolescence makes her sympathetic to difficult family situations.
Nazario's background shows both her own connections to the immigrants (her own family's immigration and her "abandonment" by her father), and how immigration (now an almost dirty word in the U.S.) is connected to a larger history of immigration.
Nazario ends by describing her awe at the tenacity of the young people who make this journey and at the difficulty that immigrant single mothers face. And she comments that the greatest loss to these disconnected families is the disintegration of trust that occurs between the child and parent because of their separation, a breach that can never be fully repaired.
In the U.S., illegal immigrants are often presented--and treated--as criminals. Nazario flips that logic on its head, expressing true admiration for these immigrants. She makes the point that these are just people, like everyone else, looking for a better life. At the same time, she notes the human costs of this immigration, laying the foundations for her later commentary on how to make this sort of immigration less necessary.