By: Josh Chotiner
For the holidays, our Executive Director at City Year Denver came to us Corps Members with just the kind of gift I like to receive: a new book. He told us that City Year was going to participate in the One Book, One Denver program, and read the 2012 program novel, Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother. What we did not know was that we were about to embark on a tearful journey of peril and heartbreak with the book’s main character, and that we would soon see that this reading was selected not only to connect our corps with the city we serve, but also to chronicle the journeys that some of our own students in Denver Public Schools can relate to in search of family and opportunity.
The One Book, One Denver program began back in 2004, and exists to engage young people and the city at large in a culture of literature and discussion of real life issues. The program is run by Denver Arts and Venues, the same office that puts on the Five Points Jazz Festival, Film Fiesta, and a number of other cultural events. Books are compiled yearly by a committee of librarians, teachers, authors, and book store owners based on a set of criteria that aim to keeps selections accessible to a large, diverse population of Denverites. Then, the selections are narrowed down to three by the mayor, and finally put to public vote. Enrique’s Journey won last year’s vote by a margin of three-to-one, and it is not hard to see why.
The book recounts how situations of destitution, hardship, and struggle lead many Latin American mothers to come to the United States alone, leaving children behind with family, in order to work and try to provide a better life for their children, and the perilous journeys many of these children make to rejoin their mothers in America. Many, like Enrique, must avoid lethal adversaries like gangsters and corrupt police and immigration officers to reach the Rio Grande, literally hopping on and off of trains to make the voyage. Sadly, for many, their arrivals at their mothers’ sides are not the fairytale endings they had been hoping for. Some mothers have started new families in America, or have very stern expectations of respect that they feel they deserve for their sacrifices; many children come full of resentment and hopelessness that come from years of feelings of abandonment.
Upon completing our reading, we had the honor of hosting Niecie Washington, a representative of Denver Arts and Venues, for our discussion of this powerful tale of devotion and sacrifice. I was most surprised by the passionate conversation and debate this book stirred up in all of us, spanning a wide range of subjects from immigration policy reform to Central American economics to paralyzing effects that living illegally in the shadows must have on many immigrant or first-generation students. In the public discussion of immigration, we may all have different viewpoints, but for us City Year Corps Members, the toll that this issue takes on so many of our students is simply devastating, and affects the work we do with them each and every day. I am thankful for the clarity and perspective that Enrique’s Journey delivered me, and even though each of my students doesn’t have the same harrowing tale as Enrique, I come away with a deeper understanding of the circumstances of immigrants and their lives, both here and in their countries of origin where they come from. I can only hope to find out more about the journeys my students have taken, and use that knowledge to make everything I do for them more individually responsive and powerful.