Riding Trains and Chewing Bubble Gum: Thoughts on Child Migration from Which Way Home

"I was watching a documentary while you were out. It's called Which Way Home." 

Of course, my response to Billy's statement was a lot of hand waving and hollering, "Noooooooo! I wanted us to watch that TOGETHER. That's why it's on "My List"!!!!"

He patiently responds, "I figured. That's why I only watched ten minutes and then stopped it. That one's going to make us cry," he predicted.

Oh man. Which Way Home follows a handful of boy migrating north from Mexico and Central America. Their mode of transportation? Riding the trains, also known as "The Beast."

As you can imagine, it was hard to watch. A ten year old crying in a detention center that he hasn't seen his mom or dad in three years. A fourteen year old sharing the horrors he saw while traveling. A mother of three with both legs amputated after an accident on a train. 

The filmmakers allowed the boys to talk about their reasons for traveling and experiences in their home countries. I admit, their conversations were different than I expected, and a few themes stood out to me:

A desire for adventure

I must confess than when I've read about child migrants, I somehow imagine them weighing their options before making the difficult decision to travel North. Did I forget these are primarily adolescent boys? 

There was almost an innocent boyishness in their decision making. Let's go on an adventure! Let's go to the United States! And they hopped on trains with the clothes on their backs while this mama is muttering, "What an ill-conceived plan..."

A longing for family

I was deeply struck by the family challenges these particular boys were already facing a home, feeling unwanted and abandoned. Some felt rejected or ignored by their families, so they felt the need to leave. Noticeably, several children had parents who had left for the States many years before. They were naturally following in their footsteps, seeking to know their fathers and mothers. 

Misguided expectations

Several of these teenage boys spoke about their hope to be adopted when they arrived to the States, revealing a lack of understanding of the immigration experience. Of course, they also had Hollywood-induced expectations that were unrealistic of life in the States.  

Lack of gang violence

The film, as I recall, did not mention violence or gangs in the boys' home countries at all. This seems interesting to me since so much has been said about its influence on child migration. I ask myself if the filmmakers chose to leave out that angle, if it just wasn't part of these particular boys' stories, or if it has been overhyped as a powerful influence. 

However, I couldn't help but compare boys who make this journey with young men who enter gang life. There was some similar challenges as these youth felt they had no future, they craved a place of belonging, and they were willing to take high risks. 

These were some of my take aways from Which Way Home. To dive into the topic more, I've been talking with a friend who works with migrant youth about an interview for the blog. You can keep your eyes out for that coming later this month!

Have you seen this documentary? What did you think?


  1. Susann Shultz6:59 AM

    Amazing documentary. I showed it for a few years in my Spanish 3 classes (fast forwarding through one scene where the kid was all drugged up toward the end). As HS juniors, they are older than a lot of the kids in the film. How different their lives are! Trying to get them to see outside of the "Grandville Bubble" (Grandville is the town we live in, very much upper middle class, and predominately Christian). Have you read Enrique's Journey? If not, you should! Same type of story....Enrique travels to the US on top of the trains.

  2. I have this doc & loved it. Also, Enrique's Journey is a MUST. Read it in high school and it wrecked me. It was my first ever reality check with the immigration issue.

  3. Glad to know you like this doc, too! And I'm totally sold. I absolutely have to read Enrique's Journey this year!!! :)

  4. Ha ha, just coming over to also recommend Enrique's Journey. I don't think it was published yet when I was in high school, but my fellow English teacher (I teach math and science) recommended it to me about 8 years ago and it was very eye opening. We have many Latin American migrants in our area, but up until recently most have been from Mexico, not farther south.

  5. I'm impressed on the impact this book has made on so many people. Gives me hope in the power of the written word and people's stories!

  6. Kristin Wagner10:03 PM

    I watched this documentary and sobbed! I did missionyear and lived in Houston for a year and met TONNS of kids who reminded me so much of the kids in the movie. The question that watching it left me with was basically, what coan I do about it? Is there any way, even the tiniest thing, that I could be a help to any of these kids that end up in the US by themselves and it doesn't look the way they thought it did? I want to help! To be Jesus to them! But it's such a huge issue, it's impossible to know where to start. I would love to hear an interview with a person who works with these kids!

  7. Hi Kristin! Def keep an eye out for the interview coming soon. Also, it's a small thing to be sure, but this website lets you send notes to kids who've crossed to encourage them and welcome them. I totally think we should all do this! http://www.theyarechildren.com/


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