National Public Radio listeners will recall correspondent Gerry Hadden’s reports from Latin America and Haiti, Hadden’s beat for four years. Dispatched from his home in Mexico City, Hadden ’89 covered unrest in Port-au-Prince, illegal immigration to the United States, revolt in Venezuela.
But the reports, compelling as they were, turn out to be just part of the story. Hadden, in this simultaneously gripping and reflective memoir, reveals the on-the-ground maneuvering, negotiation, and downright dangerous forays into riotous and menacing places that made those reports possible.
Recruited from a public radio job in Seattle, Hadden underwent “hostile environment training” meant to lessen the odds that he would be shot, taken captive, or executed by his captors. The training turned out to be little protection in the situations into which Hadden, often alone, inserted himself, from the labyrinth of a Port-au-Prince slum to the dark banks of the Suchiate River, which separates Guatemala from southern Mexico and is a formidable obstacle for migrants trying to reach the United States.
“Its banks are all muck and mangrove and contraband, human or otherwise,” Hadden writes. “When I first visited that place I knew that never in human history had a single written norm, regulation, or law ever been enforced there. There was simply no possibility of it.”
It is there that, in search of migrants heading north, he inadvertently stumbles into the clutches of those who prey upon them. Members of the notorious Salvatrucha gang, they are ready to rob Hadden or worse when their Salvadoran leader, who once lived in the Bronx, learns that Hadden grew up in Pelham, N.Y., and takes sympathy on the blundering gringo. “No one’s going to touch my boy,” he warns, before escorting the fellow New Yorker to safety.
It’s a close call, one of many that are recounted in the book but went unreported on NPR. In fact listeners know little about Hadden, who nearly became a Buddhist monk and who broods over the lives of the people he encounters, both professionally and personally.
The book chronicles his relationship with Lazaro, an assistant Hadden brings to Mexico City after they are threatened by shadowy militia members in Guatemala City. Lazaro’s life spirals downward despite Hadden’s assistance and support, and the young man with great promise ends up on the street. “Finally he lifted his rain-soaked head. He raised his hands to his temples and shook his head back and forth like someone receiving terrible news over a headset.”
There is more behind the scenes, including Hadden’s relationship with Anne, a young French woman who leaves her husband for (and eventually marries) the roving radio reporter. But Hadden’s affair really is with the people of the countries in this magical and sometimes dismaying swath of the world. The book is filled with accounts that are sympathetic, empathetic, poignant—like the encounter that gave the memoir its title. Hadden was in a town in northern Mexico sitting with a group of migrants about to set out on a nighttime border crossing. When Hadden follows, one man turns back and tells the American to stay behind, that the route is dangerous.
“We are only taking this path because we have no other choice,” he says.
“But you … .”
Hadden, a journalist to the bone, records as the man trudges away into the darkness. “Hope’s footsteps diminishing,” Hadden writes, “but never the hope itself.”