Javier Zamora on his memoir of childhood migration, ‘Solito’

Javier Zamora had not yet learned to tie his shoes when he began a 4,000-mile journey in 1999.

He was a 9-year-old boy who lived with his grandparents in El Salvador before embarking on an unaccompanied cross-border trip to see his parents in the United States. What was supposed to be a two-week trip turned into a harrowing two-month trek through Guatemala, Mexico and Arizona.

Nearly two decades later, Zamora thought he had healed from the trauma of his immigration experience. He had published his first collection of poems, Unaccompanied – turning some of those memories into art. He was paid to write for the first time. He had a green card. He was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

But he was unhappier than ever. “I drank a lot, wrecked my body, did drugs, sex,” he recently recalled. So he started writing again, forcing himself to remember what he had been trying to bury for so long.

In his new memoir, Solito, Zamora recounts his days traversing the scorching Sonoran Desert, being apprehended by Border Patrol agents and meeting strangers who protected him along the way. And he does it through the first-person voice of the 9-year-old boy he once was.

Zamora will discuss “Solito” at Beyond Baroque in Venice on September 21st and Vroman’s in Pasadena on September 22nd. In an interview he spoke about his book; his perilous journey and its long psychological shadow; and the surrogate family he created along the way. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

"Solito: A memory" by Javier Zamora

I know your therapist played a crucial role in the writing. How did she help?

At the beginning of our sessions, my therapist said, “You really need to spend time with this 9-year-old. You ran away from him, but you can’t. This boy will follow you until you die.”

I see that now. Having made it to this country by the time I was 29, I was ashamed. I did what the media does to immigrants – I treated this boy like a defenseless, powerless child with no agency, and I just flattened him. What I was really shown in writing this book is that this kid is a real superhero. He figured out how to survive and who to bond with and grow up to, sometimes overnight, so he wouldn’t be a nuisance and people wouldn’t leave him behind.

Before and during your trip, your vision of what you call “La USA” in the book is a land of endless swimming pools, McDonald’s, pizza during school lunches. How did that change after you arrived?

That was the biggest shock. We were poor in El Salvador, but we were rich in many other ways. My life was spacious – there were corn fields to walk through. There were fruit trees that I could climb and pick fruit. We had iguanas and aguacates [avocados].

Before I came here I really thought my parents had a swimming pool, fruit trees in the background. I think many parents with a migration background would like to tell their children that their departure was worthwhile. And their thoughts go to material things. I don’t remember them ever correcting me.

When I get here I’m in the car to San Rafael, California and there aren’t that many trees. There are these huge concrete buildings, housing complexes. When we make it to my parents’ “house,” there’s cement and cars everywhere. I get out and we make it to the door – my parents don’t like to remind me, it was heartbreaking for them – but I ask, “Where’s the house?”

Suddenly my world of acres of apples and avocados is squashed into a super small one bedroom apartment. This will be the metaphor for the rest of my time in the US. The contrast really got me down as the hormones kicked in. I was a good kid until seventh grade, then I was just angry. That’s when all the interrogations started.

Javier Zamora in El Salvador just before embarking on the arduous migratory journey he remembers "Solito."

Javier Zamora in El Salvador, just before embarking on the arduous journey of migration he remembers in Solito.

(Javier Zamora)

I was amazed at how many details you remember. How did you tap into those memories?

Dreaming, therapy, Reiki would give me an image, detail, or phrase or name. I would try to capture it by writing about it. That was one day, one paragraph. On a typical day I had therapy in the morning, then I tried to write because it would unlock a memory.

I also read The Body Keeps the Score, and it made me honor all the pain that writing this book caused me. I woke up and the left side of my body hurt. There’s a paragraph in the book where my left arm hurts and I don’t know why, and in the next paragraph I realize that Chino [one of the immigrants he met] I was pulling my left hand the whole time. To this day, when I’m stressed, it’s always the left side of my body where the knots begin.

Can you talk about reliving that time of your life as an adult?

It was difficult, but I also realized that in the worst days of my life, even when I was filled with fear, I found joy because you have to do it to survive, to stay alive. You have to stay positive or you won’t make it.

The biggest lesson I learned while writing this article is that humans are amazing animals. We have strong brains that make us ignore the dangers or pretend something isn’t happening even though it’s right in front of you. So instead you focus on the stars, on a cactus and how weird it looks, on the person’s shoes in front of you, because if you focus on everything, you get overwhelmed.

Now what would you tell 9-year-old Javier about the journey he was about to embark on?

I would tell him not to go. [Laughs] But it’s so hard for me to imagine myself without this trauma. It completely shaped every single aspect of who I am now. Who I was before no longer exists. I’m learning to love this person that I am now because I hated this person for a long time.

During your trip you had to convince people that you are Mexican and that meant saying words like “popote” Instead of “Pajille”. Can you talk about language and its relation to identity?

I want to quote Dichos de un Bicho, that’s her Instagram handle. They put it this way: For Salvadorans, our mother tongue is Caliche. Our second language is Spanish. And our third language is sarcasm. Caliche is our Salvadoran slang.

We are very proud of everyone who belongs to lower middle class to lower class in El Salvador Caliche. As an immigrant, I realized for the first time that we are our own people. Listen voseo [the use of vos in place of ] — and learning that Hondurans and some Guatemalans use it — along the immigration route was like finding a home.

As I read the book, I hope that Salvis finds himself not only in the language but also in the stories. I sprinkled Caliche because it’s very important on the way here, but it’s also a metaphor for what it’s like to be an immigrant in the United States.

How has your relationship with the Sonoran Desert changed since moving to Tucson?

The final part of my healing journey is facing the landscape that nearly killed me.

I went into the desert thinking it was just going to be tough. Instead I learned that the desert has monsoons – it floods, then flowers bloom and dead-looking bushes come to life. Moving there showed me that there is this one rain cloud that would rain down on you, give you water and wake you up from what you perceive as your death. But it is not.

I also got a super spiritual movement here. I think the desert continues to apologize to me.

Several adults helped you on your journey. Nevertheless, you chose the title “Solito” for your memoirs. Why?

I want people to question the title at the end. I was literally unaccompanied. I was alone in not having a person I knew, but quickly it ceases to be a fact and becomes this emotion. But I was never alone. These adults will become my family. And hopefully the reader will see that by the end of the book.

I know you haven’t seen or heard from these adults – Chino, Patricia or Carla – since 1999. What would you tell them now?

“Gracias.” I don’t think I thanked them and that’s why I dedicated this book to them. I don’t expect them to read it. I only hope and wish that they will pick up the book and see that it is dedicated to them. They literally saved my life and they didn’t have to – it was a choice. I hope they were rewarded for their kindness.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-15/javier-zamora-on-his-harrowing-journey-from-el-salvador-to-the-u-s-at-age Javier Zamora on his memoir of childhood migration, ‘Solito’

Sarah Ridley

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