Solito, A Memoir, by Javier Zamora (Hogarth, 381 pp)
By Juan R. Palomo
[Note: this review is being published by “Voices de la Luna,” a San Antonio literary magazine]
AS A YOUNG boy growing up in his grandparents’ home in La Herradura, a Salvadoran fishing village, Javier Zamora dreams of flying over mountains. His destination: a land where everything is new, garbage is collected by trucks, water comes out of silver faucets, and it snows the whitest snow.
In his dreams, he joins his parents in “la USA,” where they show him their living room, swimming pool and other American luxuries. He pictures himself cuddling between his parents in clean sheets, and he dreams of eating orange sherbet.
He also has bad dreams, including one about growing a beard with his parents still gone.
Zamora’s father and mother are in Northern California, two of the thousands of Salvadorans who made their way north in the aftermath of the bloody U.S.-funded civil war of the 1980s. His father left when Zamora is still a toddler and he has no memory of him; pretty much all he knows about him is that he sounds nice over the phone, his voice soft “like a sharp stone skipping over water.”
“There was a war and then there were no jobs,” is how his aunt Mali explains his parents’ absence to Tontito, as his grandmother calls him. It’s a word he likes because it sounds “like rain slipping through holes in our roof.”
Zamora’s fear of growing a beard before seeing his parents does not become a reality. In 1999 – four years after his mother had made the journey to California to join her husband, promising the 5-year-old Javier she would be back for him – Zamora begins his own journey north in the care of Marcelo, a family friend, and Don Dago, a coyote.
The plan was that it would take them a couple of weeks to travel – with other Don Dago clients – through El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, and that he would cross the border at Tijuana, where his parents would pick him up.
But plans do what plans often do – they change – and he ends up crossing instead in the Arizona Sonoran Desert. On foot. Three times. And by the time the 9-year-old is at last reunited with his parents, nine weeks have gone by.
Zamora, whose 2017 book of poems, Unaccompanied, garnered widespread acclaim, has no idea how harrowing his journey will be, nor how long. His mother had told him about her own relatively quick trip to cross the border. Her use of the word cruzar, invokes in his mind images of a fence made up of hundreds of little crosses.
In his new book, Solito, A Memoir, Zamora provides the account of his experience that Unaccompanied, because of its format as a book of poetry, could only hint at. It fills in the blanks.
Long before Zamora is finally picked up by his parents at a Phoenix safe house, both Don Dago and Marcelo have disappeared and he is left to fend for himself. Until he hooks up with three fellow travelers: Chino (whom Zamora comes to regard as the older brother he never had), Patricia and her daughter Carla. These three are to become Javier’s traveling family, providing assistance, companionship and compassion.
ZAMORA DEDICATES the book to his temporary family.
“I wouldn’t be here without you,” he writes. He probably wouldn’t, for the book is replete with account after account of how his adopted family helps shepherd him along when his quest seems utterly hopeless.
Solito offers many stories. Some are humorous: the Salvadorans’ awkward attempts to speak like Mexicans (“practicing my Mexicanness”) to avoid the Mexican hostility towards Central Americans; learning the meaning of a new English word that sounds like faak; and Zamora’s amusing himself by naming trees in the monotonous desert based on their looks: Lonelies. Spikeys. Fuzzies.
Some are moving. A Latino U.S. border patrolman takes pity on the group and, instead of detaining them, drives them back to the border, where he releases them, allowing them to try crossing again a few days later. And there’s the touching scene of Chino carrying an exhausted Zamora on his back during one particularly treacherous desert hike.
The most harrowing passages describe the group’s being held up, at gunpoint, by Mexican soldiers, and the hikes across the unforgiving desert, lost, without water or food, and constantly on the lookout for snakes, la migra, angry ranchers – and angrier bees.
More than anything, this book is about family: family left behind, family waiting at the other end of the line, and the family that sustained Zamora along the long journey.
In one of the most poignant passages, Zamora describes the early-morning departure of his “pretend family” for Virginia after they finally make it across the border:
“I think I watched them leave. The room was dark, a lot of people standing up with their backpacks, waiting in line. Patricia kissed my forehead. Chino combed my hair. ‘The van is here,’ they both said. ‘Salú,” Carla waved at me. Then they each hugged me one by one. The door closed, and I closed my eyes and slept. I thought it was a dream.”
For seven of the nine weeks he is on the road, his family does not hear from Zamora, nor of him. Everyone fears he is dead and so relatives at both ends pray for his soul. The fear of death is always constant on the journey, as is the fear of being jailed, robbed or killed by men with badges on both sides of the border. Zamora describes his brief time in an Arizona immigration jail as like being in a cage, “a monkey with at least twenty-one other monkeys.”
Yet, there is also humor, even in the direst of moments, offering temporary relief from reality.
“Rest,” a coyote tells Zamora’s group as they stop to rest before crossing the border. “Tomorrow you’ll be gringos.”
The author describes his unforgettable journey in intricate detail. This is a fascinating book; one readers will find it hard to set aside. And it might force them, as it did me, to look with a different perspective at stories of immigrants found dead in the desert or in unvented trailers, for Solito reintroduces the human factor that is often missing from the immigration saga as it has become just one more political football.
ZAMORA IS FIRST and foremost a poet and his talent shines through in practically every page. For instance, in describing the riveting scene of the immigrant party’s cramming into a van for the final trip from their desert pickup point to the safe house, Zamora writes:
We look like a matchbox
Sticks on top of each other.
A human cake.
When the reality that his long saga will soon be over hits Zamora, he becomes concerned that without Chino, Patricia and Carla as witnesses, no one will believe what he went through.
“No one else will understand the bees in the desert,” he thinks. “The flying fish, that fried fish in Acapulco, getting dragged out of the bus, learning what faak means.”
Zamora needn’t worry. Countless news accounts have made us way too familiar with the horrors undocumented immigrants endure in their quest for a new life in this country. This evocative, skillfully crafted narrative is all the witness he needs.
Juan R. Palomo is a former columnist for The Houston Post and USA TODAY. His poetry chapbook, Al Norte, was published in 2021 by Alabrava Press.