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Writer Javier Zamora fled motherless alone from El Salvador to the US as a child: 'Only now do I sometimes feel happy'

When he was nine, Javier Zamora (33) travelled with the help of people smugglers from El Salvador to the United States, where his parents had been living for several years. For two months, he had no contact with his family and no one knew where he was. The deep marks this journey left only healed two decades later, partly through the writing of his memoir Solito. 'Only now do I sometimes feel happy.'

Following parents

Nine years old, Javier Zamora was only nine when he had to join, on his own, strangers who were to take him and several other refugees across the border to Mexico and then the US. Because of the civil war in El Salvador, his parents had left for the US years earlier; Javier grew up with his grandparents and aunts. Until the time came when he could finally travel after his parents.

Couple bosses brought him and some other migrants to the United States via Mexico. Along the way, they sometimes had to wait for days, locked in cramped quarters. They were terrified at police checks, walked through the desert for hours, and were caught and brought back across the border twice. Only on the third time did they succeed, and had it not been for his fellow travellers Chino, Patricia and Carla taking care of Javier, he might not even have lived to tell the tale. All this time, he was not in touch with anyone in his family.

In his collection of poetry Unaccompanied (2017), Zamora cautiously tried to put words to that deeply affecting period. 'In that first year of the Trump administration, everyone seemed interested in migrants, but the way politicians and the media talked about migrants or migration infuriated me. We were reduced to numbers and and terrible pictures. Of course it is important that people know what is going on, but not only is that retraumatising for the many migrants in the US, it also makes it difficult for citizens to see migrants as people.'

Anger and depression

What was your bundle about?

'Among other things, it was about the civil war in El Salvador, partly funded by the United States, and what impact that had on my parents, who had to step over corpses as a teenager on their way to school. About why they had to flee and I was left with my grandparents as a small child, and what impact that had on me.

Since the age of 12, I have been in therapy on and off. I suffered from anger and felt different from others, but I didn't understand exactly why. I had a few images in my head, but most of my experiences I had repressed. My trauma was like a house, so to speak, of which for years I could only peek around the corner of the front door.

At that age, I also did not yet understand exactly what it meant to be an undocumented person. Only around the age of 18, when I wanted to go to university, did I realise the consequences of being "undocumented"; I think that is a better term than "illegal" or, even worse, alien..

All these years I had tried my best to be an American, but now I was told that even though I had lived in this country for nine years, I WAS NOT an American. As an undocumented immigrant, I was not given a citizen service number. Fortunately, there were universities that admitted undocumented immigrants, but I did not qualify for student loans, was not given a driver's licence, a credit card, to name a few things. Even with a degree from Berkeley in my pocket, one of the best universities in the world, it was going to be difficult for me to get a normal job with a company.

My anger grew into a deep depression as I saw my future shattered. But it took until 2019 before I realised that my greatest trauma lay in that 10-week trip to the United States.'

In therapy

What happened then?

'In April that year, I was sitting at my desk by myself working on my book Solito to work, without the help of a therapist. I went to the pub more and more often, under the guise that the bar was my office, and started drinking more and more and earlier in the day.

One Tuesday in July, a woman - the mentor of my later therapist - saw me clocking away two martinis already, and she struck up a conversation with me. 'I think I can help you,' she said as she left, handing me her card. 'Call me when you're ready.' By October, my life had collapsed to the point where I finally called. I could no longer keep pretending that writing alone would bring me healing.

That's how I ended up with my current therapist, with whom I slowly began to unravel the story I really didn't want to tell. A few months later, I met Joey, my wife-to-be. She healed her own trauma and gave me the example of what it can mean if you really face your pain.

On top of that, the Covid pandemic also broke out, and in New York, where I was living at the time, it was very bad - people were dying everywhere, you could hear sirens 24 hours a day. I was locked up in the house, which reminded me of the two weeks of detention in Guadelajara during that trip.

It all came together. Not only did the pandemic provide me with all the time I needed to spend with myself, but my therapist and my girlfriend gave me the support I needed to finally walk into that house and start exploring every nook and cranny of it.'

Back to the trauma site

Did you also literally go back?

'Yes. I had to face those almost five thousand kilometres. I exposed myself to 'exposure therapy'. Joey and I moved to Tucson for two months in 2020, the place where I arrived after crossing the border at Nogales. That was retraumatising because this landscape hurt me so much - I almost died in the desert.

But in the three years we have lived here now, the landscape has, to my mind, tried to apologise for that by helping me find my footprints again. True, I went back to the border from this side, with the car and plenty of water with me, yet I went back in time, to that trauma spot in my brain. That has been beneficial for me. In the beginning, it was tough and I wanted to give up several times. But as I progressed, the writing also got better and better and the words flowed out.'

No flattened creatures

What do you want to tell the reader? 

'What it actually feels like to leave your country, and meet all kinds of amazing people along the way, like Chino, Patricia and Carla, the three people who made sure I am alive today. I hope a story like mine does away with talking about migrants in terms of numbers and problems, but breathes life into the flattened creatures they have become in the image, and shows them as people like everyone else, who have feelings, are funny, like good food and music. Very basic things, but lacking in the way migrants are usually portrayed.

Some readers who don't know a migrant now at least know me, Chino, Patricia and Carla. That, I hope, makes a difference in how they think about migrants. One of the most frequently asked questions is whether I have found them yet, as I expressed as a hope in my thanks. No, unfortunately not yet. But it fills me with joy that readers ask about it. Because that means it has touched them.'

A touch of happiness

What did writing Solito, besides becoming a bestseller, brought you personally? 

'That sometimes I feel happy, something I had not thought possible. In 2019, when I now had a green card, was studying at Harvard and had been awarded a big stipend, I was nevertheless feeling unhappy because my trauma was eating away at me inside. That disappeared when I reconnected with the 9-year-old boy I once was and followed in his footsteps. Though I definitely still have issues to work out, I feel much lighter.'

Javier Zamora, Solito, Ambo Anthos(394 p.)
Translated from the English by Lidwien Biekmann and Koos Mebius

About Javier Zamora

Javier Zamora (1990) grew up in La Herradura in Central American El Salvador. Since the age of nine, he has lived in the United States. With his first publication Nueve Años Immigrantes/Nine Immigrant Years he won the Organic Weapon Arts Contest in 2011. In 2017, he made his debut with the poetry collection Unaccompanied. Last year his prose debut, the memoir Solito, which is a New York Times-bestseller and has now also been translated into Dutch.

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A Quattro Mani

Photographer Marc Brester and journalist Vivian de Gier can read and write with each other - literally. As partners in crime, they travel the world for various media, for reviews of the finest literature and personal interviews with the writers who matter. Ahead of the troops and beyond the delusion of the day.View Author posts

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