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“Solito”: Salvadoran Writer Javier Zamora Details His Solo 4,000-Mile Journey to U.S. as a 9-Year-Old

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As President Biden ends Title 42, the Trump-era policy blocking asylum seekers, and plans stronger enforcement measures on the border, we speak with Salvadoran poet and writer Javier Zamora, whose best-selling memoir, Solito, details his odyssey as a 9-year-old child traveling unaccompanied through Guatemala, Mexico and eventually through the Sonoran Desert, before he makes it to Arizona and reunites with his parents with the aid of other migrants. “We’re all just human beings trying to have a chance at a better life,” says Zamora about his work humanizing the people caught in the migrant crisis.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

On Thursday at midnight, the United States will end the pandemic policy known as Title 42 that’s been used by the Trump and Biden administrations to block nearly 3 million asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Some reports indicate there are as many as 150,000 migrants on the Mexican side of the border who hope to apply for relief as soon as possible after the policy is lifted. This is a Colombian migrant who joined others at the border fence in the Mexican city of Tijuana Tuesday.

COLOMBIAN MIGRANT: [translated] I’m like in limbo. Let’s see what happens. I hope to be able to pass to the United States, because I have a son there. He’s 18 years old, and I want to be with him.

AMY GOODMAN: This week, authorities in El Paso and other U.S. border cities have carried out targeted operations against hundreds of migrants who already arrived and were sleeping on the streets outside overflowing shelters. President Biden said he spoke by phone Tuesday with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador about border security issues.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I spent close to an hour with the Mexican president today. We’re doing all we can. The answer is, it remains to be seen. We’ve gotten overwhelming cooperation from Mexico. We also are in the process of setting up offices in Colombia and other places where you can — where someone seeking asylum can go first. So, but remains to be seen. It’s going to be chaotic for a while.

AMY GOODMAN: CBS News reports the Biden administration plans to launch new procedures for quickly deporting migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border as soon as today. Most asylum seekers will be required to request refugee status in another country, like Mexico, before reaching the U.S. Deported migrants would be barred from reentering the U.S. for five years.

This week, over 230 groups sent an open letter to President Biden demanding he follow through on his commitment not to detain migrant families and to end for-profit immigration jails, writing, quote, “Detention places people in conditions known to cause mental and physical harm and endanger their lives. Detention is not a deterrent to migrants who have no choice but to flee dangerous or violent conditions in search of a better life,” they wrote.

For more, we’re joined by Javier Zamora, a Salvadoran poet and writer, whose New York Times best-selling memoir Solito tells the story of his own odyssey to the United States as a 9-year-old boy, from Salvador across Guatemala, Mexico and eventually through the Sonoran Desert. He traveled, unaccompanied by his family, by boat, by bus and by foot. After a coyote abandoned his group in Oaxaca, Mexico — in Oaxaca, Javier made it to Arizona with help from other migrants. He’s also the author of Unaccompanied, a collection of poems about his experience migrating to the United States as a child to reunite with his parents.

Javier Zamora, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s an honor to have you with us.

JAVIER ZAMORA: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk about your own personal journey, which is so powerful and so important to understand, I’m wondering if you can respond to what’s happening, to President Biden saying it’ll be chaos at the border for a time, to the pandemic-era Trump Title 42 policy being lifted tomorrow night at midnight, and what this means.

JAVIER ZAMORA: I think it’s always been chaos, right? I don’t think that this will fix anything. Things will get worse. Things are already really bad. And I just can’t help to think of all the people waiting, all the people that will continue to wait, and all the people who are still fleeing for their lives from all over Latin America and the world. And I would just hope that this presidency and any future presidencies will treat immigrants like actual human beings.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about that journey, that so many have taken, through so many countries, by you telling your own story. Can you start by telling us about where you were born in El Salvador and how you ended up coming to the United States? Take us on that journey of your life.

JAVIER ZAMORA: Well, I was born in 1990 in a small fishing rural village of El Salvador called La Herradura. And, you know, I was born during war time. And because of the Salvadoran Civil War, that started in 1980, ended in 1992, my dad fled in 1991. The war ended, but the war didn’t end at the same time, so my mom left my country in 1995 —

AMY GOODMAN: Javier —

JAVIER ZAMORA: — and I was left at the care — yes?

AMY GOODMAN: I’m only interrupting for a moment, because before you take us on that journey, if you could expand more on when you said your father left? You’re talking about a country where the U.S. backed the military in Salvador, well known for killing thousands of Salvadorans. Can you give us a picture of what that U.S. policy meant? Because I think that is what is so absent from so many discussions as people now try to make their way to the United States.

JAVIER ZAMORA: You know, at one point, only Israel was getting more money than El Salvador in the '80s, and we're talking millions of dollars a day. And before the U.S. got involved, the left was winning. And what the left wanted was equality, women’s rights and education. And because of those asks, my dad was a leftist, and he was a head of a coop. One of his older brothers was disappeared by the military in 1980, and the violence was everywhere. And because of those reasons and because of his ideological leanings, he had to flee in 1991. And same with my mom. You know, it is still difficult in my country in 2023, and also in this country, being a woman. There’s a lot of gender-based violence. And because of — you know, you were talking a lot about sexual assault, and that is everywhere. And those were — that was a huge reason why my mom also fled the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you were what? One year old?

JAVIER ZAMORA: I was 1 when my dad left, and I was 5 when my mother left.

AMY GOODMAN: Being raised then by your grandparents.

JAVIER ZAMORA: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about them deciding for you to take this journey, and how you traveled.

JAVIER ZAMORA: You know, the moment that my dad left, he would — we would communicate via letters and phone calls. When my mom left, it was the same thing. And what they both told me was that they were going to come back. And we have to remember that in the brief period of time El Salvador had peace, and that was — it lined up with my childhood. 1993 'til 1999 was perhaps the most peaceful moment in my country's timeline. But in 1997, you know, people were beginning to get shot in my home town, and my parents changed from “We’re going to return to El Salvador” to “You’re going to come be with us in the United States.”

And so, from 7, 8 and 9, I knew that I wanted to be reunited with my parents. What kid doesn’t want to be and wake up next to his parents? And so, I didn’t really understand how I was going to get here or how dangerous it was for me to travel the 4,000 miles that I did. But what I did know is that I loved my parents, and I really, really, really wanted to be with them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you went with your grandfather from Salvador to Guatemala?

JAVIER ZAMORA: Mm-hmm, yes. So, my dad — my dad — my grandpa accompanied me all the way to a border town called Tecun Uman, which is still a very major crossing hub. And from then on, he gave me over to the coyote, a smuggler, and I wasn’t the only one with him. I was part of a larger group of seven other immigrants. And he, the smuggler, was supposed to bring us to the United States in as little as one week from Guatemala. And, of course, that doesn’t happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And then your grandfather leaves. And talk about how you traveled on from there and the massive danger. I mean, you almost didn’t make it to the United States. If you could then talk about going through to Mexico and what happened?

JAVIER ZAMORA: You know, I still don’t know why my trip took the turns that it did. But the plan was for me to cross a river from Guatemala into Mexico. That was the original plan. But I have done some research, and already in 1999, the Mexican government was militarizing the southern border. And this is also continuing to happen now. And so, because of that militarization, the coyote thought that it would be easier for us to cross into Mexico if we took a 22-hour boat ride from Guatemala to bypass Chiapas and land in Oaxaca. And that is what we did.

But when we were supposed to get on the boat, there were news that three boats had capsized and immigrants died. And this is still happening in the southern borders as people are trying to get over here. So, that was my fiasco and, like, number one when I was so close to death. As a 9-year-old, I didn’t really understand it as such. What I understood was that I couldn’t swim and that I was scared of sharks, and I was scared of the night. So those were my fears. In reality, I was very close to death on that boat. And that was my first day in Mexico.

And when we land, we also face a checkpoint, which still happens daily all over Mexican states against Central Americans and other immigrants. And because of those checkpoints, in 1999, we were dragged out and robbed by the Mexican military. And from then on, it was weeks until we — “we” meaning the group of six other immigrants — until we figured out how to make it to the Sonoran Desert and the U.S.-Mexico border.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about crossing the border and what it meant to be in the Sonoran Desert. I mean, you have obviously a very different experience right now living in Tucson, Arizona, but what it meant to cross and then to be there, to survive in the hot, parched desert?

JAVIER ZAMORA: You know, similar to the boat, I, as a kid, my 9-year-old brain didn’t — I think, subconsciously, I knew how close to danger I was. But in the front end of my brain, I was like, “Oh, look at this weird plant called a cactus, and I’m really thirsty. I don’t have food. But if I keep on walking, my parents are at that finish line.” So, that’s how I understood this as a 9-year-old.

All of the adults around me, by that point that we made it to the U.S.-Mexico border, it wasn’t only the six. There were immigrants from Ecuador. There were immigrants from Cuba. There were immigrants even from Brazil at that time, who we all joined together in a group, I want to say, 50-plus.

And each try, which it took me three tries to cross the Sonoran Desert, we suffered a lot. You know, the first time, we were apprehended by Border Patrol, and I spent two nights or one night — because I blacked my incarceration up — I blacked it out. And so, I spent either 48 hours in detention — and, you know, we hear about the effects of detention. I spent less than three days in there, and I still suffer PTSD from those few hours that I was there. And that was only my first try at crossing the desert. The second time, we ran out of water. And we, ironically, were rescued by a Border Patrol agent after we needed to get water from a ranch. And we were released back into Mexico. And finally, the third time, we finally made it.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, you’re bringing me back to a conversation we had during the pandemic with the family of Armando Alejo Hernández, who had come up from Mexico to see his sons in Utah and left them messages and then died in the desert, in the Sonoran Desert. And so, what you survived, Javier, is truly astounding. And when you think of how many thousands of people who have died in the Sonoran Desert alone — the artist that traveled to, in the desert, who put up crosses for as many people as he could, who he learned about their names, this all being done in the name of a U.S. policy of deterrence. Your response to that? And also, for people to keep in their mind, you were 9 years old.

JAVIER ZAMORA: You know, in my trips as a 9-year-old, and in writing this book, which took me 20 years to even begin to process everything that I witnessed and everything that I’ve survived, in the process of writing this book, I realized that there were certainly people that died in each of the crosses that I attempted to get to this country. And it is because of them that I am here.

And I just hope that anybody listening, anybody reading, and even the president himself, hopefully, just realizes that we’re are all just human beings trying to have a chance at a better life. And thank you to all those artists. Thank you to all the writers, anybody who believes that us, immigrants, are more than our trauma and are more than what we’re asking for. We’re just human beings. OK. Yeah, I’ll leave it at that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Javier, you convey this so powerfully and poignantly both in your poetry and in this book, Solito. But let’s jump forward to how you do convey this, how you became a writer. But first, tell us how you met your parents, how you saw them in the United States, and then who influenced you, how you came to be a writer through all of this trauma.

JAVIER ZAMORA: You know, I left El Salvador on April 6th, 1999, and I finally met my parents on June 11th, 1999. And I opened a door in Tucson, Arizona, which, ironically, is my home now, and I see two shadows. And I recognize my mom, because she left me when I was 5 years old. And I see this man behind her. And I knew how my father looked or what my father looked like from pictures, but pictures and reality are two different things. And so, he was a stranger. And I think that’s a metaphor for how I felt after not being around him for eight years. And it took us a few, I want to say, months until I got comfortable with not only my dad, but with my mom, being in this country.

And I had to live with the fact that, you know, we were all undocumented. From 1999 until I’m 21 years old, I don’t have papers, and I can’t return to my homeland. And I think that fact is a huge reason why I became a writer. And it was in high school that — you know, when Google becomes Google, that I google Salvadoran writers, and the first name that comes up was Roque Dalton, who is a leftist writer who wanted to create a better El Salvador. And I start reading his work. And what really impacted me was that Roque Dalton spoke like us, and he wrote like us, meaning the rural Salvadorans, not the elite Salvadorans who wanted to replicate Spain Spanish, but he wrote like the people. And I hope that in my — both my poetry and my prose, I am in tune with our Caliche, which is Salvadoran slang. And that’s all I wanted when I was 13, 14, 15 years old and I was searching for Salvadoran books. And I hope that my book now could speak to another 9-year-old Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran kid who has immigrated or is thinking of immigrating to this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Javier Zamora, we thank you so much for spending this time with us, Salvadoran poet and writer, author of the best-selling memoir, Solito, also Unaccompanied, a collection of poems about his experience migrating to the United States as a 9-year-old child to reunite with his parents. Javier has been a Stegner fellow at Stanford and a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard and holds fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, as well. We’re going to interview him in Spanish after the broadcast, and we’re going to post it on our Spanish website. You can go to democracynow.org and click right through.

That does it for our program. Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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