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Salvadoran Writer Javier Zamora on Coping with Trauma from Being Detained & Undocumented in U.S.

Web ExclusiveMay 11, 2023
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In Part 2 of our interview with Salvadoran poet and writer Javier Zamora, he discusses the roots of his memoir detailing his odyssey as an unaccompanied 9-year-old child through Guatemala and Mexico to reunite with family in Arizona. “After surviving that nine-week journey, surviving the United States as an undocumented person was perhaps the main reason why I became a writer,” Zamora says. He describes how he works to cope with trauma from his experiences, and how he was inspired to become a writer when he was exposed to the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as a high school student in California.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with the remarkable poet and writer Javier Zamora. He is in New York for the PEN America Festival to join with other authors and writers to talk about their work.

In Part 1 of our conversation, we talked about immigration policy in this country and about his memoir, Solito, which chronicles his journey as a 9-year-old boy, born in El Salvador, going with his grandfather to Mexico, after his parents had come to the United States, and then moving on, without family, traveling from Guatemala through Mexico, across the border into the Sonoran Desert, and finally reuniting with his mother and father, who he hadn’t seen for years, his father a leftist in El Salvador who left the country when he was 1 year old. He left El Salvador and went to the United States, as dissidents in Salvador, as workers in El Salvador were targeted by the U.S.-backed military and right-wing death squads that killed tens of thousands of Salvadorans. His mother left when he was 5.

Javier, I thank you for staying with us. You took us on that harrowing journey from your country, through Mexico and Guatemala, into the United States, reuniting with your parents. And I want to take it from here in Part 2 of our conversation, because you grew up then as a high school student and a junior high school student in California, and I’d like you to talk about how you became the writer that you have become, the writer and the poet. I mean, you have been a Stegner fellow at Stanford, a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard. You had fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. But I dare say not many people grew up through the trials, the horror, the near-death experiences that you did. And that’s what I’d like to talk about now. Talk about being in the United States and how you came to write. Who influenced you? And take it from there.

JAVIER ZAMORA: Well, you know, after surviving that nine-week journey, surviving the United States as an undocumented person was perhaps the main reason why I became a writer. And it was almost like a chance encounter. You know, as an only child and a child of immigrants and an immigrant myself, my parents always wanted me to be a lawyer, even an accountant, or an engineer, you know? To them, I think, I just needed to go to college in order to make money. And so, writing was never in the cards for me. But, thinking back, you know, this is before Facebook, and, you know, we were very poor in El Salvador, so we didn’t have a phone line. So our main means of communication with my dad, when my mom was still there, like, I would write him letters, as early as 4 years old. And once my mom left, I continued that. And I think that was my practice into my eventual writing life.

But being in this country, you know, it took a chance encounter of a local poet by the name of Becky Foust to go into my high school and teach us about Pablo Neruda. And I had never — I had heard of Pablo Neruda, because my parents are nerds, and they had his recordings at home. But I’d never seen his name in classrooms up to that point. And what the poet chose to do was focus on Spanish and English side by side. And for some reason, that was all I needed for me to begin to want to be a writer.

And from then on, you know, I volunteer with a local organization called 826 Valencia, that got started by Dave Eggers. Dave Eggers becomes the very first writer, living writer, that I meet. And then I go to college, but I don’t go to college to become a writer. I go to college wanting to be a historian. But on the side, I’m writing. And I’m taking, you know, electives for — in ethnic studies and English in the English Department. And that’s when I encounter June Jordan’s work and her idea of — that poetry is for the people. And that is a program that I take at UC Berkeley, which is Poetry for the People. And all of this kind of convinces me that perhaps writing can be a thing that I can do as an undocumented person, as a Salvadoran immigrant. And these become the foundation and the tools that I have, and, eventually, that I have to write my first book of poems, and now a memoir.

AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of Salvadoran poets and writers, who most influenced you?

JAVIER ZAMORA: Roque Dalton. You know, Roque Dalton is — was this mythical figure that really showed me that you can write like the people. And that’s what June Jordan also reminded me of, that poetry is essentially of the people and not for the elites, which, you know, other Salvadoran writers were trying to write for the elites. But mostly, Roque Dalton’s generation, which, you know, there was a literary movement in El Salvador called “la generación comprometida,” or “the compromised generation,” meaning that they needed to — they had this duty to really address the problems that needed fixing in my country. And so, he wasn’t the only one, but he was kind of like the Shakespeare figure for England or the Dante figure for Italy, that you can’t ignore him. And if you follow that, his lineage, you get all the other Salvadoran writers, like Claribel Alegría, who are also doing the great work.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Javier, though writing, of course, can be such a cleansing experience, you have gone through so much trauma in your life. Even when you just read news reports of what’s happening on the border, do you find yourself experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder? And how did you deal with this trauma as you grew up, in addition to writing?

JAVIER ZAMORA: Anger. You know, I was — anger is often the first emotion that you have when you don’t have the other words for it. And for myself, that anger began in middle school. You know, I didn’t know why I felt this way, but I did know subconsciously. I felt different than all the other children. I think it’s as a 9-year-old, 10-year-old, you have no conception of what it means to be documented and undocumented. And I think at 16 and 17, I began to see those concrete results of me just being me, but the world viewed me as less than because I didn’t have papers or I didn’t have documents, so my life got a little bit more complicated. And writing becomes that thing in which is, for lack of a better term, free therapy, but is not therapy.

And so, once, in 2011, which is when I’m 21, and 2010, I think that the American news cycle begins to really focus on immigration, peaking in 2016, 2017, with the child unaccompanied minors crisis. And I say “crisis” because, as an unaccompanied child myself, it really angered me that it seemed to me, an unaccompanied child, that the news media was — didn’t recognize that there had been many thousands of unaccompanied children prior to this crisis. So the crisis wasn’t a crisis that started in 2016, but had been a thing that all of us — because I’m not the only unaccompanied child that has come to this country. But it made me feel as such, and anger was the main means through which I tried to process my unprocessed thoughts.

And so, short story is, yes, you know, every news cycle retraumatized me. And it made it harder, ironically enough, for me to do the work that I eventually do in writing this memoir, because when it’s all around you, and I feel constantly erased and triggered and retraumatized, it stopped me from really going into those memories and understanding them and unpacking them, which, you know, at 29, I also had a chance meeting with a great therapist. I had had therapists before, but I think I needed another immigrant. And she’s from the DR, and she immigrated here when she was 4 years old. And I think I needed a child immigrant to also be my therapist, which doesn’t usually happen. It’s very difficult. But that really changed my life.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how she changed your life. Talk about that mutual experience and why it made such a difference in your therapy.

JAVIER ZAMORA: You know, in therapy, you have to repeat things until they hit. And perhaps other therapists that I had before Caro, which is my therapist’s name, had told me this before, but it never landed, until she told me. And what she told me was this, that you — up until that point, I sincerely thought that you go to therapy in order to forget or to erase what has happened to you. But that’s not the case. What Caro said, “What happened to you, you can never take back. It happened to you, and it will follow you for the rest of your life. If you accept that, why not — instead of running away from that trauma, why don’t you try to understand it?”

And for me, that trauma is embodied in this 9-year-old kid. I was trying to run away from that kid. I was trying to erase that kid, because I felt shame. And I felt shame of that kid because of all the news coverage, how politicians talk about immigrants, etc., etc., etc. And once she told me that, I began to look at him — meaning me, my 9-year-old self — differently. And to this point, after now four years of therapy, I’ve learned that instead of being ashamed of 9-year-old Javier, I should be super proud of the superhuman capacities that that little child showed in order to survive. And those are things that should never be questioned and should never be made to feel negative, anybody feel negative about. You know, I survived the unsurvivable, and I’m a stronger person for it. Do I wish it never happened to me? Absolutely. But it happened. And I’m beginning to understand that that kid will be with me until I die.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re going to be speaking tonight on a panel put on by the PEN America World Voices Festival that’s headlined “How We Became/Become: Latinidad, Identity, & Love.” And if you could just preview for us what you want to say there, and also if you can talk about finding love in this country, and what that has meant for you?

JAVIER ZAMORA: You know, Latinidad is a complicated thing. You know, it’s not a race; it’s an ethnicity. And what has really helped my healing, you know, like therapy, is accepting the different parts of who I am, as well, primarily accepting and recognizing my indigeneity, which in my country of El Salvador, we have had a very, very complicated relationship, like most countries in Latin America, with our Indigenous community. Infamously, you know, there was one of the biggest massacres in Latin American history in 1932, which was genocide, was Indigenous genocide. But that is the culmination of many other genocides in my country against the Black and Indigenous communities.

And so, for me, again, talking about shame, instead of feeling shame, I have learned to love that part of me. You know, this nose doesn’t come out of nowhere. I am Nawat, Pipil. I am that. And sadly, our language has been lost in our sect, but it is still alive in another region of the country. And learning to love those parts of ourselves, I think, is very important to understanding our Latinidad, understanding who we are. And also, being open to different paths towards that love is also very important.

And now, in a more concrete way, finding the person that encourages you and pushes you towards that has also been part of my healing. You know, I’m married now. I never thought that I was going to be married. I’ve had a complicated relationship, being undocumented, in my belief of marriage. By that, I mean that, sadly, for most of us, that is the only way for us to get citizenship. And so I’ve refused it for a big part of my life. And so, unpacking all of what I just mentioned in therapy, that’s also, finally, made me believe in love and that you could find a union with another person. And, you know, that has occurred for me. And we, you know, help each other. She is a survivor of a different type of trauma, and we understand that about each other.

AMY GOODMAN: As you talk about being documented and undocumented, for people to understand your life experience, I mean, you made it. You survived in your journey to the United States. And yet, as you grew up, as you went to school, in high school, you weren’t documented. How did that make you feel? And how did you ultimately become documented? And what do you think it’s most important for people to understand in a country like the United States, where there are so many millions of undocumented people?

JAVIER ZAMORA: You know, a lot of the coverage for undocumented people has also been this coverage of DREAMers, you know, and I think that’s how a lot of nonimmigrants have understood what it means to be undocumented and undocumented. And for us, who actually are those things, this idea that you must be the best of or you must be the greatest citizen in order to even be considered a citizen is really traumatizing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my CV is of an overachiever. You know, I’ve internalized those things, that rhetoric of “if you want papers, you must be the best.” And I don’t think it’s also a coincidence that the one path available to me towards citizenship, outside of marriage, is this visa called an extraordinary abilities visa, or an Einstein visa, which was open to me because of my poetry. And just the title itself, “extraordinary,” backs up that rhetoric of I must prove that I’m more than in order for you, the U.S. government, to consider me normal. And that is so taxing, and it’s tiring.

And I hope that we can begin to think outside of those — that terminology, that anybody can and should be able to become a citizen, whether they’re a straight-A student or a terrible student, or whether they came here by a certain timeframe, which is how we talk about access to becoming a DACA recipient or not. I think that anybody, regardless of their age or when they came to this country, should be seen as a complete human being and should have the freedom to apply for citizenship and be considered a citizen.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you were in high school, did your friends know that you were undocumented? Did you know that you were undocumented? And what did it mean for you to go through that process?

JAVIER ZAMORA: You know, your brain does wonderful things. I knew that I was different, because my — the moment that I got to this country, because my parents told me not to ever tell anybody how I had gotten here, and then they told me to tell people that I was born at the Marin General Hospital, you know, which was a lie. And so, as a teenager, I think I began to really believe that lie. And it wasn’t until I was faced with the consequences of, “Oh, it’s going to be harder for you to get a license,” “Oh, you can’t apply for FAFSA,” “Oh, you can’t apply for a Pell Grant” — you can’t really do all these things that normal citizens can.

And again, a survival tactic was for me to just keep all that information to myself. My closest friends didn’t know that I didn’t have papers. And I don’t — I never really told them that. I think they found out through my writings. It’s weird, because I’m very public about it, but in my personal life, I’m still very private. I don’t really talk about it. And I think that shows you the amount of trauma, packed on top of the trauma of crossing the border and those nine weeks of being by myself, and then being undocumented. It just, you know, just builds up on you.

And luckily, I’ve had the privilege of, you know, getting a green card and finding the right therapist, which is another thing in itself, that I’m here at the stage of my healing that I am now. But it is a privilege, and not a lot of us previously undocumented or undocumented people can afford.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Javier Zamora, as we wrap up, you first wrote this collection of poems called Unaccompanied, and now you’ve written your memoir, Solito, a memoir. What next?

JAVIER ZAMORA: I don’t know. Hopefully another book depicting exactly what we’ve been talking about, you know, how difficult it is for us survivors of one form of trauma to then be thrown against the immigration system as an undocumented person, and what that does to a teenager, and how we learn to cope or not cope with what we internalize. So, that’s what I’m working on. It will probably focus on my time of June 11th, 1999, until like eighth grade. So, that’s the next step.

And again, I think writing, for me, prose writing, has become a way to heal and to understand different time periods of my life. You know, me and my 9-year-old have a great relationship now, but me and my middle school self, not so much. And writing will help me get there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Javier Zamora. I want to thank you for spending this time with us, a Salvadoran poet and writer, author of the best-selling memoir, Solito, also the collection of poetry, Unaccompanied, about his experiences migrating to the United States as a 9-year-old child, from El Salvador to Guatemala to Mexico to the United States, and reuniting with his parents.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, you can go to, or to see our conversation in Spanish, go there, as well. And it links to our Democracy Now! in Spanish website. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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