Javier Zamora and the Canon of Undocumented Literature

Javier Zamora and the Canon of Undocumented Literature

The Odyssey

Javier Zamora’s borderland memories.


In the most trivial sense, books about being undocumented are about immigration. Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocumented, Julissa Arce’s My (Undocumented) American Dream, Jose Antonio Vargas’s Dear America, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s The Undocumented Americans, and Qian Julie Wang’s Beautiful Country are all about how US immigration policies can sever family ties and categorically exclude populations deemed “undesirable.” These narratives are also about much more: They are about family, childhood, trauma, gender, loss, and joy. They are about the ways in which migrants are far more than the sum of what the United States puts hem through. They are agents in their own right, who define and shape their histories.

In his new memoir, Solito, the poet Javier Zamora tells a story that US readers will be familiar with from news reports: A young child crosses the border without his parents, unaccompanied, “solo, solito, solito de verdad.” But through its exacting detail, down to the faces and voices of the immigration officials who lock a 9-year-old Zamora up in detention, the book does something else, too: It challenges American nativism by showing how migrants write their own history—and how, in the face of state violence, they insist on their freedom.

Zamora began his 3,000-mile journey from La Herradura, El Salvador, in 1999. But almost all of the details found in his book—from the sound of helicopters patrolling the border to the icy temperatures inside the American detention centers—will read as if this story had been told today. Even though President Joe Biden came into office promising to reverse the inhumanity of the Trump years, two years later the terms of the debate on immigration have only moved rightward. Congressional Democrats are still waffling about the best way to restart the asylum process at the southern border; and while Biden was able to codify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program into the Federal Register, the Senate has hidden behind procedure to defer debate on a path to citizenship. Talk of “invasions” and “strained resources” has not ceased. Republican governors in Florida and Texas internally deport asylum seekers to score points with their base. Overall, Zamora thinks today’s panorama is much worse: “The chances of me surviving now would have been slim,” he recently told The Guardian, explaining that the border has become “hugely militarized” and most coyotes now belong to cartels.

Zamora, like the memoirists of migration that came before him, wants to document the persistence of this cruel reality, but he also hopes a new narrative can break through, one that carves undocumented experiences out of and away from the shallow portrayals of many American news outlets and demonstrates that so long as we hold the pen, we can hold the power.

The migrant has a strong incentive to forget the severance from their homeland instead of mourning the life they’ve left behind. But for Zamora, remembering is a defiant act of healing. He opens Solito with an epigraph explaining why: “Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories and therefore remembering is no less an act of reincarnation.”

Zamora’s memoir begins when he’s a 9-year-old child in El Salvador. His mother and father have left for the United States years earlier, seeking a better life up north. The parent-child bond is sustained by photos exchanged every few months (“in the pictures Dad looks kind and strong. I like his thick mustache…. The gold chain he wears over his shirt, his muscles showing”) and memories (“I remember everything about her. Her harsh voice like a wave crashing when she got mad at me. Her breath like freshly cut cucumbers”). He has been left in the care of his grandparents.

By 1999, Zamora has started to hear whispers of a forthcoming “trip.” The coyote who took his parents to “La USA,” as they call the United States, swings by the house more often than he had in the past. “I can put two and two together,” Zamora writes. “I’m my grade’s valedictorian; I get a diploma every year for being the best student.” Zamora knows what is coming even before his grandparents tell him. To enable him to leave, Zamora’s grandparents concoct a lie for the mother superior at his Catholic school, asking her permission for Javiercito to visit the zoo in Guatemala. Zamora carries the burden of being the gifted student, and as someone who has had the honor of having shaken the president’s hand, he feels he somehow has the power to save his country from the devastation of war. “Lying makes me feel cool. I hope Mother Superior doesn’t suspect anything; that she won’t call the police. My grandparents have said they remember, after I got to nationals, Mother Superior saying El Salvador needs kids like me, that people like me will make this country better, that it would be a shame if I ever left, like some kids at school already have.” On his last day of school, nobody knows it’s his last, so no one tries to stop him.

This small act of disloyalty opens the compressed and harrowing coming of age that follows in the next seven weeks. Zamora’s world expands as he meets other children on the road, both fellow migrants and kids whose job is to help other migrants cross the border. In Ocós, Guatemala, the scary risks of migration reveal themselves aboard a shark-hunting boat, which Zamora takes along with several others, including a group of strangers that his grandfather has entrusted with the task of watching over him during the journey. The boat races from Ocós to Oaxaca, México, with the stench of burning fuel heavy in the air as the passengers take turns heaving the contents of their stomachs overboard. “Gasoline feels like a finger in the throat,” Zamora recalled.

Much of the migrants’ trip is monotonous, with long waits on boats or buses as they try to get to the next food stand, the next shower they can find. To pass the time, Zamora learns to perform citizenship: He rehearses the story line that will allow him to assimilate into whatever town he has to pass through. “I repeat what I practiced with Grandpa. Chiapas. DF. Los Mochis. Hermosillo. Tijuana. All the way to San Rafael, California,” he writes. “I listen to the Mexican coyotes speaking. I take notes. When we land, I will be Mexican. Tapatío. Headed to el DF. I know the anthem. The presidents. I repeat this when I get tired of looking at everyone…. I want the night to arrive so I can look at the stars.” He dreams of flying like Superman or Gokú, who are unimpeded by borders.

Pretending to be someone you are not in order to evade the authorities is nearly impossible, and there is a series of close encounters. At a taco stand somewhere in Sinaloa, Zamora asks for a straw for his Coke—except he uses the word pajilla instead of popote, as one would in Mexico. “I messed up. I’m stupid. I don’t know what to do,” he recalls. The taquera clocks him immediately. “Pinches mojados, learn to speak,” she tells him, prompting a spiral of questions in Zamora’s mind. “The old lady is still laughing. I can hear her through the crowd. I feel terrible. ¿Are we gonna be ok? ¿Is she gonna call the cops? She knows we’re Salvadoran…. There’s a pupusa on our foreheads.” More banal but equally important rites of passage take place as well: the first puff of a cigarette, the fear of being naked in front of other people in a shower, the shock of seeing another man’s genitals. But they cast in sharp relief the extent to which migrating means losing one’s innocence.

To keep going through his journey, Zamora fixes his thoughts on the cadejo, a Salvadoran legend about a dog- or wolf-like creature with red eyes and goat hooves. The myth says that God created a light-colored cadejo to protect humans, and the devil in his jealousy created a dark-colored one. Every person has one, and his grandfather tells him his is gray: “not all good, not all bad, not all black, not all white.” This is the amulet that Zamora’s grandfather gives him as he embarks on his solo journey, telling him that the cadejo will watch over the narrator as he travels. The cadejo takes on a religious character, with Zamora calling on him whenever trouble occurs. “Cadejo, cadejito,” he intones after the sound of helicopter rotors overhead pierces the desert’s silence. By the end, after those who have been entrusted with his care desert him, he wonders whether the cadejo has forgotten about him too.

In a world that is not this world, I can walk into a bookstore and the memoirs about being undocumented and about the experiences of the migrant are not found in the “immigration” section. They don’t occupy the space next to a highly technical volume on the “root causes” of the mass migration of millions to the north each year. There is no card next to it on which one of the store’s staff can laud the book for how authentic it is or how it goes beyond the headlines to entice those with no connection to the issue to open their purses. In such a world, perhaps an undocumented canon does not exist because no one is undocumented at all. It is a world in which the undocumented are liberated from the categories of the documenters.

We do not yet live in such a world, but a growing canon devoted to the undocumented is emerging to help bring it about. Thus far, that canon has had the unhappy, gargantuan task of attempting to undo the nativist myths that many Americans have held in their imaginations for decades: that the undocumented come only from Latin America, have low levels of educational and career achievement, and could adjust their status if they simply “got in line.” When Dan-el Padilla-Peralta’s Undocumented came out in 2015 and impressed readers with his journey from homeless-shelter resident to Ivy League classicist, the Associated Press had just two years earlier changed its stylebook to abandon the term “illegal immigrant,” although activists had been pressing for “undocumented” for a few years. Before Jose Antonio Vargas revealed in a story for The New York Times Magazine that he had been working at The Washington Post while undocumented, few white Americans understood that crossing the Mexican border was not the only way of becoming undocumented and that there was a significant population of undocumented Asian Americans in the US. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s book squarely placed “undocumented” on the list of categories of Americans, a category as complicated as the label itself. Many of us feel that we are of this country, even if this country does not recognize us or welcome us. Like these books, Zamora’s is a distinctly American memoir, and he tells a distinctly American story.

Latin Americans will see the book as theirs, too, reading the slang that is common in our conversations but that never finds representation in mainstream TV shows and films: words and phrases like patatús, chiripiorca, and pimp-it-is-nice. The characters point to objects with their lips. The dogs don’t woof, they guao. Never italicized, the words of Spanish in Solito don’t get the chance to become foreign. And despite the all-too-common warnings from book editors that readers won’t understand these words, three weeks after its release, Zamora’s book reached the third place on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list. There is a difference between crossing “unaccompanied” and crossing “solito.”

Undocumented writers and the narratives they produce are, of course, products of the environments they live in. They may declare their freedom, but they are also bound by the dehumanizing policies that surround them. After all these years of activists dressing up in graduation robes and sending letters to members of Congress, one more tale of struggle and sojourning is almost certainly insufficient to change US politics. But Solito finds Zamora on another quest as well: He wants to offer a much longer, if subtle, view about the violence inherent in the dynamics of US state power in Central America. “In first grade, I was the only one who didn’t have both parents with me. Mali says they left because before I was born there was a war, and then there were no jobs,” he writes. This view is less about the narrow specifics of federal policies and more about memorializing the consequences of these policies. Unlike Zamora’s poetry, this exercise in remembrance allows the author to produce a prose that is unburdened by the politics of any one specific moment. (In this summer’s immigrant anthology Somewhere We Are Human, Zamora is much more explicitly political: “Every election / a candidate promises: papers, / papers, & more. / They gift us Advance Parole. / We want flight.”)

Zamora also seeks to place the people experiencing this violence at the center of his story, and in particular those who are rarely heard from on cable news or social media—those unaccompanied migrant children. Even though books like Sonia Nazario’s classic Enrique’s Journey and, more recently, Jacob Soboroff’s Separated made strides in describing the pain that children are forced to go through when they attempt to reunite with their families, many of these narratives are necessarily processed and warped by US-born journalists. In the worst-case scenarios, these power dynamics have led to caricatured portrayals, like Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, in which immigrants were reduced to a “helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep,” as the author put it. Even when the stories are told with compassion, the words cease to belong to the immigrants.

Zamora also wants to resist the impulse to give his story a redemptive arc, common in a publishing industry in which 95 percent of books are written by white authors. Zamora does eventually reunite with his parents but says little of the life that he led later in “La USA.” There is no mention of the archetypal struggles of undocumented life, like getting a driver’s license, attending college, or living in constant fear of deportation. The almost obligatory nods of the genre—to the American Dream, to the nation’s values, or to how grateful he is to live a better life here than he would have in El Salvador—are absent from his book. Building on the success and subversiveness of previous books, Zamora has opened up an even wider space for undocumented writers to tell their truths outside of the myth that one is granted humanity only in proportion to one’s gratitude to America. We don’t know what happens to Zamora after he makes it back with his parents. But no more explanations are needed. Sometimes, to a child, that’s worth the world.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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