Javier Zamora is a Salvadoran writer and poet of the migrant and the Central American condition. His work is infused with the literary traditions of El Salvador, the country of his birth, as well as his lived experience across borders. He is the author of the chapbook Nueve Años Inmigrantes (Organic Weapon Arts, 2011), the poetry collection Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press, 2017) and, most recently, Solito (Hogarth, 2022), a highly acclaimed memoir that recounts his journey as a young boy leaving El Salvador to reunite with his parents in the United States.
Zamora is part of a new cohort of young, US-based writers, including Yesika Salgado, Janel Pineda, Christopher Soto, Roy G. Guzmán, Raquel Gutiérrez, Jenise Miller, and Alejandro Varela, to name a few, who are forging new paths for Central American letters. They showcase incredible talent and genre-defying experimentation, recombining the literary and aesthetic traditions of their home countries, refracting them through an increasingly diverse US literature to fashion fresh and creative starting points. In doing so, these writers have challenged tightly held fictions about their subjectivities, histories, and politics. Without hesitation, they speak truth to power, seizing upon this moment of decentralized publishing to transform the culture industry and mediate themselves more authentically, abandoning both traditional US-centric approaches and, in many cases, the exhausted tropes of “Latinidad.”
In this conversation, Javier Zamora examines his own transnational family formation and the meanings of a Central American childhood, offering insight into his creative process, audience reception, genre experimentation, Salvadoran masculinity, and trauma. I sat down with Javier to contextualize the worlds of Solito, and to explore what it means to tell his story in the present moment. Below is an abridged version of that exchange.
Jorge Cuéllar (JC): Javier, it is such a pleasure to be in conversation with you again. Since the release of Solito, you’ve been all over the country connecting with different kinds of communities, at universities, bookstores, in Central American and Latino communities. What has been the reception of the book?
Javier Zamora (JZ): It has been dope. I compare it with my poetry tour, and during that tour it was rare that I was in a room mostly made up of brown faces. For this book, I have been fortunate that it has mostly been rooms filled with brown faces.
And I have met so many strangers, many of them immigrants, who wait in line just to tell me a little bit of their story. I love that the book has opened up conversations, not only in communities but within physical bodies. People—and by people I mean immigrants—are realizing that perhaps it is time to finally talk about what we have survived and what we carry inside us as secrets every single day.
JC: Your book Unaccompanied came out during the Trump administration. What do you hope that the new book does in 2023? For newcomers to the United States, for people in Central America? I know the book is also available in Spanish—what might they be able to pull from it?
JZ: Immigrants don’t even have to read it, they just need to know that there is this book about a kid who emigrated, who is talking about his trauma and that it is okay to do so. Talking about it hasn’t gotten him deported and it hasn’t gotten him in trouble. That is fact number one.
And if they were to open the book, I hope that the reader, especially a Central American reader, will begin to understand and unpack how racism, machismo, patriarchy, and sexism is taught by older people to kids at such a young age.
JC: In the pages of Solito, Javiercito/Chepito is like a sponge. Moving through this migrant world, he is picking up social cues, gender cues, ways of relating to different people and learning his place within it. To me, the book is really about this young Salvadoran boy learning how to be a Salvadoran man.
The detail and the time that you spend crafting those moments for Javiercito typically get lost in today’s conversations around migration, around politics, around deportation. We forget that young people are piecing together their identities during this really challenging experience. I’m wondering how you got to those details, that memory work?
JZ: Talking from a literary perspective, the lens of a kid is brilliant because kids absorb everything but they don’t have judgment yet. And repeatedly on the way up here, I saw men overly sexualizing women. Or in my home in El Salvador, people didn’t care that I would watch, for example, overly sexualized telenovelas when I was four or five or six.
It was always in the background, and that itself is okay. But I do want to emphasize that I stopped being a kid the moment that I left. I walked out of the door when I was nine years old, on April 6, 1999. The journey was a goodbye letter to my childhood. Certain circumstances make children, sometimes as young as four, younger than I was, lose a formative part of their brain development. I hope that if they are really analyzing the book, that people will see the heartbreak of a little kid having to grow up and say goodbye to his childhood in order to survive.
JC: We are both Salvadorans, both Salvadoran men in our 30s. Your writing is helping us to have an important conversation about the traumatic impacts of inequality—both here and there—and how it shapes us into certain kinds of men who, and I want to speak for myself here, are incredibly skilled at compartmentalization.
JZ: Yeah. Culturally speaking, our parents had to survive the 1980s war and compartmentalize different aspects of violence outside of the home, but they also brought the war inside. My family certainly did, through domestic violence and alcoholism. Men constantly hit on women, which is sadly a part of our culture that is not okay. I go to El Salvador now and it is the same shit. At times, it has gotten worse. Or take the men around my neighborhood: we had not only one, not three, not six, but about ten local drunks. And that was their job. That was the function that they were fulfilling in the town. My grandpa was one of those, though not exactly, because he still kept a job. He was a high-functioning alcoholic. But we don’t have those terms in that culture.
For my generation, we emigrated here, and if we didn’t, that caused the trauma and taught us how to compartmentalize. A lot of my friends who stayed over there and grew up from 1999 onwards had to deal with massive recruitment by gangs and the violence of gangs. They had to learn how to literally physically compartmentalize the spaces that they were allowed to safely walk through. That must do something to your mind and who you are as a person. And fast-forward to the current moment in El Salvador. People are having to compartmentalize what it means to live in a state that looks like the state during the civil war. That teaches a human brain a certain set of skills that help you survive, but once you are not in survival mode, or in that context anymore, what helped you survive there oftentimes ends up hurting you and those around you.
So, that, in a nutshell, is the process that affects not only Salvadoran men, but also Salvadoran women. And I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be queer in El Salvador at the current moment. As I mentioned before about the character Chino, this person who helped me survive, was probably queer. But as a kid, I didn’t have the language to understand why the men around him would not really include him in the men’s club. As a character, he is portrayed as learned and older, but the reality is that he was only a teenager.
In “Solito,” I hope that I have included moments of joy, of laughter, different complex moments that also occur during the act of surviving. And I can say that because I lived it and I survived it.
JC: Solito is a story about a “1999 version” of Central American childhood. Do you think that kind of childhood is still around in El Salvador?
JZ: In a weird way, I was very fortunate because my childhood coincided with a period of relative peace. My first memories are of my third birthday, in 1993, so my conscious childhood begins after the war. And a lot of numbers tell us that 1999 was the start of political and social decline. So, those six years were, relatively speaking, the most peaceful that our country has had, perhaps in centuries. That is when I grew up.
Just knowing those facts, I could say—though I don’t know for sure—but I want to say that, no, the childhood that I experienced no longer exists. I have gone back only five times to my country. And when I was growing up, there weren’t so many fences. You could walk from someone’s backyard to another. That doesn’t happen anymore. Children don’t play out in the streets. That freedom that I enjoyed no longer exists. I would even say that the compartmentalized way of thinking I was talking about before is now the Salvadoran way. Whenever I go home people say, “Oh, you can’t go there, you have to know somebody.” You are erasing yourself; you are X-ing out areas on the map, and that is sad. That is called not being free.
Whenever I look back at the six years that I remember being in El Salvador, I remember them being the freest years that I’ve ever lived. I did grow up very fast when I was nine years old, but I also had the privilege to enjoy some version of a childhood. I may have been poor, I may not have had running water for some of it, and for two years we didn’t have electricity. For some of that, I didn’t even have color TV. But I was happy. I had the freedom to go to neighbors’ houses and explore the mangroves, and if I wanted to walk by myself to the pier, no problem. But now, that is not a thing that you can do even as a 32-year-old man.
JC: I left Salvador when I was four, and I too remember having a relatively stable childhood. Running my Tonka truck through the mud, making pupusas de lodo [mud], playing hide-and-go-seek with my sisters and neighbors. It was definitely a different moment, when you could still be out after dark, and things were pretty calm. Now, when the sun goes down, the fear is palpable, and everybody goes away until morning.
JC: I want to pivot a little bit here to think about the current literary scene, a moment when migration books are seemingly everywhere. Everybody is writing one, and there is a weird cottage industry around it because it is such a hot topic. What do you think about that phenomenon?
JZ: There has been an influx since 2014. Trump helped increase it. Immigration became all the rage. And the fact that it is mostly nonimmigrants writing about us was a huge impetus for me to write my own book. A lot of nonimmigrant authors like to lie to themselves and say, “Oh, there aren’t many immigrants who can tell their story.” Well, actually, there are. There are a shit ton of us. In the back of my mind, I wanted to prove them wrong.
Of course, these people, they think they are helping. But oftentimes they are not. Consider the constant coverage of the children at the border. In hindsight, it actually desensitized a lot of people. We heard it every single fucking day. It was one tough image, one tough sound after another. What do we have to show for it? A lot of things have gotten worse.
JC: I remember Jakelin Caal and Angie Valeria Martínez, two infants from Guatemala and from El Salvador who drowned in the Rio Grande. Tons of folks were writing about it, attempting to speak for them.
JZ: Yeah, and it is very difficult to talk about somebody who is in the act of surviving. And it’s something that a lot of journalists don’t really understand. They like to say, well, I’m just a journalist, I’m just covering the facts. No. I wrote a book of poems that, in my own opinion, is super fucking sad. I ended up, for lack of a better word, “trauma-porning” myself to other people who hadn’t lived through the same experiences. That, in turn, made me the writer, the one who lived it, feel worse.
In Solito, I hope that I have included moments of joy, of laughter, different complex moments that also occur during the act of surviving. And I can say that because I lived it and I survived it. This is what is absent from a lot of the coverage, specifically by journalists, but also from scholars, in films and other books, that tend to focus only on the worst day of somebody’s life or the worst aspects of trauma. They forget to sprinkle what actually makes us human, which is that when you are surviving, you also have to trick yourself into compartmentalizing. If you look only at the trauma, you are fucked, you freeze, you don’t move. You die.
In other words, your brain is this wonderful machine that tricks you into looking at the bright side in order to take another step, to live another day. That is my problem with what you’ve called the cottage industry of migration books. Rarely do they really acknowledge and understand the beautiful phenomenon that is people, humans, being asked to be superhuman, to survive the unsurvivable.
JC: The book has helped me to open a conversation with my own family about migration, about histories of the war, and how the residues of all of this get imprinted on us. I’m wondering if, for you, the book helps make it possible for us to have deeper discussions about transnational families and the specific issues that are too often ignored, or too uncomfortable to have.
JZ: If I’m being honest, I didn’t know that it was going to do that. But we are living in 2022. I may not get fan mail, but I do get a shit ton of DMs from immigrants and children of immigrants. The latter are giving the book to their parents and having conversations about it. There have been a lot of US-born children of immigrants who have told me that the book allowed their parents to begin to open up about their story. It was unexpected and beautiful that a book can do that.
And the book tour itself has become an advertisement for therapy. In the book, I wouldn’t have been able to go there, to show my experience to the degree of detail that I did without a wonderful therapist. I’m not unaware that most immigrant families don’t have that privilege. So, this is the best-case scenario. I literally got paid to heal and to write. Hopefully, and at best, I hope that my privilege is helping those with less privilege begin to have these conversations and begin to heal.
I also had the advantage of having parents who allowed me to do that. Oftentimes in Latino culture, we are taught to respect our elders. Just the mere fact that they are your aunt or your mom, your older cousin, your older brother, means that they are smarter than you. But when we are talking about families that have faced a lot of trauma, that is not always the case. I have wonderful parents, who have never questioned what I do. It has hurt them in the past, because I used to write quite harsh poems, but they would always show up to my readings and they never told me not to write something.
JC: It’s important to note the supportive role of your parents for your endeavors. I recall you mentioning, too, that your parents were part of the process of translating the book into Spanish and that they helped to verify and fact-check things in it. I bet that was extremely useful for dialing in the cultural authenticity of character voices in the book.
This brings me to another question. There are significant books, recently published, about remembering El Salvador in different ways: Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting, Eduardo Espinoza’s powerful memoir from 2020 about the FMLN’s liberation project, Carolyn Forché’s What You Have Heard Is True, and Andrés McKinley’s For the Love of the Struggle, among many more. These are all very different approaches to the memoir, all appearing in the last few years. There is something happening, generically, through memoir and El Salvador. Given your background as a poet, how did you turn toward writing a book—writing this book—through the memoir form? Was there a limitation that you bumped into in poetry that pushed you into prose, and then specifically into the genre of memoir?
JZ: Genre is such an American thing. If you look at all Latin American memoirists, they didn’t do just one thing. They started off as poets or journalists. One doesn’t negate the other. The moment that I started writing poetry at 17, 18, I also started writing prose. Currently, I am mulling writing a short story/memoir. Genre to me doesn’t mean anything. And the novel is relatively new, since the 1800s, anyway, so things are going to evolve again, redefining genres to make them mean different things.
What to me is far more important than genre is to show all the nonimmigrants that we can write our own stories. And that we can do it fucking well.
JC: That is a good way of putting it!
JZ: I am also fortunate that I wrote this book when I did. I don’t think this book could have happened before 2020, before there was a critical mass of editors and agents who are okay with so much Spanish. I lucked out that a lot of people who work in publishing now ask for our voices on our own terms. My agent is white, my editor is white, but I don’t have a horror story to share of when they told me to cut this, cut that. No. And I know that is not the case for a lot of other writers who came before me.
JC: I appreciate that your book is unapologetic in the linguistic sense. It doesn’t bother to translate for the reader. It just throws the reader into Chepito’s world.
JZ: I don’t read reviews, my wife reads them for me, but she tells me that most of the bad reviews of Solito are from white people complaining about not understanding the Spanish.
JC: Our Spanish is pretty peculiar too. I mean, as Central Americans, we are uncomfortably wedged between Mexican dominant linguistic practices in the Southwest or Puerto Rican and Caribbean in the Northeast, the Cuban community in Florida, etc. There is always a contextually dominant Latino group that we have to translate ourselves through. Except for, maybe, DC…
JZ: Only DC.
JC: Yeah, so this uncomfortable reader needs to do the work of decoding the Caliche for themselves to get into the world of the book.
JZ: And it is easy. I mean, we do it all the time. We all had to learn English and translate; we code switch every day. So, you can Google, too. You can use Urban Dictionary en español.
JC: You set the stage for your work with epigraphs by Roque Dalton in Unaccompanied and Katie Cannon and Leisy Abrego in Solito. Can you tell us a little bit about the selection criteria and what these writers mean to you?
JZ: Great question—nobody has ever asked me that. I chose the epigraphs because they have helped me to understand layers of myself, of the onion that I am. Roque Dalton helped me to become a poet and has given me a means of existing in the world not only physically but also in letters. I wouldn’t be here at all without having seen caliche and words like bayunco on the page. And understanding that, oh shit, he won the major Latin American Literary Award, and he is Salvadoran and is super political. And he tried to start a revolution, and he was homies with Fidel and Che. That, as a 16-year-old, Che T-shirt, bracelet-wearing, long-haired teenager, he surpassed even Che and Fidel for me back then—because he was from where I was from. From then on, he made it okay for me to be a Salvadoran writer because he was first a Salvadoran writer. And that’s how you get the epigraph for Unaccompanied.
As for the two epigraphs in this book, I read Leisy Abrego Sacrificing Families when the book came out in like 2014. And I have never felt so seen or dragged by a fucking book, by an academic book. She was talking about me. For the epigraph, I selected the one where it says that when their mother leaves, the children are left with a hole in their heart. That is a metaphor for all the children who are left behind by their mothers. And she is Salvadoran, the quintessential Salvadoran scholar. And at one point I wanted to be a historian, a scholar, and she allowed me—like she probably allowed you too, Jorge—to be, because she had done it and blazed the way. She is now the chair of the Chicana/o Studies and Central American Studies Department at UCLA, which is dope. Her book unlocked so many things for me, and was the beginning of my healing journey. For a while, I was triggered by that book because I wasn’t ready to read it. But it is a very important book for me.
Fast-forward, Solito wouldn’t have happened in the present tense, how and when it happened, without The Body Keeps the Score. Another quintessential book that explained so many things about my suffering, my emotional suffering, and the ways that I coped with things, and why. It helped me understand why I had trouble being potty-trained, why I was a weird kid, and how I attached myself to the adults and the mother figures in the room. And this is very typical of children who get left behind by either one or both parents, which happened to me.
JC: Thanks for sharing how these texts impacted and influenced you in different moments of your life. I, too, share these same feelings of admiration and appreciation for Roque and Leisy Abrego. They form part of that rarely acknowledged literary and intellectual tradition of El Salvador, and all contribute to telling more historias del pulgarcito.
JZ: And for all these books, if you are a Salvadoran and you are an immigrant, and you were a child immigrant or left behind by a parent, these books are necessary for you to read. They were very necessary and formative for me. Solito would not exist without all three of them.