Salvadoran refugee opens poetry world


By Laurie Maemura


On October 24, the Salvadoran-American award-winning poet and activist Javier Zamora celebrated his published book of poems entitled “Unaccompanied” at a reading on City College’s Mission Campus.


The event was the second installment of the Concert and Lecture Series events and was sponsored by the creative writing program. It was curated by Steven Mayers English professor at City College.


Mayers’ wife stumbled upon Zamora’s chapbook, “Nueve años inmigrantes / Nine Immigrant Years.” The small volume of poetry introduced him to the works of the poet. Mayers had always had an interest in stories about refugees and wanted to share the author’s story.


Zamora’s visit to City College comes in the midst of Trump’s active opposition to the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the American immigration policy that allows individuals to enter the United States as minors often referred to as the “Dreamers.”


In the diverse sanctuary city of San Francisco, Zamora’s story has hit home for many young adults who are recipients and those with friends who are affected by the possible end of DACA.


When he was only nine years old, Zamora crossed the border into the United States alone.


“Unaccompanied” represents in part, the pain of those years, emotional and physical suffering, traveling without family, longing for family love and unity. Zamora’s own personal journey in the years since were framed by those early struggles.


When Zamora wrote “Unaccompanied,” he didn’t know how to begin or order the poems. He decided to put “Saguraros” first not only because it’s his favorite both to read and to write but it reflected the period when he lived with his grandmother from 1994 to 1999.


“The book is about my grandma,” he said. “When I put that poem in front, the whole book made sense.”


When the event began, Zamora read a few poems from ‘Unaccompanied.’ He didn’t follow a script or an outline. He wanted to go with the flow by following his mood.  In between each poem he read, he shared stories about growing up and about his remarkable journey from Oaxaca to the Mojave Desert. It took him three tries to finally complete his passage and he crossed the border June 10, 1999.


In a casual conversational tone he shared stories about everything from his passion for soccer to a DUI incident he had in college. He entered ESL programs to graduate and integrate into classrooms quickly and learned English “like a sponge,” winning the fourth grade spelling bee.


The poems Zamora selected included in this order but random from his book: “Saguraros,” “‘Ponele Queso Bicho’ Means Put Cheese On It Kid,” “Vows,” “Don Chepe,” “Pump Water from the Well,” and “Second Attempt Crossing.” He ended  with “Let Me Try Again.”


After reading the second poem, Zamora said he remembered waving from a bus in Guatemala at his grandfather, who two weeks into their journey, right before they would have crossed the border to the United States together, left him in Guatemala in the hands of a ‘coyote’ (smuggler of undocumented persons) that abandoned him in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.


For the first time, Zamora was completely alone and scared. “I don’t remember the feeling. What made it to the book, [are] the things I do remember. There is something about trauma. [There are] things that we don’t remember because it’s too unbearable,” he said.


But his feelings of abandonment and sadness shaped his journey. Eventually, he talked to other individuals, strangers who were on the same journey. He cradled old photographs of his father in his hands, knowing his parents and their love were waiting for him on the other side.


Although Zamora says he technically has papers, he doesn’t have papers to leave the United States and refuses to get married. His poem “Vows” relates to a story about how a woman wanted him to marry her in exchange for money, a proposition which in turn made him resolve to “never buy rings.”


“When I call abuelos…They ask about you. I’m four years older than them when they got married…What I mean is I can never go back,” he read from the poem.


During his nationwide book tour, a recent and particular location that Zamora visited was Tuscon, Arizona. He had been wanting to go there but when he came face to face with the border, he recalled experiencing intense emotions.


“It was a reminder that I’m still there, [very] much traumatized. [It was] everything I described in the book. I had to go back. I couldn’t sleep when I was there for five days. I must’ve slept six hours. Not because I was remembering [but] because my body remembered. Trauma is very real,” he said.


Zamora finally did reunite with his family in Tucson in 1999, he recognized his mother because she looked the same but didn’t recognize his father. His expectations did not match his reality.


“It took me months for me to trust them. I was back with them but it wasn’t how I had imagined,” he said. The housing was cramped which made him miss El Salvador and made navigating hard just as it is today.


Zamora was inspired to be a poet when he saw Spanish and English on the same page the first time, side by side in the book called, “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” by Pablo Neruda.


“That had an impact on me,” he recalled. “In that book Pablo Neruda describes growing up in a small coastal rural town with mountains. He was 17 when he wrote it. I must have been 17 when I was reading it,” he said.


Up until he was 20 years old, Zamora was undocumented and couldn’t qualify for most things. Because Trump is trying to faze out DACA and individuals who qualify for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Zamora who has a type of TPS status said, “now I’m f**kng freaking out again. My card expires in March. So I might turn back to my word and actually get married. Like f**k it!” as the audience laughed.


When a student asked if the pressure, worry and depression is worth living here, Zamora gave a firm answer. “Yeah, what’s the other option? El Salvador is murdering more people now than war time. And that’s the thing. Stop calling immigrants immigrants. We’re refugees — political [and] economical. We’re here not because we want to be in this country but we had to. So it is worth it,” he said.


SFSU biology student Raquel Salmeron whose best friend is a DACA student, discussed that her Salvadoran culture is very present in Mission District’s community. She found Trump’s position on immigrant laws which require DACA students to meet certain requirements to be frustrating.


“The fact that he’s going to be taking DACA away, it’s like putting a foot in your face. [Young people] came here but they can’t do nothing here. People can’t even work here so it’s kind of like, ‘why are you even gonna come? what am I supposed to do?’ I can’t do anything [to help],” she said.


Salmeron wishes Trump could realize the personal effect he has on some individuals. “Until you put a face onto every single student, you don’t get the impact of the number that it is,” she said.


City College student Liv Jessop learned about Zamora’s story in a poetry class when her professor introduced his book. The art of poetry “as an expression of oneself” caught Jessop’s attention and she became inspired by the refugee’s writing style and difficult journey.


As a child of parental immigrants from Samoa and Nicaragua, she connected with Zamora’s anecdote. “It’s really important that we hear these stories so we remember that these are real people. What’s going on today…people need to get that light right now,” she said.


Jessop believes DACA recipients are “game pieces” in Donald Trump’s politics because he “lacks [the] qualities of a caring human being.”


“I can’t wrap my head around why one life is more or less than another. You want to take care of your people in your community. Even the littlest things like opening the door. You want to make people feel safe…that they belong. I want [Trump] to be humble,” she said.


Ending his reading with “Let Me Try Again,” Zamora read what was likely a memory of an interaction with a border patrol officer who gave honest, valuable advice on how to successfully cross. “Don’t trust anyone calling themselves coyotes, bring more tortillas, sardines, Alhambra. He knew we would try again and again, like everyone does,” Zamora wrote.  


Zamora is a University of California, Berkeley and New York University alum, respectively holding a BA and MFA. He is currently a 2016-2018 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He was awarded for his work by Barnes & Nobles for the Writer for Writers Award for the Undocupoets Campaign in 2016. In addition, he currently helps bring justice to the disappeared families during El Salvador’s civil war as a member of the Our Parents’ Bones Campaign.


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