Salvadoran refugee opens poetry world

By Laurie Maemura

On October 24, the Salvadoran-American award-winning poet and activist Javier Zamora celebrated the publication of his 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, an English professor at City College.

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

Zamora’s visit to City College came 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 “Dreamers.”

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

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 did not know how to begin or how to order the poems. He decided to put Saguraros first not only because it is his favorite both to read and to write, but also because 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 did not follow a script or an outline. He wanted to “go with the flow” by following his mood.  After 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 complete his passage at last. 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 in college. He entered ESL programs to integrate into classrooms quickly and learned English “like a sponge,” winning the fourth grade spelling bee.

The poems Zamora selected included following: “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 to his grandfather, who had decided to abandon him two weeks into their journey, right before they would have crossed the border to the United States together.

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 do not remember because it is 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 does not have papers to leave the United States but 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 Tucson, 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 he did not 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.

Zamora was inspired to be a poet when he saw Spanish and English on the same page for 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 could not qualify for most things. Because Trump is trying to phase out DACA, Zamora 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 were worth living here, Zamora gave a firm answer.

“Yeah, what’s the other option? El Salvador is murdering more people now than in wartime. 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.

In his last poem, “Let Me Try Again,” Zamora described what was likely a memory of an interaction with a border patrol officer. This man gave honest and valuable advice on how to cross successfully.

“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 was a University of California, Berkeley and New York University alum, respectively holding a B.A. and M.F.A. 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 to bring justice to the disappeared families during El Salvador’s civil war as a member of the Our Parents’ Bones Campaign.