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Maria Hinojosa: This is Latino USA, the radio journal of news and cultura. It’s Latino USA. Welcome to Latino USA. I’m Maria Hinojosa. 

We bring you stories that are underreported, but that matter to you. Overlooked by the rest of the media. And while the country is struggling to deal with these problems. We listen to the stories of Black and Latino students.

A united Latino front. A cultural renaissance. Organizing at the forefront of the movement. 

I’m Maria Hinojosa. ¡No se vayan! 

Javier Zamora: You know, if there’s anything that my parents taught me, is that writers should be at the vanguard of change. You know, we are the dreamers of the future. We are the dreamers of a present that we don’t have, of rights that we don’t enjoy. That is our duty, at least in Latin America. At least in El Salvador, that’s how it is.

Maria Hinojosa: From Futuro Media and PRX, it’s Latino USA, I’m Maria Hinojosa. Today, a conversation with Salvadoran author Javier Zamora on the role of a writer in today’s world. 

(MUSIC)

Javier Zamora is a writer. But as a writer, he believes he has a particular responsibility: to understand and also to change the world through words. 

Javier Zamora: There is always violence. And it’s at the hands of those in power. We can begin to call that out and to say stop, and never again. And to truly mean those words.

Maria Hinojosa: In his work, Javier has shared some of the most intimate and traumatic parts of his own story. He migrated as a child from El Salvador to the U.S. And he first captured that difficult experience in a poetry collection called “Unaccompanied.” 

You might remember Javier from one of Latino USA’s most listened-to episodes. It’s called “The Return.”

Javier Zamora: It’s June 10th. I’m alone, at home. I haven’t packed. I leave tomorrow.

Maria Hinojosa: We followed Javier as he was forced to return to El Salvador, after almost two decades living in the U.S., in order to apply for a new visa so that he could legally stay in the United States. 

After that return, Javier started to work on “Solito,” his memoir recounting his journey to the U.S. as a child. 

Javier Zamora: “Abuelita kisses me, kneels to hug me. Then Mali and Abuelita hug me at the same time. Only now, I cry. This is it.” 

Maria Hinojosa: He goes into detail about those eight weeks he was alone, making his way through Guatemala and then Mexico. 

Javier Zamora: “Grandpa isn’t here to talk to me before falling asleep, to go out for walks and explore the town. The adults don’t really talk to me besides, ‘Good morning,’ ‘Goodnight,’ ‘Pass the food,’ ‘Wake up.’ And I’m too shy to talk to them.” 

Maria Hinojosa: There was fear, there was anguish, but also wonder and occasional joy. 

Javier Zamora: “I didn’t see the sunrise in the desert last time. I was asleep when the truck surrounded us. All of the colors are amazing. Some still linger at the edges of the sky. But when sunrise was at its peak, it felt like we were walking in a painting.” 

Maria Hinojosa: And all of this told from the perspective of nine-year-old Javier. 

“Solito” became a New York Times bestseller. 

In this episode, Javier and I talk about what it was like to go back to one of the most difficult moments in his life. And also about the complicated relationship he has with his birth country, El Salvador. 

Here’s our conversation.

Javier, welcome back to Latino USA. It’s been a while. 

Javier Zamora: It’s been a while, but thank you for having me back. 

Maria Hinojosa: I remember back in 2018, our producer Sayre Quevedo worked with you to document this moment in your personal history when you returned to El Salvador, 20 years after leaving as a child. 

Javier Zamora: “When I land and I go through the checkpoint and I get a whiff of the humidity and I get to the road. My grandpa’s waiting there.” 

Maria Hinojosa: And so we were there when you met your abuelo and abuela.

Javier Zamora: “My grandma opens the door. She’s in her nightgown. And she looks around to see if anybody’s looking, and she doesn’t get out of the house. She waits for me to get in. And she is way different than what I remembered.” 

Maria Hinojosa: So I actually wanted to take a moment to just hear your thoughts about that experience of documenting the return.

What do you remember about those moments of making this into an audio production? 

Javier Zamora: Well, I was scared, you know, having somebody, in this instance Sayre and also Latino USA, care about me returning to my country, acted like how a therapist acts, which in, we externalize our feelings. Because we want our feelings to be held by somebody else.

“Today I went to the doctor’s appointment.” 

And so, in hindsight, I really appreciate that I had my phone. In a very literal sense, I had my phone and my recording app to record how I was feeling in perpetuity.

“And then he begins asking me about drugs.” 

I don’t listen to the episode. I mean, I listened to it once. And once was enough. 

“If I had been stopped or arrested and I said no.” 

Because I could just hear how scared I was. And I was scared. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my grandparents home. Because my hometown wasn’t safe. 

“I feel down. I really hope that I can go back to the United States.” 

I think what was heartbreaking for me in the process is that I realized that given the option I wouldn’t have liked to stay in El Salvador. And that, even saying that out loud right now, makes me feel a certain way, because this is where I was born. 

Maria Hinojosa: Yeah. 

Javier Zamora: And I always critiqued the United States, but at that point, after being back for 19 years, I was like, well, I don’t feel safe here. Ironically, I feel safer in the United States. So please let me go back to the United States.

And that is something that I’m still processing. 

You know, in the two short months that still has been the longest that I’ve spent in my country since getting a green card, I got the sense that my ideas didn’t fit in El Salvador. 

Maria Hinojosa: I’m wondering how you see that, the fact that you know what, “es que ya no quepo,” even though I’m a product of this place and it produced me, because there are poets, so many poets from El Salvador, the political reality of this place is so different than what I knew of in the 80s and then what you grew up with.

Javier Zamora: I think it is and it isn’t. I think it goes back historically. My country is a country that hasn’t had one genocide, but multiple. The very first one was in 1832, and literally a hundred years later, in a different part of the country, the Indigenous and Black part of the country, there was another genocide in 1932. And fast forward, we’re about to approach 2032, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we are a very small country, a country of, at the time in the 80s I think it was only 5 million people.

And how I like to put it, is that the left was asking for a lot of things. And one of the things that came out of the war was something closer to gender equality. And now fast forward to the year 2023, in which my country still has one of the highest femicide rates in the entire world. We’re still very, and I can say this, backwards regarding sexuality.You know, we’re not pro LGBTQ+. 

So these are ideas, that I have had the privilege of going to a university in the United States, in which, in a sad way, I have understood and learned humanity, and it is not my people’s fault in El Salvador. But I think the loss of life has been so rampant, that we don’t value life.

And I don’t think it’s only a problem of El Salvador. I think we’re seeing it all over Latin America. And what I’m really talking about is colonization and also U.S. Imperialism. And we have internalized that, and we have taken it out on our home populations which is why the home populations migrate. 

I do consider myself Salvadoran and I do miss and I am a part of El Salvador, which doesn’t mean that I can’t critique it. I very much love it, and I very much would like my country to be a country in  which I feel completely myself. 

Maria Hinojosa: Let’s talk for a moment about the book, “Solito.” Your book, you write it as a nine-year-old. And I think this is why it became the New York Times bestseller that it did. Because you didn’t say, I’m Javier Zamora, the poet, and I’m going to tell you what it was like. You were like, I am the nine-year-old boy. I am going to tell you exactly what I’m feeling the first time I had to use a toilet, because, as you said, you’re from “el campo,” right? What did you do to get to that place of being able to write like that nine-year-old? 

Javier Zamora: In the second meeting that I ever had with my therapist, who is an immigrant from the DR, she mentioned something along the lines of what would it look like if you stepped in the shoes of this nine-year-old kid?

And by that point, she knew from my first session that I was a writer and then her next sentence was: “What would it look like if you wrote from the perspective of this nine-year-old kid?” 

I was already attempting to write “Solito” and like you mentioned earlier, “Solito” was gonna be a memoir told from my 29-year-old self at Harvard, trying to convince people to care about the hardest eight weeks of my life.

And I’m a sincere believer of this, that it is so easy for people to dismiss adults, especially if they are of color, and especially if they are men of color, that in a way, what Caro told me, my therapist told me, it acts almost like a trick. Now, it’s not an adult telling you this story, it is a nine-year-old boy.

So, if you don’t listen to this boy, you’re gonna look like not a nice person. Whereas, if you were to not listen to an adult. Everybody does that every single day. 

Maria Hinojosa: One of the things that you break open for us, and of course, this is 1999 when you do this travel, and as a Mexican immigrant, this for me is particularly heartbreaking. The way you felt being treated by other Mexicans traveling north. As a little boy, brown, “campesino,” and the fact that Mexicans, “mi gente,” would insult you, call you “mojado,” which is the slur wetback. 

There’s the conversation that you want to have about, please don’t be mistaken, there are divisions among Latinos and, in this case, Latin Americans. Why is it important for you to say, yeah, we’re going to talk about these divisions? 

Javier Zamora: As a non-Mexican, you know, all of us have to get through Mexico to make it here. And once we make it here, in my opinion, there’s a lot of emphasis at the U.S.-Mexico border. And there’s a lot of discussion of the amount of people that die at the literal border.

Every year, it keeps getting higher and higher, of the non-Mexicans and Mexicans themselves, that die within Mexico, trying to make it to the United States at the hands of either cartels, or the authorities themselves. And so knowing that as an adult and feeling that as a nine-year-old child, this, for lack of a better term, this racism, this xenophobia towards immigrants, is not that dissimilar to the xenophobia that white Americans or U.S. citizens have towards immigrants. 

U.S. citizens are finally beginning to accept that Latinos are not one umbrella term. And I think also Latinos ourselves, don’t want to do the hard work of acknowledging that we are not a race. We are an ethnicity made up of a lot of things. And some of us present very White, and some of us present Indigenous, some of us present Black. 

And we have to have those hard conversations, because a lot of the racism that I have heard is from within my own family, you know? And we have to tell our parents, our tíos, our siblings that, “Hey, don’t say that, let’s be better.”

And the only context that we have to fall back on is our nation-state. So yeah, you mentioned, “Oh, Mexicans against Guatemalans and Salvadorans,” but it’s precisely the nation-state that is at fault here. 

Maria Hinojosa: So, Javier, you dedicate your book to Patricia, Carla, “Chino,” and all the migrants you met along the way.

These are people who actually traveled with you, strangers who sometimes helped you. And you know, in many ways, now we’ve seen that in the U.S. media these kinds of people are categorized as human smugglers, as “traficantes,” as dangerous people. But as we know, and as your book shows, it’s a much more complicated story than that.

Why was it important for you to write about them and to dedicate your book to Patricia, Carla and “Chino”? 

Javier Zamora: I owe my life to Patricia, Carla and “Chino.” I wouldn’t be here without them. And for 20 years, from ages of nine to 29, when I started writing this book, I was doing the thing that survivors do, is that I tried my hardest not to remember my trip —but in particularly these three  individuals, because the moment I allowed myself to even remember their names, I was going to accept that everything that happened to me, actually occurred.

And that, again, as a Latino man would make me cry and in this society, we are not allowed to cry. And so instead of crying, I went to anger. And so I was a very angry person. And so it has taken me 20 years to really allow myself to remember them, to fill them up with their own lives and their actions, which helped me survive. And I… my biggest fear was that I wasn’t going to do them justice, that I wasn’t going to get people to care, not about me, but about them. Because I haven’t seen them since June 11th of 1999. And I love that if you google my book, the first question is, “Has Javier been reunited with Patricia Carla and ‘Chino’?” And the answer is no. 

And I have gotten so many offers by journalists, people have given me pro bono offers to search for them, but I’ve turned them down, because I’m also reminded that what I am writing is very difficult and I’m talking about trauma. And as a nine-year-old kid, I remember things differently than 19-year-old “Chino,” than 30-year-old Patricia, than 12-year-old Carla. Their story would read a lot different than mine. And so I can understand —if they know that I wrote this book and if they are alive, and if they are in this country— I can understand why they haven’t reached out. It is on their terms, not mine. 

(MUSIC)

Maria Hinojosa: Coming up on Latino USA, I continue my conversation with Javier Zamora. He talks about what he hopes the role of poets and writers should be in these turbulent times. Stay with us. ¡No te vayas! 

Hey, we’re back. We’re going to continue the conversation now with Salvadoran poet and author Javier Zamora. 

Your personal decision to actually step away from the places where you’ve lived, like in California, New York City, in Cambridge, at Harvard or at Stanford. You made the decision to actually go to Tucson, Arizona, just north of the desert, where you crossed into the United States.

You’ve not only gone back to that place, you’re actually working at Salvavision, which is a non-profit organization, working on the ground, with asylum seekers, migrants, travelers, returnees, just like you. So, talk to me about the decision to go there. 

Javier Zamora: I wouldn’t call it working, I volunteer. My job now is just to be a writer. So whenever I have time, I volunteer with Salvavision. Sometimes I go across the border to work at the Kino Initiative, which is an “albergue,” a similar “albergue” that gave me food back in 1999. And so, having lived in New York City, having lived in San Francisco, having lived in Boston, I think it is easy to forget that people are still coming across the border, even for myself, a person that came across the border and almost died in the desert. 

And so as a survivor of immigration, I think it was important for me to be in the literal landscape in the Sonoran desert that almost took my life in order to begin to build happier memories.

I moved there with the intention of only being there two months, my wife and I, in 2020, and we have no plans of leaving. And we don’t want to leave because whenever you go to the Tucson airport and you see somebody with a yellow envelope, that means that’s an immigrant who has just gotten refugee status and they’re taking the first flight of their lives.

And you get to witness that, whether you want to acknowledge what is happening or not. But there are so many immigrants at the airport. And that is something that I haven’t seen as much in other airports. So immigration is always there. Like, I don’t ever want to forget. And I did trick myself into forgetting. But now I’m not allowed that privilege. Immigration is all around me. That landscape that almost took my life, is where I live. And so for me, it is very important to stay there, as long as I can. 

(MUSIC.)

Maria Hinojosa: Last summer, you published an op-ed at the LA Times. You were calling out the Pulitzer Prizes because of their restrictions in their submission process because they don’t accept authors who are not U.S. citizens. And the Pulitzers had reached out to you asking you to be a judge in the competition. And that’s when you found out that, actually, you wouldn’t even be able to compete for the Pulitzer Prize. 

So you wrote that op-ed, you started a petition asking, in general, the writing community to demand that the Pulitzers change their position on this. And Javier, you know, when you asked me to sign that petition, you know, it took me a moment because I wasn’t born in this country. I am a citizen now, and I did win a Pulitzer. And I didn’t think that, frankly, that that even mattered when judging my work. 

With that petition, I have to say, Javier, I did something that I never do. And that’s that I added my name. In this case, I am public about it, but I was very moved by what you were saying and doing, because you decided to take action, and essentially call them out, not just writing the op-ed, but actually starting this petition and rallying support.

So why was it important for you to do that? And in the end, what’s changed? 

Javier Zamora: First of all, thank you for signing the petition and spreading the word. It takes a lot to make it to the table of power and remember that you weren’t there before. And in my opinion, a lot of people forget once they’re allowed into the power room, if we want to call it that.

And for me, it is always important to just speak the truth, you know, if there’s anything that my parents taught me is that writers should be at the vanguard of change. We are the dreamers of the future. We are the dreamers of a present that we don’t have, of rights that we don’t enjoy. That is our duty, at least in Latin America. At least in El Salvador, that’s how it is. That’s how it was. 

And I don’t know, I’m going to sound like, I don’t know, I don’t care about awards. I care that everybody is considered because I am a believer in equality across everything. What awards do is this weird thing that they take people and compare them to each other and when you compare writers and then you leave other writers out, that doesn’t make sense to me.

And so, as an immigrant, somebody who is not a citizen, it is very clear for me to call out stupidity, and it is stupid to hold people accountable because they weren’t born in the United States or because they haven’t pledged allegiance to the flag. That doesn’t make sense. And if you’re really about the art, if you’re really about the writing, then include everybody.

And I saw calling out the Pulitzer that was founded by an immigrant, you know, Pulitzer was an immigrant, I think from Hungary. 

Maria Hinojosa: Full circle. 

Javier Zamora: Yes, to call that out, but not only for writers and writing sake. I think this is a moment. To show the rest of the United States and the world, because we are in the empire, that if something happens here, it shows the rest of the world that it can happen there as well.

It shows the world that birthright doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. That we are all about humans for who they are. There is and should be freedom of mobility. That should be a human right, that it is, but these “developed countries,” these “first world countries,” have forgotten. 

And that to bring it full circle with awards and once you get a position of power, don’t be a white man about it, you know, white people left Britain and they said, “Oh, I can immigrate and I can come here.” But once they get here and they get wealth, they’re like, “Now I’m closing the door. Nobody else can come in behind me.” Don’t be like that. 

Maria Hinojosa: It’s kind of like, wait, you’re not that insecure, right? You’re not that insecure. 

So what ended up happening because of your work on pushing the Pulitzer Prizes, what they said is that they expanded their eligibility to include permanent residents and “those who have made the U.S. their long-time primary home.” So they have fallen short of openly saying that they’ll accept submissions from undocumented authors. Are you satisfied? No. So what do you want the Pulitzers to do now? 

Javier Zamora: Just to say that it doesn’t matter. There are ITIN numbers if they’re so worried about taxes. 

Maria Hinojosa: Individual Tax Identification Number. It’s a way in which you can pay taxes without being a citizen or a resident of the United States. It’s basically saying, “I’m here undocumented. I’m giving you my address and I’m giving you my taxes.” 

So, Javier, I could not do this interview without talking about, de nuevo, Central America, the region that birthed you, right? And for those of us who were learning about El Salvador in the 80s, we were learning and reading the poets, the great revolutionary poets of Central America, like Roque Dalton or Amada Libertad. En Nicaragua, Gioconda Belli, Claribel Alegría. And these are poets that we understood were power brokers. They understood that they wanted to change the world into a just place. I’m wondering about this tradition of, frankly, revolutionary “poetas de tu país, de la región.”

How you understand that experience? Because you are, in fact, a poet in the U.S. 

Javier Zamora: I mean, I was born in El Salvador.

Maria Hinojosa: But the activism that you’re doing now is here, but absolutely. Yes. 

Javier Zamora: You know, in my country, there’s “La Generación Comprometida” of 1935, Manuel Huerta, Roque Dalton, Claribel Alegría, all those people. And I think in the time that my parents grew up, which is the 70s and 80s, everybody knew those writers. And we come from a small, but rich, literary country, in which my parents have memorized poems, not any poems, but radical poems. And even though I emigrated, and even though most of my life I spent in the United States, those are my roots. Those are the things that I heard from my parents.

A writer, how I’ve understood it, and how I’ve always understood it, a writer should speak truth to power, should always imagine a better and brighter future.

And it is not ironic that, like all immigrants, I had my assimilation phase, in which I tried to reject all things Latin America and all things Salvadoran. But what took me out of that phase was Ernesto Che Guevara. And ironically, it was the “Motorcycle Diaries,” and it was around the time that the movie came out too.

And in that book, I learned that there is a richer, larger history to us and our continent than the history that gets taught by the winners —mostly white men. Not only Americans, but there’s a lot of white men that have been running our Latin American countries for far too long.

And so, if that is my foundation, if I have the privilege to live a long time, I want to continue to speak for myself and who I am, as a kid from a very small and often forgotten coastal village that only had one asphalted road, and that road was built because we grew cotton and we grew sugarcane and we still grow sugarcane, ironically now for the Bacardi company.

And so we have to be more than just a place where people extract resources from us. We should be the brightness and the precious stones and like gems as human beings. And we should be considered as important as our resources.

Maria Hinojosa: I love poets because you believe that with your words, the few of them, not about length, but about the power of putting words together, and how this can really change lives, change the world. And it’s also a way in which you help us to process an increasingly violent world all around us. I’m thinking where you’re from, El Salvador, the history, the profound violence.

And more recently, what you’ve been talking about in terms of Palestine, your calls for justice, for calling what’s happening in Palestine a genocide. I wonder if you can help us understand what is the role of poetry in processing the world that we’re living through right now? 

Javier Zamora: I just go back to a Palestinian poet who was taken by the IDF and was released on November 21st, a few days after capture.

News reporter: “We begin today’s show with the celebrated Palestinian poet, Mosab Abu Toha, who was recently jailed and beaten by Israeli forces. He was detained at a checkpoint in Gaza as he was headed toward Rafah with his family.” 

Javier Zamora: He’s just one of thousands of Palestinian prisoners that Israel jails, not only because of October 7th, but it’s a common practice by the Israeli state. Outside of the United States and outside of the “developed world,” everywhere in the Global South, poets, writers, are doing the thing that I want poets to do in the United States, not that there aren’t and poets like that don’t exist within the United States, but more should.

And it is very telling that the IDF, with nuclear weapons, is afraid of poets, of doctors, of writers, of thinkers, of philosophers, because you cannot kill an idea, you cannot kill the want and the yearning for true freedom, for true liberation. And so once they begin to do that —and they meaning the people in power, the cowards in power— that means that they have already lost and everybody should remember what began to occur to some, on October 7th, but to most of us from the Global South, we understand that this conflict didn’t begin on October 7th because we have lived similar conflicts where we come from. 

It’s always violence. There is always violence all around the world, and it’s at the hands of those in power. And as a writer, we can begin to call that out and to say stop and never again, and to truly mean those words, and to say that we don’t stand for violence. One life doesn’t matter more than the other. To turn it back towards me again, as a previously undocumented person in the United States, as a nine year old border crosser, a lot of politicians and even presidents have told me that my life doesn’t matter as much as somebody who was born in this country.

And you internalize that, and you begin to believe it. And I want others to never believe other people ever again, because our lives matter equally. And I don’t want other little “Javiercitos” to suffer because somebody like me didn’t speak out. And it’s our duty to speak out. 

Maria Hinojosa: And Javiercitas. 

Javier Zamora: Y Javiercitas también. 

Javiercitos. Javiercitas. And Javiercites. 

Maria Hinojosa: I’m glad that we’re laughing for one quick moment, Javier, because I actually want to end the interview thinking about joy. 

I mean, as a poet, you cannot live without joy. So I want to ask you, what do you do to find joy? 

Javier Zamora: Nature, you know, I grew up in a beautiful, beautiful country.

You know, I like to tell people that, when I couldn’t go back to El Salvador, I would watch “Planet Earth.” I would watch it like in college or like whenever it came out. I think I even bought the DVDs. And watching those DVDs, I had believed that things like that didn’t exist. In my country, where I was from, and I remember there’s this fish that walks across, like it can walk on land and go back to another stream.

And the first time that I went back in 2018, I took a boat ride and low and behold, we have those freaking fish in my coastal town and we have our Akaris. We have our national bird is a “torogoz,” it’s called a “motmot,” and it’s the most beautiful bird. We have anteaters, we used to have “perezosos,” sloths. And so, this is the world that I grew up in without a color TV, because I didn’t have a color TV until I was six.

I had black and white TV, so…

Maria Hinojosa: You had the nature TV for real. 

Javier Zamora: So I had nature TV and it was in nature, and my backyard where brightness and colors occurred. 

Maria Hinojosa: Wow. 

Javier Zamora: And that has stayed with me. If you read the book, you know, that is my coping mechanism. And it became a coping mechanism in the eight weeks that it took me to make it to this country and it has stayed with me. And I am so happy that it has stayed with me because I’m always that person that is looking up at the trees, looking for a particular bird.

Maria Hinojosa: Javier, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I really appreciate it. I’m so glad that you are in the world. I’m so glad that you made it to the United States, and I just wanna say thank you, ¡Muchas gracias! 

Javier Zamora: No, gracias a usted. 

That was Javier Zamora, award-winning and bestselling author of the poetry collection “Unaccompanied” and the memoir “Solito.”

This episode was produced by Victoria Estrada. It was edited by Marta Martínez and mixed by Julia Caruso. The Latino USA team includes Reynaldo Leaños Jr., Andrea López-Cruzado, Glorimar Márquez, Mike Sargent, Nour Saudi, and Nancy Trujillo. Peniley Ramírez is our co-executive producer. Our director of engineering is Stephanie Lebow. Our marketing manager is Luis Luna. Our theme music was composed by Xenia Rubinos. 

I’m your host and executive producer, Maria Hinojosa. Join us again on our next episode. In the meantime, look for us on all of your social media. I’ll see you there. And remember, ¡No te vayas! Bye.

Latino USA is made possible in part by The Heising-Simons Foundation, unlocking knowledge, opportunity, and possibilities. More at hsfoundation.org. Michelle Mercer and Bruce Golden and Agnes Gund.

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