Javier Zamora, a Salvadoran-American poet who lived for most of his life sin papeles, doesn’t care too much for labels. Or borders for that matter.
Born in El Salvador and educated at UC Berkeley, Zamora immigrated to the U.S. when he was only 9 years old. Since then, his literary success has earned him new titles—immigrant activist, hero of the American Dream, and very recently, with his new EB-1 visa, a person with “an extraordinary ability.”
But Zamora, who knows what it means to be undocumented and unwelcome, has had to reckon with his own buried past.
In 1999, he said goodbye to his home in La Herradura, El Salvador. His parents had fled to California several years before, so he made the trip unaccompanied—save for a small group of immigrants and a “coyote.” The journey through Guatemala, into Mexico, and across the Sonoran Desert to Arizona, should have taken two weeks. Two months and many hardships later, on June 10, 1999, Zamora crossed the Mexico–U.S. border and reunited with his parents.
He struggled with his new life in the Bay Area, and with anger he didn’t understand. The “brown kid [among] the white kids,” as he described himself, Zamora rebelled in school, and was nearly expelled. During his senior year of high school, a guest lecturer introduced him to the poetry of Pablo Neruda. It was the first time he’d seen Spanish and English on the page together, and as he told The New Yorker, “A light bulb went off.”
Writing poetry became a place to confront his demons and, as he tells it, begin his “healing work.” At Cal, he continued writing and earned a degree in history before moving to NYU to complete his MFA in poetry. Just last September, Copper Canyon Press published his first full collection of poems, Unaccompanied, which confronts, in his characteristic frankness, the trauma of his 4,000-mile trek to the United States.
Zamora, whose work has received international recognition, will be a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard this fall. Before leaving, he sat down with us to talk about his poetry, his recent trip to El Salvador, and his skepticism about the American Dream.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
California Magazine: Your poetry is mostly in English with some Spanish words. Is that the way you think?
Javier Zamora: The words that I choose to leave in Spanish are just how I talk and think. They’re almost untranslatable words because they don’t sound as cool or as good in English as they do in Spanish. There’s also a lot of sincerity and honesty in leaving those words on the page surrounded by English. And to me it also feels like how it feels to be a Spanish speaker in the United States. It feels isolated and it feels different, and there’s also a bit of resistance.
The whole language thing is also interesting because I came here when I was 9. I started writing when I was 17. And I was very conscious of when I was going to turn 18 because that was the age when I was going to be physically more “American than Salvadoran” because I had spent more time here.
CM: Do you think national identity is something we overemphasize?
JZ: Absolutely. I think nationalism is a huge problem. I think being an immigrant you really feel that. Even in El Salvador, we’re overly patriotic and nationalistic. I didn’t see this so much, but there’s a certain looking down upon that Salvadorans do when children are born in the United States. It’s like they don’t consider them fully Salvadoran. Americans do that here, too. I don’t think it’s an American or Salvadoran thing, it’s just a byproduct of nationalism, that by defining a nation, you have to exclude other people. That is the problem of our century, and of immigration, because immigrants are counter to the idea of the nation-state.
CM: You just got back from your first trip to El Salvador in almost 20 years. How did expectations compare with reality?
JZ: It was not the El Salvador that I had left. Everything had changed. I already knew this, but it’s something completely different to experience. I read a lot of memoirs of people who go back, people who were exiled, and they always have this moment of feeling smaller. That certainly happened to me because I left when I was small. Going back now when I’m 28—everything looked so much smaller.
I’ve never felt unsafe in the United States. I felt unsafe in El Salvador. I was woken up by gunshots. They killed four people while I was there. I got to experience and better understand why people are leaving. I know they’re going to continue to leave because that is not a safe country.
CM: I’d like to ask you about this incredible EB-1 visa. How did you find out about it? And what did you have to do to meet the qualifications?
JZ: This firm in L.A., they specialize in these visas, emailed me asking if they could help out. They charged me a much smaller rate. The visa—they have like ten criteria, and you have to meet three of those requirements. Some of those requirements are whether you have won an award of national or international acclaim.
I ended up meeting seven of the ten requirements. Immigration actually turned me down the first time. But then we rebutted, and we were approved.
CM: What does having this visa mean for you?
JZ: It means the possibility to travel outside of the U.S. and to eventually have the right to vote. I’ve never voted in my life. With the green card, in five years I could apply to be a U.S. citizen. And I can finally vote. So that next goal is to finally have a political voice.
CM: You’ve been criticized for not representing the American Dream as a sort of glorified journey. How do you respond to that?
JZ: I’ve been told that I could be the cookie-cutter image of the American Dream at work. And I think my résumé, or even getting this visa, would back that claim. I am wary of that label because it does not take into consideration the literal luck of why I got here or have gotten the things that I’ve gotten. And also the exceptionalism that occurs in my case—that if I make it, there’s a lot of other people that haven’t.
I think that’s my problem with the “American Dream,” with the idea of exceptionalism. I think that’s been a thing forever, of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps—this idea that one person can do it, so why can’t everybody do it? It’s bullshit. It doesn’t take into account the different societal, economic, political factors that keep other people from achieving the same thing.
CM: In a recent interview, you said that you’re still traumatized from your past and that you always will be. Do you think it’s possible to ever heal?
JZ: I think that is part of healing—understanding that I’m never going to be able [to] erase what happened. This realization was a huge step for me; a step that needed to happen in order to continue to walk this road of healing that I’m now seeing is not finite. It’s like being an addict—you always have to know your background, keep it in the back of your mind because you can regress very easily.
CM: When did you realize that?
JZ: I thought that writing about my trauma was going to be the end of it. That once I wrote this thing out, literally, physically out of my body, that I could put it away on a bookshelf, and that was gonna be the end of it.
My book came out and I went back to Tucson [for five days]. Tucson is where the Sonoran Desert is. In those five days, I must have slept like five hours because my body felt re-traumatized. It was the climate, it was the helicopters, it was everything. I knew that there were people immigrating at that exact moment. And walking around downtown Tucson, in this very nice area, seeing people act as if nothing was happening, was repulsive. I couldn’t sleep. My body didn’t let me sleep. My physical reaction was a wake-up call. It was like, “Wow, the body remembers.”
“To Abuelita Neli”
This is my 14th time pressing roses in fake passports
for each year I haven’t climbed marañón trees. I’m sorry
I’ve lied about where I was born. Today, this country
chose its first black president. Maybe he changes things.
I’ve told Mom I don’t want to have to choose to get married.
You understand. Abuelita, I can’t go back and return.
There’s no path to papers. I’ve got nothing left but dreams
where I’m: the parakeet nest on the flor de fuego,
the paper boats we made when streets flooded,
or toys I buried by the foxtail ferns. ¿Do you know
the ferns I mean? The ones we planted the first birthday
without my parents. I’ll never be a citizen. I’ll never
scrub clothes with pumice stones over the big cement tub
under the almond trees. Last time you called, you said
my old friends think that now I’m from some town
between this bay and our estero. And that I’m a coconut:
brown on the outside, white inside. Abuelita, please
forgive me, but tell them they don’t know shit.
“To Abuelita Neli” from Unaccompanied, ©2017 Javier Zamora, reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press.