WTOP is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. All this month, discover stories from the diverse Latino communities in the D.C. region, here at WTOP.com and on air at WTOP-FM.
In 1999, Javier Zamora began his journey to the U.S. at 9 years old. The young boy from La Herradura, El Salvador, lived with his grandparents after his mother and father fled the country at different stages of his early childhood. His parents wanted to reunite with their son, but the journey was no easy feat.
His family paid for human smugglers — known as “coyotes” — to take Zamora over 3,000 miles through Guatemala, Mexico and the Sonora Desert to make it to the U.S. After nine weeks, the Salvadoran boy finally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on his third attempt and rejoined his family. Yet, going through the passage left a lasting impact.
In 2019, Zamora, now a poet and educator, began documenting his passage as a form of therapy, which, two years later, became his memoir “Solito.”
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At a discussion and book signing event in Arlington, Virginia, on Sept. 14, the now 33-year-old author and poet told WTOP that he is privileged to write his story and help someone going through similar suffering.
“My book is about love,” Zamora told WTOP. “It’s about a kid who loves his parents, and is a kid who really misses them. And there’s nothing that’s gonna stop him from achieving that goal.”
His 2022 memoir has been universally praised, becoming a New York Times Bestseller and a Read With Jenna Book Club pick on NBC’s ”Today Show.” The book also won the 2022 LA Times-Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose.
Receiving all the accolades is “powerful within itself,” Zamora said. His appearance at the Central Library in Arlington became a standing-room affair, exceeding the room’s 180-person capacity.
The book became possible after years of feeling “so bad” to be an immigrant in the U.S., Zamora said. His anger and disappointment were underscored by current events, including the election of former President Donald Trump, the court battle over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and rhetoric that he said painted immigrants in a negative light.
Zamora gained strength through education, receiving degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and New York University, and becoming a fellow at Stanford and Harvard. But it did not help his feeling of being an outcast.
At 28 years old, Zamora obtained his green card and found a therapist who went through a similar immigrant track. She asked Zamora to get to know his 9-year-old self and to “welcome and embrace those parts that will stay with you until the day you die.” This exploration motivated the Salvadoran to start writing his memories.
“This book was for me, and sadly, I saw a very similar story to a lot of people, millions of people in this nation,” Zamora said during the event. “But I ‘tricked the system’ and now, somehow, I get paid for healing, which is a huge privilege that I didn’t think was going to turn to this.”
Part of his therapeutic journey was returning to the Sonora Desert, where he recalled being picked up by immigration officials and sent to a detention center during one of his attempts at border crossing.
He remembered bonding with three other migrants, an older woman named Patricia; her daughter Carla; and a young man named Chino. They cared for Zamora and together they crossed over to the U.S. However, he never got to see them in person again.
“I wouldn’t be here if Patricia, Chino, and Carla, wouldn’t have chosen — because it was a choice — to help this 9-year-old out,” said Zamora. “I think in the process, they also learned that they could love that kid.”
For some, Zamora’s story is a guide to exploring their own family’s immigrant past, while for others, the book brought their own experiences to life in the form of literature.
Leida Cisneros, 24, attended the book signing and discussion. She said “Solito” brought her back to her own quest as a 7-year-old migrant from El Salvador coming to the U.S. The Arlington resident recommends anyone interested in learning about immigration to read Zamora’s book to understand the perspective of someone who had lived through the pain.
“I think that if you want a book that was written by someone that’s able to convey a message like this in such digestible pieces, then you’ll understand why there’s people like us activists fighting out there to speak for those that don’t have a voice,” Cisneros told WTOP.
Zamora said he was happy to be “a medium per se” for those looking to explore their families’ and their own immigrant history. When he was growing up, Zamora said there were no authors that spoke of the journey that he and others lived through, leaving him underrepresented. Now with his book and the growing number of Latino authors in literature today, “we have that choice,” he said.
“I think that there’s a beauty in the power of having to choose whether you want to read this book that everybody’s pushing on you or not,” Zamora said. “I think that gives me hope, and that to me signals that change is happening.”