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A migrant child’s long journey to Gringolandia

Border Patrol agents process families who crossed into the United States from Mexico on June 24 in Yuma, Ariz. More than 20 years ago, 9-year-old Javier Zamora undertook a similar journey, traveling with a smuggler from El Salvador to America. (Eric Thayer for The Washington Post)
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In the spring of 1999, when Javier Zamora was 9 years old, he left his home village in El Salvador. His family had hired a coyote, a smuggler, to help him cross the southern border of the United States illegally and join his parents, who were living in California. “Gringolandia,” he writes as he approaches his destination. “The country of the movies, popcorn, pizza for school lunches, snowball fights, swimming pools, Toys ‘R’ Us, and McDonald’s.”

Twenty-three years later the pull of “Gringolandia” remains as strong as ever. Thousands of families, many with young children like Javier, are pouring across the same border, triggering a humanitarian crisis — and a political opportunity. Republican governors in Florida and Texas have seized that opening, sending buses and planes full of migrants to northern cities, including Washington, hoping to highlight an issue that plays well with their party base. It is all a stunt, a cynical exploitation of well-meaning and long-suffering families, but it does raise the question: Who are these people? Why do they come to Gringolandia, and what has their journey been like?

Zamora’s timely memoir helps provide some answers. A trip that was supposed to take two weeks stretched into nine as young Javier rode in buses and boats, trudged through deserts, and hid in terror from La Migra, the dreaded Border Patrol, which seized him the first time he crossed La Linea and returned him to Mexico. He finally reached his goal, rejoined his parents and eventually became a distinguished poet, publishing his first volume, “Unaccompanied,” five years ago.

This memoir, “Solito,” which means “alone” in Spanish, recounts in gripping and graphic detail his boyhood travels to Gringolandia, that mythic land of big dreams and Big Macs. But it is more than a story about immigration, it is a coming-of-age tale about a 9-year-old whose journey toward maturity — another mythic land — was compressed into one season.

His story starts in the rural hamlet of La Herradura, where he lives with his grandparents and assorted relatives. It’s a common theme, as many working-age parents were fleeing the dangerous strife and deadening poverty of El Salvador, leaving the young and the old behind. “For most of us, grandparents are the ones who show up for Mother’s and Father’s Day assemblies,” Zamora writes. His father left when he was 1, his mother when he was 5, and he encounters them only as disembodied voices on the telephone, which his family doesn’t even own. Javier has to walk to the local baker’s house to take their calls, which evoke yet more myths. “I’ve never met my dad — or I have, but I don’t remember him,” the author explains. Of his mother he writes: “I try to remember what Mamá Pati smells like, but I forget. It’s what I’m excited for when I see her again, to relearn her smells.”

No matter how driven an immigrant is to leave home, departure is always painful, and so it is for young Javier: “My parents I’ll see soon. But Mali, Abuelita, Lupe, Julia, my toys, my dog, my parakeet, my classmates, the cat, I won’t see them anytime soon.” And he is so young, and so unprepared for the journey. “I don’t like using toilets, I’m scared I’m gonna get flushed down them,” he admits. And he has to wear shoes with Velcro straps: “I don’t know how to tie my shoes properly . . . Grandpa tried to teach me . . . but I haven’t completely learned.”

Zamora writes with economy and eloquence, and his narrative connects the reader directly to the tastes and terrors, smells and stresses of life on the run from the law. After a perilous ride in a small boat to enter Mexico from the south, he describes the lingering stench from the engines: “I got the salt out, but not this. Gasoline in my hair, inside my fingernails, between my legs, in my shirt, my pants, my underwear. Or maybe the smell is trapped in my nose, on my tongue.”

After he and his friends, Chino and Patricia, are arrested and thrown into a van, he writes: “Chino keeps trying to open the door. Kicks the seat in front of him. Kicks the metal divider. Kicks the door. He’s a rabid dog. The entire car shakes.” Patricia screams, “Ay, no. Ay, no.” And Javier adds, “I want to cry, but nothing comes out.”

Later their group is locked up, and he writes: “I’m in a zoo. A cage. I’m a monkey with at least twenty-one other monkeys. Everyone wears a long face. No one smiles.”

Through it all, young Javier grows up, and quickly. After some older companions give him his first cigarette, he writes, “I started coughing and couldn’t stop. Marcelo hit me hard in the back to let the smoke out, saying, ‘You’re a man now.’” Once he recovers, “I do feel older. Like the smoke gave me courage to get on that boat. To not cry. To not vomit. To be here now in another country without Grandpa.” At one stop, after a coyote shows him where they’ll rest for a few days, Javier writes: “A-par-ta men-to. I only know that word from movies and from that show Friends. Another thing I’ve never done. It’s a running checklist: Stay at a motel. Check. Use a fancy bathroom. Check. Shower with a showerhead. Check. Sleep in a two-story building. Check. Three-story building. Check. Stay in an apartamento. Check.”

When Zamora finally greets his parents, you’ll find yourself cheering, but this compelling story has some minor flaws. It’s too long, and it contains many Spanish phrases that are never translated. Some readers who don’t know the language may not fully grasp the tone and texture of the narrative. More seriously, Zamora never explains how this book came about. He was 9 when the story occurred, so presumably he didn’t take notes, and 23 years later he has produced an exceptionally detailed account. He thanks the “massive help” he got from his therapist and makes a vague reference to revisiting “the places, the people, and the events that shaped me.” But he owes his readers more information. Is this really a memoir? Or is it more like a novel, inspired by real events but leavened by imagination?

Whatever it’s labeled, however, this is a valuable book. It puts a human face, a child’s face, on all those anonymous immigrants we only see on the news as pawns in a political game. And it reminds us, yet again, how immigrants like Javier Zamora enrich our culture, on so many days, in so many ways.

Steven V. Roberts, who teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University, is the author of “From Every End of This Earth: 13 Families and the New Lives They Made in America.”


A Memoir

By Javier Zamora

Hogarth. 384 pp. $28

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