Senior U.S. Advocate Yael Schacher and U.S. Domestic Policy intern Jenny Rodriguez interviewed poet Javier Zamora in February 2020 in advance of Refugees International’s “Voices from the Border” event about protections for unaccompanied minors and the impact of recent changes in policy toward them.
In 1999, when he was nine years old, Zamora traveled unaccompanied from El Salvador to the United States to reunite with his parents. Besides authoring the poetry collection Unaccompanied, Zamora is a co-founder of Undocupoets and is currently working on both a memoir and second collection of poems.
Yael: We are interested in talking with you about some poems in Unaccompanied but also to learn about your current projects, especially the “Immigration Headline” poems, and how they respond to recent events and policies.
Javier: I never expected writing Unaccompanied what was going to happen. That it was going to get so much media attention. Of course, I was always affected by the immigration issues it raises. Now everybody knows what TPS is, but growing up in the early 2000s, nobody did. Then, no one really understood or had a word for unaccompanied children who enter undocumented. Now the media is so obsessed, in fact too obsessed to the point that I don’t see it doing anything. It just seems we are so desensitized—I don’t see people really caring.
For the immigration headline project, I looked at every single headline and picture from the New York Times from April 2018 until April 2019. I used them, erased them, and came up with my own newspaper poems. What I think is always missing from articles is agency. The mic or pen is never given to an immigrant whose experiences it is.
I am also working on a memoir. Now I have a green card [EB-1]—because of the poetry!— something that I never expected. I can finally go back [to El Salvador] and retrace my migration. I am writing what is missing from the media and from my own poetry and from my own memory because of the trauma. My memoir is in the voice of a young child: the child telling the story of migration as it is happening. It deals with the day that I left and ends when I see my parents. The hope is that the reader will experience it as a 9-year-old kid.
Yael: Are the “Immigration Headline” poems based on true stories of immigrants?
Javier: The “Immigration Headline” poems are not personal in the way the poems in Unaccompanied are. The poem set in my town in El Salvador but is based on a story that a Polish immigrant tells in a documentary. I don’t want the reader to know that. One is from one story in the New York Times that I wanted to humanize. In the creative process I want to say we are all immigrants—without doing that it in a hokey way. There is rarely an “I” in journalistic work—I am trying to show that this is how it could be.
Yael: We wanted to ask you about the opening poem in Unaccompanied. The imagery in “Saguaros” is very powerful and helps convey both the experience of migrating and the memory of that experience.
Javier: In Unaccompanied, there are poems about family and poems about me being in El Salvador and about the war that I didn’t experience. Those were easier poems to write. Harder to write were poems about my trauma at crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Those have a lot of versions because it was harder for me to remember and turn it into a poem. I don’t know if I made the Saguaro up because, having visited the border years later, it seems that where I successfully crossed there are no saguaros. Maybe it was a smaller cactus we cut open or maybe I crossed further west. I like this because it shows that, in trauma, you misremember, and also is a reminder that there are so many possible migration corridors.
Yael: Can you speak about how your family was affected by separation through migration?
Javier: After the war, family separation added to the trauma of everything that people experienced. In my country, ages 9 to 25 are the most dangerous, and kids are fleeing. There was never a plan to deal with the resentment of these kids at being left behind by parents who migrated [and who cannot legally bring their children to the United States.] The money [remittances] that they send back, that’s not love.
Jenny: One recurring person in Unaccompanied is your grandmother, about leaving her behind and the violence she suffered, and about her not wanting to leave her house. Can you talk about this?
Javier: I think my grandma is the saddest figure and the worst receiver of the collateral damage of the war and immigration in its aftermath. She culturally expected one of her daughters or granddaughters to stay and be with her [and her husband]. But nobody did.
My grandpa never processed his trauma from the war, and he took it all out on my grandma, and none of us were ever there to shield her. My mom left because of my grandfather’s drinking and violence. My youngest aunt also left both because of my grandpa and domestic violence in her own marriage; her husband was a part of one of the bloodiest battalions during the war.
Years of verbal and physical abuse have left my grandmother fragile. And none of us were there or could visit for years. I believe this is why she has yet to leave the house.
Recently, I’ve gone back three times to see when she’ll leave but she doesn’t, and I think it’s because she’s ashamed that none of us stayed. She’s ashamed of what people will say about her. She used to be someone that dressed up to the nines and do her makeup and now she has matted hair. She’s the figure and the embodiment of immigration. She’s staying put. But immigration is taking life away from her.
Jenny: What would you say to current unaccompanied minor children that are having trouble processing their trauma or looking at outlets to process their trauma.
Javier: Be open to counseling, therapy. I didn’t believe in therapy like most Latino families that don’t believe in therapy. I thought writing a book about my [trauma] would fix it, but it follows you for the rest of your life. It’s like a shadow and you can never fix it, never hide it, it’s still going to enact itself in different ways. Understanding that is the hardest part but once you understand it, you’re more open to finding ways to deal with it.
Yael: Is there anything else that you want to convey, that we make sure to focus on in this contemporary moment?
Javier: Just convey that this is not a recent thing, unaccompanied children have been coming here [for a while]—I came in 1999. (I think Central American kids are missing from statistics from back then, when they told border patrol agents they were Mexican so that they wouldn’t be deported home.). How the U.S. handles this issue—it goes way back and will remain a problem regardless of who gets elected President. We need to continue to pay attention to the treatment of immigrant kids in the U.S. —in Arizona detention centers there are so many fences—and also hold Central American governments accountable. In the U.S. we focus so much on what the U.S. does. The real iceberg is Mexico because a lot of Central Americans are being abused and dying migrating through Mexico. The trauma I experienced coming up here was worst within Mexico.