U.S. Border Wall at Nogales, Mexico
My Poetry Corner October 2017 features the poem “Let Me Try Again” by Javier Zamora, an immigrant Salvadoran poet and educator who lives in Northern California. Born in 1990 in a small fishing town in El Salvador, he was a year old when his eighteen-year-old father fled the Civil War (1980-1992). Four years later, his mother joined his father, leaving him with his grandparents. At nine years old, unaccompanied by a family member and under the charge of other undocumented immigrants, ‘Javiercito’ made the treacherous journey to reunite with his parents in the United States.
In “The Shatter of Birds,” dedicated to Abuelita (granny), Zamora recalls her pain at losing him.
Javiercito, you’re leaving me tomorrow
when our tortilla-and-milk breaths will whisper
te amo. When I’ll pray the sun won’t devour
your northbound steps. I’m giving you this conch
swallowed with this delta’s waves
and the sound of sand absorbing.
There’s no autumn here. When you mist
into tomorrow’s dawns, at the shore
of somewhere, listen to this conch.
Don’t lose me.
Zamora’s abuelos (grandparents) warn him not tell anyone of his departure. In “Kite Flying,” his elation overrides their fears.
I’m going to see my parents.
(I’m going to see my parents!)
On the last day of school, I’ll tell
only my closest friends I’m flying
to where people drink cold milk
and put strawberries in their cereal,
I’ll eat strawberries all the time
and get so tall I’ll start playing basketball.
In addition to letters and phone calls, Zamoro and his parents kept in touch by exchanging cassette-tapes. Listening to their tapes brought heartbreak. His poem “Cassette-tape” recreates the disjointedness of time and his trauma in crossing into Mexico without them. For two months, he lost touch with them.
To cross México we’re packed in boats
20 aboard, 18 hours straight to Oaxaca.
Throw up and gasoline keep us up. At 5 a.m.
we get to shore, we run to the trucks, cops
rob us down the road—without handcuffs,
our guide gets in their Fords and we know
it’s all been planned. Not one peso left
so we get desperate—Diosito, forgive us
for hiding in trailers. We sleep in Nogales till
our third try when finally, I meet Papá Javi.
In the featured poem, “Let Me Try Again,” Zamora relives their first failed attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. By then, their numbers had dwindled. In the desert, even the animals struggle to survive.
I could bore you with the sunset, the way
water tasted after so many days without it,
the trees, the breed of dogs, but I can’t
say there were forty people when we found
the ranch with the thin white man, his dogs,
and his shotgun. Until this 5 a.m., I hadn’t
or couldn’t remember there were only five,
or seven, people—
not forty. We’d separated by the palo verdes.
We meaning: an eighteen-year-old ex-gangster,
a mom with her thirteen-year-old, and me.
Four people. Not forty. The rest . . . the rest,
I don’t know. They weren’t there when
the thin white man let us drink from a hose
while pointing his shotgun. In Spanish
he told us if run away, dogs trained attack.
In high school, after a visiting poet introduced him to the work of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Zamora found release from his traumatic memories in poetry. By the age of twenty-one, he knew he wanted to be a poet. On completing his BA in history at the University of California, Berkeley, he pursued an MFA at the New York University. A Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University soon followed.
Zamora’s first poetry collection, Unaccompanied, was published this October amid uncertainty about his fate as an alien with Temporary Protected Status which comes up for renewal in 2018. Like the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) “Dreamers,” his future rests in the hands of President Trump.
His status makes it difficult to visit his native land. “It’s traumatic to talk to those left behind,” he confesses in an essay published in Granta Online Edition, December 2016. “It’s a burden to communicate over the phone. To write. To text. To Facebook message.”
In his poem “El Salvador,” the young poet speaks of the violence that never ended and of his longing to see his grandmother again.
but if I don’t brush Abuelita’s hair, wash her pots and pans,
I cry. Like tonight, when I wish you made it
easier to love you, Salvador. Make it easier
to never have to risk our lives.
To read the complete featured poem and learn more about Javier Zamora, his work, and honors, go to my Poetry Corner October 2017.