In ‘Solito,’ a child’s harrowing solo migration is laid bare

Javier Zamora’s memoir follows a young child’s yearning to be with his parents in California as he makes the treacherous journey from El Salvador to the U.S. by himself.

 

In a fishing town in El Salvador, 9-year-old Javier Zamora lives with his grandparents. He enjoys gazing up at the stars with his Tía Mali and looking through photographs that show his parents’ lives in the United States. In one of them, his mom gazes at the camera, framed by the glimmering Golden Gate Bridge. At home, Javiercito helps his grandmother sell beverages like horchata and chan (a refreshing drink made from strawberry lemonade with chia seeds). He goes to a school where he’s taught by nuns, and once he even makes it to the national level of a grammar competition.

But his childhood has been shaped by the promise of the U.S., and now he must prepare to leave El Salvador for a long, difficult journey to reunite with his parents.

“I’m nine years old, but I can already jump the fence that separates our house from the neighbors’ pretty fast,” a young Zamora declares before he sets out. “And it’s made of barbwire.”

In heartbreaking detail, Javier Zamora’s Solito: A Memoir recounts the author’s unaccompanied journey to a new country, supported only by strangers and his steadfast determination to see his parents. Though Zamora left El Salvador decades ago, the present-day situation for immigrants is still dire; UNICEF USA reports that from March to November 2020, the U.S. deported approximately 13,000 children without parents or guardians back to Central America and Mexico. The BBC reports that in early May 2021, the U.S. was detaining approximately 22,500 unaccompanied children.

Solito traces Javiercito’s journey from the pre-planning stages to his official departure. Zamora puts us in the mind of his 9-year-old self with painstaking care. In a particularly touching scene, Javiercito invites his friends over to his home and gives them his finest toys, knowing he won’t be back any time soon. He knows he’s closing a chapter in his life; he is leaving in the hope of reaching the mythical land he daydreams about, a country he knows mostly through the photographs and toys his parents have sent him.  

Courtesy of Javier Zamora

“I never bring my newest ones out to play, not even when family visits. … From time to time, I slightly open the box so I can smell a little of La USA: a smell so new, fresh, like nothing that’s here.”

Javiercito longs for what he believes “La USA” holds. There, the “water comes out of silver faucets,” kids eat pizza for lunch in school and the streets are clean. He will finally be able to live with his parents in California; he dreams that this new home will include a pool and a white fence. He wonders if his parents sleep in a large, fluffy bed.

Zamora’s background as a poet (his debut collection Unaccompanied took on similar themes) comes through in his use of short, staccato sentences during the tense, terrifying moments that Javiercito recounts. Every step of his treacherous journey engages the reader’s senses; even the smells Javiercito encounters make him yearn for his grandparents. “She smells like crushed mango leaves mixed with smoke. Like the leaves Grandpa rakes and burns most afternoons,” Javiercito tells us when describing a migrant in the group. He aches to be with his parents, too: “I try to remember what Mamá Pati smells like, but I forget.”

Zamora vividly evokes his childhood self: a curious, shy kid who is making the best of a situation that ultimately breaks a lot of the adult migrants around him. He gives nicknames to the unfamiliar desert trees, calling them “Spikeys” and “Lonelies.” He weaves in Western pop culture references, like Dragonball-Z and the Animaniacs, reminding readers that although Javiercito tackles each challenge he faces with a strong will, he’s still just a kid.

“I feel alone, lonely, solo, solito, solito de verdad.

Javiercito’s grandpa accompanies him during the first part of the journey, from El Salvador to Guatemala. But after that, he is left to his own devices as part of the migrant group he travels with, which he nicknames “The Six.”

“I feel alone, lonely, solo, solito, solito de verdad,” he says, as everyone awaits instructions from the coyote who will guide them.

He hopes for guidance and care from members of the group — especially Marcelo, the man his grandpa paid and whom he specifically asked to look after the boy — but for most of the journey, he’s left to his own devices. Javiercito experiences, over and over, an all-consuming fear and anxiety as the migrants hide from La Migra. Two of them take him under their wing, making sure he stays hydrated and carrying him when the going gets difficult. Through Guatemala, Mexico and finally to Tucson (where he waits for his parents), Javiercito experiences the same terror, exhaustion, dehydration and hunger as the full-grown adults around him.

At the end of the book, the adult Zamora tells us that, ultimately, he wrote Solito to thank the adults who helped him, and, he hopes, to get back in touch with them. Javiercito, in the U.S. at last, realizes that neither his parents nor the rest of his family will ever truly understand everything he went through; a fatigue has settled into his bones, along with a fear that only the people he traveled with will know what it was like for him to feel so utterly alone.

Eva Recinos is an LA-based arts and culture journalist and creative non-fiction writer focusing on stories often left out of mainstream media. 

Eva Recinos is an arts and culture journalist and creative non-fiction writer based in Los Angeles. Her reviews, features and profiles have been featured in the Los Angeles Times, KCET, The Guardian, Hyperallergic, Art21, Aperture, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Creative Independent and more. Follow her on Twitter @eva_recinos.

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