We hear you, Chepito! This would be my message to the author of one of the most remarkable books published this fall on a topic that might divide the readers of this blog, just as it does this country and the world.
Solito: A Memoir, written by accomplished poet Javier Zamora, is a captivating story of a 9-year-old boy who completed the “crossing” over a period of nine weeks, struggling his way from El Salvador through borders, checkpoints, sea, and desert to “La USA,” the land of his superheroes.
The title Solito, meaning “little alone” in Spanish, serves as a metaphor for the experience children in his shoes and in the same boat have been through, turning the “boat” metaphor into reality. “Trip” is a word young Javier often hears, mixed with Spanish at home, but can’t decipher until he’s in the thick of it.
Excited to finally travel to live in California with his parents, who had left their home country because of “the situation,” Chepito takes off with a black backpack and a strong faith in his secret support, the cadejo. A bright boy with exceptional attention to detail, he still can’t tie his shoelaces and fears indoor toilets, scared of getting sucked in, then pushed out to the ocean. In his modest but nurturing home environment, the frequent use of the diminutive (-ito, -cito, etc. in Spanish) shows love, care, and familiarity: Abuelita is his beloved Grandma, and he’s Chepito to the grandparents raising him, after his Grandpa’s adult name, Don Chepe.
Trips like this are undoubtedly dangerous, and quite frankly, treacherous, whether the large body of water to cross is the Pacific Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, whether there’s a checkpoint to pass in Central America or a concertina wire set up to “protect” Hungary in Europe.
In his 2018 New York Times Op-Ed, “I Have a Green Card Now. But Am I Welcome?,” the author describes the trip as follows.
I faced corrupt cops in Guatemala, had M-16s pointed at me in Mexico, had a shotgun pointed at me by an Arizona rancher. The group I was traveling with was surveilled, followed by helicopters. The border has always been highly militarized. The caravan is a caravan because it is safer to flee in numbers.
His loving family did their best to prepare him for the adventure, as he first looks at it, considering it more like a game than a perilous quest. His desire to reunite with his parents grows stronger and stronger as the child’s mind looks for the familiar, finds reference points in the world of plants, animals, toys, and games, and learns to gradually embrace the new experience, for bad and for worse.
Sounding out the difficult words like de-por-ta-do early on his trip, he also learns new words that shouldn’t be part of a child’s vocabulary such as La Migra. He finds out that there are Mexicans in “La USA,” and coyotes do exist as animals, although he had seen more coyotes as persons, i.e., the ones who smuggle people across borders.
The boy, or bicho in Salvadorian Spanish, has to grow up fast. The rich, expressive language, a great strength in the book, follows this transformation, evoking not only his memories, but unexpected responses and strong emotions from the reader too. As the trip is getting more and more trying, he learns to understand the word “perspectives” their coyote uses: a 12-hour bus ride with fake papers among checkpoints is less dangerous than crossing the stormy ocean in a boat at night.
This child also learns, through the language, when he is not welcome somewhere. It’s risky to complain in his mother tongue, the language that he learned from his beloved Mamá. During the 3,000 mile-trip, his accent betrays him as Guatemalan or Mexican, and the language will probably put him in more danger in “La USA.”
The use of Spanish and Spanglish adds exceptional value to the memoir by creating an engaging and authentic narrative. For the monolingual reader, rest assured that the context provides enough information to understand the gist of it and you can continue reading without a dictionary. You will miss some here and there, just like when you read a text for the first time in your first language.
For Spanish speakers or those who took Spanish classes: Expect an amazing variety of vernaculars and dialects (about which the boy also has no clue), including a lot of local slang! Understanding them all, oftentimes full of profanity (justified by the context and fully excused by this reader), may require a little bit more than just high school Spanish. But, see above and just read the paragraph again!
For the most powerful version, I strongly recommend the 17-hour audiobook. Narrated by the author himself, it’s a truly humbling and moving experience for the listener, albeit a tough task for the narrator.
Solito is inspirational in more ways than one can list. The narrative nurtures a culture of empathy and solidarity that likewise doesn’t allow me to degrade the map of his journey to an illustration. Out of respect (and fear for the ones on the road), I resist the urge to map his trip (other than on my own screen) from La Herradura, El Salvador through Tecún Umán, Guatemala to Nogales, Mexico, while Chepito turns nameless for most members of the centipede (as he pictures the caravan), or becomes Javiercito, for the fellow travelers who care.
A few plot twists should also remain in the dark, such as the dramatic event when fellow Salvadorian, Marcelo, who was supposed to look after him, leaves the group. Betrayed, “feeling dumb and tricked,” Javiercito is plagued with doubt, “Does this mean all of them could be lying?” – leaving the reader to speculate whether Marcelo was perhaps caught and let go by La Migra in exchange for a bigger catch, the entire centipede.
In his new, bizarre reality, where “officially fake-married” is an operational term, right (legal) is often wrong, and wrong (illegal) feels right, Todo Va a Estar Bien sounds less and less credible for the boy. As Javiercito loses faith and forgets about his cadejo, towards the end of his long journey the smallest signs of normalcy feel weird, like “playing soccer without a goalkeeper.”
Masterfully presented, his story is unfortunately not the only one of its kind. Published in 2019 with Zamora’s foreword, a volume entitled Solito, solita: crossing borders with youth refugees from Central America collected oral histories of young refugees on both sides of the border, but not his story. Solito is so much more than the account of the “trip” by a 9-year-old who does his best to be a good boy, follow instructions, and eventually overcome all obstacles with the final goal in his mind – to reunite with his parents. “Most of the time I try to stay out of everyone’s way. I want them to like me” – is his philosophy. He learns that huddling (i.e., uniting in a group) helps in the desert at night and beyond. He learns that all’s well that ends well.
He will learn PTSD later.
It will take many years, but he will also learn the therapeutic effect of writing that can help him part with his black backpack for good.
With its diverse talking points, Zamora’s book is a challenging but excellent choice for communities reading together. As an immigrant, I wish we all lived in an environment where everyone feels comfortable: Comfortable simply being who we are (aka our authentic selves), comfortable expressing ourselves, and comfortable bringing our diverse perspectives to the table.
Dear Chepito and all the other Chepitos out there, I’m mad and sad también! Sending you the biggest hug that a mother can ever give to her children, whether by her side or across borders.
P. S. Please, please, Javiercito, let your readers in Nueva Jersey know, sparing identities, if you have found the rest of the “four!”
- Javier Zamora’s author page – Includes interviews and reviews
- Javier Zamora on the book after becoming a NY Times bestseller – Today Show (video, 4:30 minutes)
Interviews with Javier Zamora
- My journey to the US at age 9 nearly killed me. As an adult, I had to face the trauma
- #PouredOver: Javier Zamora on SOLITO – YouTube (45 minutes) by Barnes & Noble
- Q&A with Javier Zamora – C-SPAN (57 minutes)
- The Harrowing Migration Story of One 9-Year-Old Child – New York Times
- ‘Solito’ is a personal story of immigration that sheds light on the universal – NPR
- At 9, Javier Zamora walked 4,000 miles to the U.S. At 29, he was ready to tell the story – LA Times
Talking Points and More Reading
- Reading Guide and Questions to Ask (from Jenna Bush Hager’s Book Club #ReadWithJenna)
- “Writing Gives Me a Shot at Healing”: Javier Zamora and Dave Eggers Help Celebrate 10 Years of Writing Programs in Mar Vista (blog post from 826la.org, where Zamora also interned)