The Spanish word “solito” means alone, and in his memoir, “Solito,” Javier Zamora shares the perilous journey the author made as a fairly sheltered nine-year-old child from a rural town in El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico, to the US.
A disclaimer: I don’t typically like memoirs. But I also lived in Mexico for a few years and was a dual language teacher, and many of my students’ parents journeyed to the U.S. and lived as undocumented workers in order to provide a better life for their children. I am both fascinated and horrified by the dangerous trips that migrants make to try to come to my country — fascinated by the bravery and fortitude of those daring to risk their very lives to come here, and horrified that their existence in their native country was so very fraught that making such a journey was the best option for them.
In this memoir, the narrative does sound as if a nine-year-old is telling his story. The details are impressive as Zamora takes us, almost step by step, all of the three thousand miles from La Herradura, El Salvador, through Central America, and across the Arizona border into the “La USA,” as they call it. We learn a lot about life in his small town and how his grandparents support and care for him. Both of Zamora’s parents are already in the US, his father leaving when Zamora was only a year old and his mother joining his father a few years later. He lives with his grandparents and his aunt Mali.
He is able to talk to his parents on the neighbor’s phone; they don’t have a phone of their own. They live simply, with no indoor plumbing. He attends a Catholic school and works hard to try to earn a scholarship, as school is not free. His parents send him toys that he zealously guards. Many of his classmates have missing parents as well, and every so often a classmate will go missing as he or she leaves to join parents in the U.S. It’s all very hush-hush. If the authorities get wind of the defection, they might try to stop it. So although he knows that soon he will be making “The Trip,” he doesn’t know when. The coyote, the person arranging the journey, is Don Dago, who is a scary person.
Zamora tells us about his daily life and his relationships with his relatives and friends; the people in their small town, and how they live. So when he finally gets the call to be ready to go, we understand a little of what he is leaving. He’s leaving the familiar, the people who have cared for him and love him. But the life he’s leaving is not one that has much promise or a secure future. Or perhaps no future at all. The only way forward is to join his parents.
The narrative is vivid as he relates remembered (or recreated) dialogue and description. “She slices the pineapple, yellow juice coats her hands.” Often, Spanish dialogue is liberally sprinkled along with the English narrative. Even a Spanish speaker, like me, might be confused by the El Salvadorian dialect. Zamora shares some of the dialect differences and how, when they are in Mexico and trying to blend in, using the word “pajilla” instead of “popote” for straw labels them as migrantes. This is definitely an adult read, or for older kids; there is a liberal use of profanity in both languages. For example, “Vos. Shhhttt. No te hagás el maje, cerote,” has several words that, I believe, are specific to the Spanish of El Salvador. I was able to guess at the meaning, but only because I do speak Spanish. A non-Spanish-speaking reader might be nonplussed by the plethora of Spanish in the text. I wish there were a section at the end of the book with translations for some of the often-used words, like chamarra for jacket.
On the other hand, the liberal use of Spanish and Spanish slang does make the read feel more authentic. And we do feel as if we are immersed in the trip, living in the smoke-filled small rooms as their group of six waits days and even weeks for the next leg of the journey. We are not only reading about the trip — we are accompanying Zamora on his journey as we hear, see, and smell the world around him.
What struck me most about Zamora’s account was the paradoxical nature of how those around him treated him. At the start of his journey, his grandfather saw that someone from their town was also making the journey. “That guy is from our town. That’s good, you have someone you know,” because often small-town people feel that they are an extended family. But that guy ended up betraying their group while strangers, Patricia and her daughter, Carla, and another man, were the ones who cared for Zamora and protected him. By the end of the two-month journey, we definitely know that Zamora is closer to those three than he is to the long-gone parents he is trying to reach. For that time period, his life was literally in their hands. And they came through valiantly and helped him. They became family.
Also paradoxical is the method of travel. At times, the group rode on plush buses with soft seats and bathrooms. Yet at the end, like all those trying to reach La USA, they must endure crossing the desert with its burning days and frigid nights. While “Solito” is a moving account of a child’s perilous journey, it’s also a reminder of how we can find compassion and family where we least expect it, and how strangers can become closer than family.
Please note: An abbreviated version of this review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.