Photo credit: Monica Sok

Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Javier Zamora’s poem Saguaros” appears in the January 2016 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.

I don’t like remembering my time in the desert, nor do I remember it linearly. It took me years of denying I was born in El Salvador, denying I spoke Spanish, denying anything had happened, in order to begin to face what I’d experienced over the two months I’d traveled through three countries to be reunited with my parents.

My brain has decided to forget some details, to shove them deep in my memory, dangerously resurfacing when triggered. There have been times when I’ve drank too much, out of desperation, out of trying to forget, or ironically, trying to remember. I know the names of Mexican states I crossed through: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacan, Jalisco, Nayarit, Sinaloa, and Sonora, but not necessarily what occurred in each one. After years of searching, of many painful drafts, of memories, I wrote “Saguaros” and other poems about my journey, but my search to know what really happened continues.

            I also scraped needles first, then carved those tall torsos
for water, then spotlights drove me and thirsty others dashing…

It’s June 10. I wake and plan to hike anywhere near the California coast like I’ve done since I could drive. On this day, every year, I make it a point to reflect on another year I’ve been in this country without returning to my hometown of La Herradura. The last three years I’ve also posted on Facebook something like a day like today, X-number of years ago, I crossed the border when I was nine years old, when I ran into a small white van with 30 others. No seats, only red shades. I waited with a twelve-year-old girl and her mom at the side of the door as the men piled in. We waited till the end to jump on top of everyone, just like the coyote said, so we wouldn’t end up getting crushed. My body was so tired from heat exposure I passed out immediately. It hadn’t been our first attempt crossing the desert. For two weeks we’d tried to successfully cross three different times, with three different coyotes, with three different groups of 30, with three different outcomes. “Saguaros” deals with the first try, but our groups ran out of food and water every time.

Before taking a workshop with Afaa Michael Weaver, I didn’t know that when we write about our traumas, our brain reworks the neuroplasticity of that event. Meaning that we have the power to shape how we remember trauma. At the atomic level, poetry has the power to heal us through transgressions. Remembering is a transgression because I do not want to relive the trauma, but shaping it, redrafting it, moves me away from it; I can control it. This process is not much different than cutting a saguaro in the desert because you do not want to scrape needles, to hack at the beautiful cactus, but you must. Shaping a hole, not too small and not too big, moves you away from death; you can drink the green water and live.

I’m a writer because of the stories my father tells me about the war in El Salvador. It’s his way to process his traumas, storytelling, something he can control. But, he rarely speaks about the two months I was immigrating to be with him. I cannot imagine how he remembers those days, or if he can think about them. I only remember him talking about it once, when he didn’t deflect my question with the usual “well, you know more about that time than me.” Two years ago, we were walking along the Hudson, when I asked him what he was doing on June 10, 1999. He remembered not sleeping. He remembered the constant anguish of not knowing where I was, if I was dead, if I was in jail, if the coyote had told the truth, if he would ever see me again.

At the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the first anti-missile missile successfully hits its target. Across the world, Yugoslav troops depart Kosovo, prompting NATO to suspend its 78-day air war. On June 10, 1999, my father smells me for the first time since he left me in El Salvador when I was one. In 2013, he recalls this moment and describes the smell he “can never forget” as “something like shit and piss when it cannot be washed from cement.” With the Hudson to our side, we hold each other. We cry. We have not talked about my first day in this country since.

It’s rare when my mom talks about her childhood, willingly. She does, but I must push. Again, storytelling: something she controls. Last week, she wanted me to listen to a song she plays for the kids she nannies: two-year-old Mackenzie, who was born on my birthday, and her older four-year-old brother Cameron, who was born on my mother’s birthday. Like me, my mom believes in signs. She believes in numbers, in horoscopes—there are no coincidences.

“I don’t know about this song, it always gets to me. Every time the instructor plays it, I cry.”

“Really?” I asked. We were parked in the driveway.

“Yes, I told the instructor this, she said I was not the only one.”

Mostly nannies go to this class, where a musician plays a song and the babies and their nannies sing along. It’s supposed to help the babies’ speech development; the repetition and rhythms make the words easier to remember. The repetition helped my mother tap into her healing. When she played the song for me, I couldn’t hold back the tears. We held each other inside her car, as if it was a crib, as if the lyrics were about us:

A-lu-lu-lu-lu      don’t     you        cry,
mo-ther             won’t     go         a-way… 

A-lu-lu-lu-lu      don’t     you        cry,
fa-ther               won’t     go         a-way…

“Sorry for leaving you. I didn’t know better. If I could, I would take it all back.”

I didn’t know what to say. I said something inadequate like, “but then, we wouldn’t be who we are.”

I felt her facing her guilt of leaving me. I felt myself let go of another kernel of resentment I have towards her, towards my father, towards the coyotes, towards all those along the way, towards myself. Not because I don’t understand the reasons why she left, or why things happened the way they did, but because my body hasn’t learned to let go of all of it, because my brain hasn’t let go of some details even if my brain hides those details from me. The hole in the saguaro is there.

My mother said, “I wish I could’ve taken you to music classes like this, to hold you, to sing to you like I do these kids.”

“You can sing to me now Mom. You can sing to me now.”

She began to sing.

Originally Published: January 5th, 2016

Poet Javier Zamora was born in the small El Salvadoran coastal fishing town of La Herradura and immigrated to the United States at the age of nine, joining his parents in California. He earned a BA at the University of California-Berkeley and an MFA at New York University and was...