Poems Don't Need Their Papers

July 3, 2018

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week,  poems don’t need their papers. Almost 20 years ago, Javier Zamora left El Salvador to join his parents in the United States. He was 9 years old. He didn’t have a visa, and he was unaccompanied. The experience was harrowing, for him and for his family. In the United States, Zamora went to college and started writing poetry. It turned out he was good at it. In 2017, he published a book called Unaccompanied. He joins me now to read and talk about a few of his poems. Hi Javier.

Javier Zamora: Hi, how are you doing?

Curtis Fox: Good. So Javier, when I emailed you to see if you could do this podcast, I was surprised to hear that you’re currently in El Salvador. I want to ask you about what you’re doing there. But first I thought it would be appropriate right off the bat to get you to read your poem El Salvador. It’s a poem that seems to be written in the United States.

Javier Zamora: It’s interesting, because I wrote it over there not having an idea what the reality of my country was. And now I’m here. At the same time I’m here, I’m hearing about the situation with the immigrant children in the United States. It’s all about hearing news from outside the place where the news is happening.

Go ahead and give it a read before we talk to you much more about it.


Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb

will clean your beard of  salt, and if  I touch your volcanic face,


kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.

Don’t let gangsters say: he’s wrong barrio. Your barrios


stain you with pollen, red liquid pollen. Every day cops

and gangsters pick at you with their metallic beaks,


and presidents, guilty. Dad swears he’ll never return,

Mom wants to see her mom, and in the news:


every day black bags, more and more of us leave. Parents say:

don’t go; you have tattoos. It’s the law; you don’t know


what law means there. ¿But what do they know? We don’t

have greencards. Grandparents say: nothing happens here.


Cousin says: here, it’s worse. Don’t come, you could be    ...    

Stupid Salvador, you see our black bags,


our empty homes, our fear to say: the war has never stopped,

and still you lie and say: I’m fine, I’m fine,


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.


Curtis Fox: That was “El Salvador”. Javier, in the poem, El Salvador is a longed for but a very dangerous place. There are gangsters, there are cops on the look out for tattoos, there are black body bags. Now that you’re back, how does that poem seem in light of the reality of El Salvador today?


Javier Zamora: Sadly, that’s the reality. I live in a rural town, so I’m not in the capital. When I go to the beach, my cousin and her friends tell me to cover my tattoo because they’re afraid someone will see it. That’s still a reality. Everyday there are military personnel that walk up the street in front of my house with M16s. The police presence is very poignant everywhere, in my hometown and in the capital the three times that I’ve come here. There are empty homes everywhere, unfinished homes in my town and on the way to the capital. In the news still, it’s not necessarily black bags but everyday there’s a news about femicide, there’s another body killed in the capital or elsewhere. If it’s not that, there’s also corruption. Sadly this poem, the situation here hasn’t changed. That’s why the kids are leaving, and everybody’s leaving, they’re going to continue to leave.


Curtis Fox: The poem mentions war, and that’s something Americans tend to forget. In the 1980s up to 1992, El Salvador had a brutal civil war that the US was deeply involved in. How is it that the war has never stopped, as the poem says? How is the war in evidence today?

Javier Zamora: There’s a lot of discussion about what defines war. Even before 1980, a lot of the people like to say the war started then because our archbishop was killed during mass. But there were conflicts before then. There have always been violence in the rural areas in my country starting since 1932 and even before then. Then we like to cap the war at 1992 because the peace accords were signed. But soon thereafter, the Bill Clinton policy started deporting a lot of gangsters —

Curtis Fox: From the United States, especially from the Los Angeles area, right.


Javier Zamora: And around the late 90s, the gangs became a cohesive thing and began to recruit and to kill people. I remember in 1996, in front of my house somebody was killed. I think that may have been one of the first gang killings in my hometown. I included that line because here in El Salvador, people don’t refer to what’s happening as a war, even though more people have been killed in these past few years than during the actual war. I would define that as a war. We are in a civil war again, just this time it’s less concrete and much more undefinable. To me, it looks like a war.


Curtis Fox: So you’re back in El Salvador now for the first time since you were 9 years old. That’s about 19 years ago that you haven’t been back in your native country. What’s that like?

Javier Zamora: I’m still processing. It’s very eerie. I expected to cry on the plane, I expected to feel more emotional in a dark way, in a traumatic way than I have felt. I have not felt that trauma. I have felt, on the other end of the spectrum, like I have to be here, and it’s a part of my healing. I don’t think I would have understood that without writing poetry. In a way, it’s been like living in the poems and being surprised by the reality of my poems, meaning that the words could not capture everything that life is. I think I haven’t captured joy in these poems, because I wasn’t joyful in the United States and while writing these poems, because I had to write the trauma out of it. But being here … For example, the very first poem in the book, “Abuelita Neli’s Garden”, I just posted something on Instagram about taking pictures of my grandmother’s garden. I’m being surprised by the flowers that I had forgotten were there, I’m surprised by the birds that wake me up every morning at 5, 4 a.m. I’m surprised by the smells, by the fruit trees I forgot to mention, about the position of the well that we still use to shower, all these things.


Curtis Fox: Your poem mentions your abuelita, your grandmother, and we learn from your book that she was in fact the one that raised you because your parents had to leave you behind when they first came to the Untied States. Is your abuelita still living, and if so, what’s she like?

Javier Zamora: Yeah, she’s here. I hadn’t seen her in 19 years, so that was hard. Perhaps that’s the one reminder of the trauma I just mentioned. It’s mostly healing and joy, but there’s also that reminder of what the violence, what the trauma of war that I describe in the book has affected her. In the last poem of the book, I mention that my grandma hasn’t left the house in years. I said, it’s not a metaphor. Again, I’m reminded, because I keep on trying to get my grandma to leave the house. I want to take her to the beach, I want to take her to restaurants, I want to show her a good time because I can now. But she refuses. I don’t have a car here, so I have to schedule rides. I’ve scheduled rides for her to leave the house, and last minute she says that her hands hurt, or that she doesn’t feel well. It’s all trauma. That is the sad part of being here, dealing with that. But inside the home, I’m playing music for her, we’re having dinner together, we’re having conversation so it’s good. Just the reminder that she is afraid to leave the house.


Curtis Fox: That’s so sad. Your journey as a 9 year old the United States sounds terrifying, and your poems tell the story in several different ways. There’s one poem that’s even a bit surreal with talking furniture in it. Can you tell us a little bit about “Guadalajara”, the poem?


Javier Zamora: Recently, we’ve began to talk about the Mexican politics against Central American immigrants. We forget that before immigrants have to go through the US immigration system, they have to encounter the corruption, the hatred, the bigotry done by Mexicans onto Central American bodies. That is a reality we’re just beginning to speak about, and that I hope more Mexicans take accountability for, and responsibility. Their government is not so nice to us. I think there’s a lot of focus on the US / Mexico border, but we’re not talking about the Mexico Guatemala border, which is highly militarized. That’s also a product of US funding. That militarization is causing death, and is funneling people into the hands of gangsters, and gang networks, which is not safe. By sheer numbers, since 1999 until I think the statistic ended in 2016, around I think 1,700 people have died at the US / Mexico boarder. On the contrary, during the exact same amount of time, around 30,000 bodies have died within Mexico.


Curtis Fox: 30,000?

Javier Zamora: It’s a huge amount of death that we’re not talking about, and it’s at the hands of Mexicans.


Curtis Fox: So in your trek through Mexico when you were 9 years old, the poem basically says you spent some time in Guadalajara cooped up in somebody’s apartment or house. Is that what happened?

Javier Zamora: Yep.


Curtis Fox: Would you read that poem for us?

Javier Zamora: Guadalajara


We knew something was wrong when next to the TV, a large tomatillo plant was growing out the carpet. Everything there spoke, Table, Lamps    ...    


In the living room, Coffee Table’s eyes glued to the TV: flags, drums, hands on the chest on the screen, but it couldn’t have been Independence. It was the fifth of the fifth month, something about a battle won, a battle lost.


Our host, Dining Table, handed each of us a green sphere. Eat, s’il vous plaît. Don’t think about it, she told us; then sent Chair and Coffee Table to sleep.


Watch the bedbugs. You can’t unlock the windows, Fan in the hallway said.


For two weeks Table left tomatillos outside our door. The green marbles punched through our stomachs, so deep, our ears grew roots. It was as if no heat. Bed wished she was bigger. Closet dreaded his clothes. Wall didn’t let us sleep; kept saying,


¡Look! Look over there, cabrones. You’ll never make it there. If you’re gonna ask for the best route, the best price. ¿Where are your suspenders? ¿Dress shoes? You’re not really serious about getting to San Francisco. ¿Are you? Pinche dirty pigeons.


Curtis Fox: That was “Guadalajara” which was published in the April 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine. Javier, I mentioned that it was kind of surrealistic, this poem. Why that choice? Why not depict it realistically? Why take that tangent into the talking furniture, which I think is marvelous. But I’m just wondering why you went that way?


Javier Zamora: I think it’s because I can’t really remember, and I know that I can’t remember because my time in Mexico was more traumatic than my traumatic time in the desert. I think that’s why surrealism seemed like an appropriate choice, especially because at the time I wrote this I was reading a lot of Charles Simic. He writes a lot through surrealism while talking about war. I forget the title of the book I was reading, but it’s the one that got him the Pulitzer. In that book, it’s a child that’s speaking. Or I think it’s a child that’s speaking. For me, I borrowed. I was like wow, surrealism makes a lot of sense because for a child, the world in itself seems something made up. I think it even seems more so when the child is pushed against a corner. For me, it seemed the appropriate choice regarding the room, the apartment that I was housed in in Guadalajara for two weeks.

Curtis Fox: Everything comes to life, and the furniture seems to be perhaps other kids in your situation, they seem to have personalities and are frightened and are worried. It’s very effective. In the United States right now, we’re in a tumultuous time politically as everybody knows, and immigration is the polarizing issue, to put it lightly. The US Government has been separating children from their parents at the border, and many parents don’t even know where their children are. How does all this appear from El Salvador? What are people saying in El Salvador right now about what’s happening on the United States?


Javier Zamora: I’ll answer that by what I watched on TV last night. My grandma and my cousins, they watch this novella prime time from 7-8. At around 8, every channel cued to an announcement. It was an announcement from the US Embassy celebrating the 200, 100, I don’t even know, 253? 153 years of Independence? I don’t know. Celebrating that on Salvadorian TV. First it was the Salvadorian national anthem. Then it was the US national anthem. Then the ambassador at the US Embassy here spoke. It felt weird for me to see this in this country that uses the US dollar as it’s currency. Whenever you go to the capital, it’s mostly US fast food companies, chains that are all over South Salvador. It has all the characteristics of a pseudo— I don’t know if I should use the word but a pseudo-colony. What the ambassadors said explained that they were doing everything they can to reunite the children. They also showcased a new program to help kids, dissuade them from joining gangs here in El Salvador. That is part of the surreality, going back to that word, of the situation. Clearly my government, the El Salvadorian government, does not know how to deal with the violence, the corruption, because it is corrupt itself. And clearly the US government does not know how to deal with their situation. I think there’s some accountability on both governments, the Salvadorian government to say you know what, we don’t know what we’re doing, this is out of control. I think honesty could be the beginning of fixing this. And also accountability by the US government to say you know what, our old policies kind of created this problem. Let’s try to fix it in a new way. Let’s think of new solutions, not using the same ones that we used during the civil war. Every day, there’s another news of the children and I heard the recording here. I’m reading the New York Times, and it’s weird to be outside of the United States as this is happening. But it’s also weird I’d suppose being in the United States as this is happening. I think it may feel how I feel about being in my country. I laugh at how the El Salvadorian deals, or more correctly is not dealing, with the problem of children leaving. I don’t know. I’m not pretending to have the answers to the problem, but what I see is not the right way.

Curtis Fox: It’s a problem not only in Central America, it’s a problem throughout the world. We have more refugees in the world now than at any time since World War 2. It looks like the problem is only going to get worse with climate change and what not. Do you feel a responsibility as a poet with an audience in the Untied States, to keep telling the story? You’re after all a former refugee yourself.


Javier Zamora: I do. I just feel a responsibility to hold people and governments accountable. I think poets and writers are always truth seekers, honesty seekers. I just want honesty. I just want people to talk with an honest language about what is happening. I think that’s as far as my responsibility goes. And I think arrive from a personal strain, because I don’t pretend to know the situation of every Salvadorian or every immigrant. I only know mine and my family’s. I think that’s how I approach this problem, which is going to be the problem of the 21st century. So I think we have to think of a better solution. Writers are also dreamers, so I think we have to dream up a world in which a solution is possible.


Curtis Fox: Javier Zamora, thanks so much.

Javier Zamora: Thank you.


Curtis Fox: Javier Zamora is the author of Unaccompanied. You can read a handful of his poems that have been published in Poetry Magazine on our website. We love getting emails with your comments and suggestions. Email us at [email protected], or write a review in Apple Podcasts. Please link to the podcast on social media. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

For July 4, we talk about US immigration, Central American refugees, and poems across borders with Javier Zamora.

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