This past Tuesday night at Galería de la Raza, a capacity, standing-room-only crowd filled the space for the full moon celebration of the release of Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora. A book that speaks to the Zamora’s experience of crossing multiple borders from El Salvador to the United States at nine years old to be reunited with his parents, Unaccompanied is a collection populated by deserts, border violence, a family’s desperate claim to survive, and the conjuring up and remembrance of a country left behind. At Galería de la Raza, the scent of pupusas and cheese filled the gallery. There was a kindling air of celebration.
Nothing belied the unrest the city had been in all day long.
Three miles away in downtown San Francisco, protesters that had congregated all afternoon in growing numbers in front of the Federal Building had shut down one lane of traffic and were marching down Market Street, chanting We are people, we are not illegal, no! Earlier in the day, the Trump administration had officially announced that the DACA program — which gives temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and allows them to work and get an education — would be phased out in six months’ time.
Not oblivious to the events going on outside the Mission, patrons at Galería de la Raza gathered with a different sense of urgency — to hear and celebrate a young voice versed in borders, and the effects of borders on the self and family.
Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied asks: Is fleeing from danger a crime? Is being driven by spotlights and vans into desert trees and into hiding a crime? The government says yes. Unaccompanied begs to differ.
It was dusk for kilometers and bats in the lavender sky,
like spiders when a fly is caught, began to appear.
And there, not the promised land but barbwire and barbwire
with nothing growing under it. I tried to fly that dusk
after a bat said la sangre del saguaro nos seduce. Sometimes
I wake and my throat is dry, so I drive to botanical gardens
to search for red fruits at the top of saguaros, the ones
at dusk I threw rocks at for the sake of hunger...”
Zamora’s stunning collection, sprinkled with some Spanish, is deceptively prosaic. In Unaccompanied, the politics of border-crossing take a backseat to the brutal realities that such a journey would entail. There is hunger, there is thirst, there is the saguaro, and bats. There are fruits. There is desert-found kindness among strangers. There are tight spaces: white vans and boats to travel in, and cells when found and captured.
Some poems take place across the border, where the American Dream remains elusive and there are a different set of challenges. The silences and metaphysical speculations around being undocumented haunts the speaker of these poems. In “The Book I Made With a Counselor My First Week of School” Zamora writes:
His grandma made the best pupusas, the counselor wrote next to
And next to a drawing of yucca plants:
Javier saw a dead coyote animal, which stank and had flies over it.
I keep this book in an old shoebox underneath the bed. She asked in Spanish,
I just smiled, didn’t tell her, no animal, I knew that man.
As in border crossings, these poems are peregrinations by night and through darkness. They echo in a need of survival and a fear of ambush most of us will likely never experience. The longest poem in Unaccompanied is probably my favorite. Titled “June 10, 1999,” it tells of a harrowing border passage, of finding one’s way, and of being lost, regardless, after arrival:
we were lost and didn’t know which star
was north what was east west we all
dropped out of the van too soon to remember
someone said the sun rose east we circled
so much we had no maps and the guide we paid
twisted his ankle as slowing us down
I didn’t recognize Dad
different from pictures
he remembers the smell
shit piss dust in your hair
he says now
Mom had a bag with Nikes
Levi’s Star Wars
Episode One shirt
I left my ripped clothes
inside a Ross fitting room
I’m tired of writing the fence the desert
the van picked us up
took me to parents
I’m tired it’s always that
I imagine at times there must be a literary alignment of stars between the State and the Poet, so that a Poet’s work may respond in real time to a State’s injurious policy, or so goes our desire. The truth is that books outlast the present moment, and they survive by their own truths. There are things about crossing the border many of us cannot know and cannot imagine. In this collection, the search for home is both a physical and an emotional one, and finding one's bearings grows toward the past — in the case of this book, coming to terms with an abandoned, forlorn Salvador, and a grandmother left behind.
Unaccompanied is a courageous offering.
Javier Zamora appears in conversation with Camille Dungy on Thursday, Sept. 28, at the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University (1600 Holloway Ave., San Francisco). More information here.
The Spine is a biweekly book column. Catch us back here in two weeks.