In 1999, a nine-year-old boy from La Herradura, El Salvador, crossed the border into the United States near Tucson, Arizona. His name was Javier Zamora, and the three-thousand-mile-long migration journey from his home village to the border took him about nine weeks. For seven of those weeks—forty-nine terrifying days—neither his parents in the United States nor his extended family in El Salvador knew where he was.
Solito: A Memoir is Zamora’s powerful and vivid recounting of the period between March 16, when he learned he would be leaving La Herradura to reunite with his parents in “La USA,” and June 11, when they picked him up on the morning after his arrival in Tucson. Now thirty-three years old, Zamora was able to recount his story only after extensive therapy, and after first publishing a 2017 poetry collection, Unaccompanied, filled with haunting poems about migration, the desert, El Salvador, loss, and longing.
I am a historian of Latin American migration who has spent years writing and thinking about the border. I am also the perennially anxious mother of three children, none of whom has ever disappeared for more than a few minutes. And so I read Solito with fascination, but also in a state of semi-panic, terrified for young Javier and always conscious of the agony his parents were feeling. As Zamora tells us in the final chapter, they “became insomniacs” as they waited in vain to hear from him during his journey.
Yet Solito is a book written entirely from the child’s—and not the parents’—perspective. Appropriately, the narrator does not preoccupy himself too much with the feelings of others or make broader arguments about the world at large. Zamora does very little to situate his story within the context of the mass emigration of Salvadorans in the wake of the U.S.-funded Salvadoran Civil War (1979–1992) and subsequent endemic violence and persistent poverty that have plagued the country. Nor does he overtly connect his plight to that of the thousands of other unaccompanied child migrants who have arrived in the United States from Central America in recent decades.
Instead, the book’s value for readers—beyond the vivid prose and photorealistic scenes of bus terminals, highways, deserts, and all the other landscapes of the migrant journey—is the way it allows us to step fully into the world and perspective of the child migrant. This is unique among the growing body of scholarly and trade books about Central American child migration. Works such as Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother (2006) or Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017) are narrated by journalists rather than child migrants themselves. (These books would be valuable companion texts for anyone wishing to better understand some of this migration’s root causes, namely endemic Central American poverty, violence stemming in large part from U.S.-funded civil wars, and an utterly broken U.S. immigration system.)