javier zamora

Introduced by Janel Pineda

When I first read Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied, I was stunned by its brilliant interweaving of personal narrative with historical fact, all of which was underscored by a deep political urgency to complicate how El Salvador is understood in the U.S. It was the first collection I’d come across that raised critical questions about the Salvadoran Civil War, U.S. intervention in El Salvador, and how this history impacts what it means to be a Salvadoran immigrant today. On September 5, 2017, the collection’s publication coincided with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement of the end of DACA. Unaccompanied entered the world in a particularly fraught political climate for immigrants in the U.S. Zamora’s poetry is a reminder of the transformative potential of poetry to create pathways of healing for immigrant communities.  

Javier Zamora migrated alone to the U.S. when he was nine years old. Unaccompanied documents the dangerous journey commonly experienced by many Central American children fleeing the complex and often violent sociopolitical climates in their home countries. Our selection of Zamora’s poems highlights the range of thematic content the collection tackles, from narratives of migration to political reflections on history and citizenship. Zamora’s poetry is critical of both U.S. and Salvadoran national identifiers, and carefully navigates the histories and contexts of both countries.  

 “Let Me Try Again” powerfully engages both the politics of migration and of telling stories about migration. While the poem itself describes a border-crossing attempt, the poem’s title makes it evident that this is not the speaker’s first attempt to tell this story. Rather, this is the speaker “trying again” to tell it: “I could bore you with sunset, the way water tasted / after so many days without it.” Many of the poems in the collection also highlight the U.S. government’s complicity in the Salvadoran Civil War and address the war’s ongoing impact in El Salvador. As Zamora writes in “Aftermath”: “Little has changed. Uniforms / aren’t soldiers or guerrilleros—they’re tattoos or policemen.” Zamora connects the broader cultural memory and understanding of El Salvador’s past with its current realities. Several poems also pay close attention to the complexities of citizenship, and the longing for a homeland at a time when return is near-impossible for the speaker. Addressed to a lover, “Vows” complicates notions of romantic love and marriage by juxtaposing it alongside love for a homeland: “Amor, know more than I love you / quite possibly I love that bay at low tide / even possibly, mangrove roots with bright orange crabs.” Zamora’s poems ultimately split conflict open, leaving trails to the root causes and underlying contexts that shape experiences of war, migration, and displacement.  

Javier Zamora earned an MFA from New York University and was a 2016-2018 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and CantoMundo, among many others, Zamora is also a founder of the UndocuPoets campaign and a member of the Our Parents’ Bones Campaign. He is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.