Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
From the very beginning, the poor yet colourful way of life in nine-year-old Javier’s village in El Salvador paints a vivid picture. Yet he longs to escape to Los Angeles to reunite with his mother and father, whom he hasn’t seen for years, merely spoken on the phone.
They had travelled that hazardous path for ‘a better life’ and his dream is to join them, ignorant of the risks involved.
Solito (Spanish for alone) is Javier Zamora’s memoir of his struggle to get to LA and his parents. This he hopes will be achieved with the help of Dago, the most reputable of the ‘coyotes’ who are men, who through their contacts, can arrange a passage to the States.
There is so much that is fascinating in this book. Zamora writes so convincingly in the naive tone of a child. He is overwhelmed by the wonders, even beauty, he keenly observes. There are many novel experiences such as using a flushing toilet for the first time, terrifying for him at first!
His grandfather accompanies him for the first long bus stage and Javier diligently completes his school work, anxious not to fall behind and so be despised by ‘gringos’. He is top of his class at school.
They pass through Guatemala and head for Mexico. Dago provides basic lodging and food but remains remote and intimidating so that the immigrants are reluctant to question him. Frustrated, they wait at Tecun for two weeks. Grandpa leaves. There is the gut-wrenching scene as the child watches the vanishing figure of his devoted grandfather through the back window of the bus. Javier is on his own, left with a handful of rules to survive.
Despite his tears, he is excited and buoyed by his coping strategies that daily improve.
After a long bus ride, he faces an eighteen-hour ordeal by boat. Flying fish, rough waves, diesel fumes, and a man suffering a manic episode rivet this in his memory.
A little band forms of six but he is closest to Carla and her mother, Patricia and Chino. He is thrilled by the novelty of the new experiences but it is soured by the long waits, restrictions, anxiety and boredom.
The check at the Mexican border seems to go smoothly at first but some pretext has them all detained. Then, desperately hoping, they are sent on their way. More bus rides are followed by the long walk through the night to the border with the USA. The tension is palpable, the heat exhausting, thirst grabs them all. Their new guide is strict and organised which somehow adds to the general fear and terror at being caught.
When, after hours of tramping they almost reach the border, they are caught by a patrol, jailed and threatened with a ten-year term should they attempt to cross to the States again.
Undeterred, at the dead of night, they set off once more.
In this final section, when the group of four are united in their determination to reach the USA, is so torturous that the reader too suffers the gruelling conditions of heat, cold, thirst, hunger and pain.
In his memoir, Zamora conveys such a spirit of dogged courage and incredible endurance
that is unique to people who risk everything for a better chance in life. He uses a lot of Spanish in the dialogue which adds authenticity and a clearer reality to the struggle to succeed.
The beauty of Solito is its relating so graphically, in clear and honest prose, the astonishingly perceptive insight into the arduous journey of the immigrant. It is a tale of a young boy adrift in the strange and terrifying world of survival, but driven and inspired by his bond with his distant parents.
In its way, Solito is a celebration of the immigrants’ ability to counter cruel obstacles, which is so remote from the comfortable lives of the readers of this book.
The ending, beautifully understated, is an enormous relief, leaving the reader wishing that Javier’s American Dream is not shattered.
His success there, as a poet, indicates that it really did come true!
by Javier Zamora
ISBN 978 086154 588 9