POUGHKEEPSIE – Javier Zamora credits 15 years of therapy and finding the right therapist for a large part of his success as the New York Times best-selling author of “Solito.”
The book is his story of coming to the United States from El Salvador, alone, via a series of “coyotes,” who smuggle immigrants across the border that his parents paid. The trip took him nine weeks. Writing the book took him 20 years.
On Monday, Zamora spoke with and answered questions entirely in Spanish from English Language Learners at Poughkeepsie High School. Students studying Spanish IV at New Paltz High School also participated. The Poughkeepsie Public Library District sponsored the program, with copies of “Solito” provided by the Friends of the Poughkeepsie Public Library. His statements during the event were translated for this article.
Trauma made him remember everything about the trip and it is what enabled him to write the book, he said. He spoke about being triggered by films on immigration. It was only through therapy that he got help. He felt that telling his story was something he needed to do and was part of his therapy.
“My audience when I wrote the book was myself,” he said.
Zamora said he never told anyone what happened on that journey until he wrote the book. “We didn’t talk about it at home,” he said.
Once in San Rafael, California, Zamora said he attended a school that was mostly Hispanic, but he shared that many first and second generation Latinos presented themselves as non-Latino and bullied those newly arrived like himself.
It wasn’t like the image he had of the U.S. from television shows he saw while in El Salvador such as “Saved by the Bell,” “Baywatch” and “Full House.”
“I was in complete culture shock to come here because of the impression the media created about U.S. culture,” he said in response to a question.
His family’s living arrangements were cramped. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his parents where he shared one of the bedrooms with both his parents as the other bedroom was rented to other adults.
When he hit puberty, he experienced the most cultural awareness of this loss. His trauma was unleashed due to his hormones. He began to act out in anti-social ways. He started writing poetry when he was 18. He started physically writing this book at the age of 29.
His writing the book was further compelled by the election of President Donald Trump. He felt that it was more important than ever to talk about the injustice of how immigrants were being portrayed.
“Therapy was key to my success, but that takes time to stick. You have to try different services until you find the right person,” he said during an interview. “Representation is important. After 15 therapists I found one whose situation was one of immigration themselves.”
He told students that finding your happiness for the future was more important than going to college, and that figuring out what you liked to do was imperative.
Asked what message he wanted to leave students with, Zamora smiled and energetically said, “That they can do anything. I was like them. It is difficult to be in a new country, learn a new language and face the pressure from family and society to succeed.”
Senior Daniela Gabriel appreciated Zamora’s candidness. “It helps you think about it and helps you confront your fear so you will not be limited by the fact that you are on your own,” Gabriel said.
Classmate Evelin Muniz said it was inspirational to hear Zamora speak and that she was, “surprised at everything it took for him to get here.”
Prior to Zamora’s arrival, teacher Pam Knittel, also the ENL department chair, decorated the auditorium with poetry and artwork created by ELL students as they reflected on what they read in, “Solito.”
Unsupported image type.“This was a tremendous opportunity for our students to be inspired by someone who has gone down that road. It’s an opportunity for them to see themselves thinking forward and seeing their future,” Knittel said, adding that she collaborated with other teachers who taught, “Solito” in their classrooms, including Sarah Hoop, Kristina Ginnick, Shannon Considine and Tiffany Petagine.
PPLD Director Tom Lawrence said the district booked Zamora to speak at Boardman Branch Library on Sunday and wanted to extend the event to the school. “We knew there was a lot of interest in bringing notables into the district to expose students to national figures,” he said.