Back in the early 2010s, when I was writing my first dispatches from the US–Mexico border and volunteering as a humanitarian worker, I would stand on a hill in Nogales, Mexico, and watch as migrants, mostly young men, ducked alone through a hole in the old border fence. They would then dart from bush to bush, sometimes army-crawling through the arroyo. If a Border Patrol truck rolled by, the migrants would freeze, make a run for it, or dash back into Mexico. They were crossing within a stone’s throw of the official port of entry, and though they still had many more armed agents and checkpoints to contend with on the American side of the fence, some made it far enough north that I lost sight of them.
Such solo crossing attempts are rare these days. An increased Border Patrol presence, reinforced with high bollard walls, surveillance towers, and blimps, pushes migrants farther into remote desert stretches or toward less monitored bends in the Rio Grande. The businesses of bordering and border crossing—governments spending billions, much of it going to private contractors, to try to seal the border; criminal organizations, sometimes working directly with law enforcement, kidnapping, extorting, or simply charging migrants for passage—have exploded over the past decade, and migrants who have had all legal routes closed to them have little chance of making it across safely unless they turn to professional guides.
While the Biden administration has rolled back some of the anti-immigrant excesses from the Trump era, it has imposed numerous other regulations to block people from seeking protection. Even if migrants merely want to turn themselves in and ask for asylum—an act that the administration has made surpassingly difficult for many—they almost always have to pay off or contend with smugglers. It has been reported that the people who were being held in the immigration detention center in Juárez at the time of the horrific fire on March 27 of this year—when forty died after guards heartlessly walked away from the locked cell door the migrants were kicking at as they tried to escape the flames—had yet to be released because they didn’t have enough money to pay off the guards.1
At least 20 million migrants have crossed the US–Mexico border without authorization so far this century, and the number is likely much higher. The northward march, mostly from Mexico and Central and South America into the US, is one piece of what is now the largest human migration in world history. Due to war, political instability, hunger, and climate crises, more than 100 million people across the globe have been forcibly displaced from their homes, according to a United Nations calculation from last year. While numerous books have been published on the subject, including histories, journalistic accounts, novels, and an abundance of immigration memoirs, there are fewer migration memoirs—books that describe the journey itself rather than life after arrival.
“I overheard Abuelita say there’s more violence now, so more and more people need coyotes,” Javier Zamora writes in his memoir, Solito. The book is an intimate retelling of the punishing, almost lethal nine-week, three-thousand-mile journey he took from El Salvador to the US in 1999, when he was nine years old. His writing is filled with detailed sensory observations, which give his account an extraordinary immediacy:
The only sounds are the crunch under our feet and the occasional grasshopper buzzing out of our way. The slight breeze. Bushes recoiling when we brush past them. Rocks in our shoes. The backpacks and the empty water gallons moaning like frogs.
“Solito” would be a good colloquial translation of the title of his first book, Unaccompanied, a collection of poetry published in 2017. But while Unaccompanied explores Zamora’s life both before and in the United States, and includes poems on the Salvadoran Civil War and its legacy for subsequent generations, Solito is all road, all now. Even the opening chapters, set in the small Salvadoran town of La Herradura, where Javier was born, focus almost exclusively on anticipation of and preparation for the trip north.
Zamora’s parents grew up in El Salvador during the civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992. His father, seeking to escape the violence, left for el norte right before Javier’s second birthday. His mother followed when Javier had just turned five. They meant to bring him to the US shortly afterward, but with stepped-up immigration enforcement, the cost and the dangers of migrating had spiked, and then the years dragged on—his parents toiling in California and Javier pining for them back in El Salvador, where he lived with his grandparents and an aunt named Mali.
Zamora devotes little space in Solito to the question of what compelled his parents to leave El Salvador: “Mali says they left because before I was born there was a war, and then there were no jobs.” He says more, though cryptically, in Unaccompanied: “The war is or isn’t over, but coffee still brews.” We get other snippets in other poems, such as bullet casings mistaken for cormorant beaks and a notorious assassin splitting open watermelons. One poem calls out the complicity of Jimmy Carter and “Tío Reagan,” Uncle Reagan, both of whom sent weapons to support a brutal military dictatorship in the country. He also recreates a diary entry from his father in which he recounts witnessing a helicopter dropping bodies onto a field.
In the memoir, Zamora writes entirely from the viewpoint of his nine-year-old self, including nothing but what he knew and worried over at that age. In first grade he was the only child in his class who wasn’t living with both of his parents, but by fourth grade, most of the pupils have been left behind: “It’s because our parents are not here and we’re not there that Mays and Junes are sad. For most of us, our grandparents are the ones who show up for Mother’s and Father’s Day assemblies.” He similarly boils down the departure of his fellow students, sucked north to reunite with family in the distant metropoles: “One day we’re playing soccer at lunch, playing tag at recess, and then, poof, they never come back.” He has no information about the details of their journeys—or about his father’s. All he knows about his mother’s trip is that it took two weeks and she traveled with the help of a coyote named Don Dago.
Javier has long been fixated on what he refers to as the “trip.” His parents have been telling him that “one day, you’ll take a trip to be with us. Like an adventure. Like the one Simba goes on before he comes home.” After various promises to depart go unmet, and “when my parents said they didn’t have enough money to bring me to them,” he cracks open his Super Mario piggy bank. “Abuelita cried when I told her why I broke it. I cried because she was crying and because she told me it wasn’t enough.”
And then, finally, Don Dago darkens the doorway. When he comes to town, wearing a baseball cap, ironed polo, and multiple gold chains, the local cantina owner plugs in a fan to keep him cool. At once trusted, almost revered, by the community and feared for his connections to the underworld of human smuggling, he is considered the best coyote in central El Salvador, as Javier learns from gossipers at the local pupusa stand. Which means he’s also expensive. He is the coyote the family is hoping to hire to accompany Javier to the US, as he accompanied Javier’s mother. The original deal they strike is that Don Dago will guide Javier, along with six other Salvadorans, into Mexico, where different unnamed guides will take over. Plans on the migrant trails, however, are about as steady as a skiff in the Pacific.
In order to get from El Salvador to the US over land, it is necessary to pass through Guatemala and Mexico. Javier is accompanied by his grandfather as far as the Guatemalan town of Tecún Umán, on the border with Mexico, and from there he will travel in Don Dago’s care. Throughout the book, the hypnotic rhythm of the world he is passing through slows, quickens, jags, or stalls depending on whether Javier is walking, on a bus, bouncing over waves, arrested, or consigned to a purgatorial safe house. Zamora describes the beginning of the trip through Guatemala:
We walk toward the bus. The air here is dry, it’s hot, but Grandpa says we’re about to go up mountains…. We leave the river. The road is flat at first, then we get elevation. I see a lake, coffee fields, pupuserías, tamaleras, lake, volcano, banana trees, bus stops, gas stations…. I never knew roads could be built so far up, so close to the sun.
Once they reach Tecún Umán, the group is waylaid for over a week due to some unexplained logistical stratagem of the coyotes. Javier and his grandfather pass the time by memorizing the route that Don Dago has said the migrants will be taking:
“In case you get lost, you’ll know exactly where you are,” he says, pointing with his thick index finger to each town with his nail he keeps long only on that finger and his thumb: Tapachula, Arriaga, Oaxaca, Puebla, México DF, Guadalajara, Culiacán, Ciudad Obregón, Hermosillo, Tijuana. The names, underlined neatly in blue ink from the blue-capped Bic pens Grandpa swears by.
Finally, Don Dago announces that they’re ready to cross into Mexico. Javier says good-bye to his grandfather and boards a bus with the other migrants to the seaside town of Ocós, where Don Dago almost immediately announces a “new plan”:
We’re crossing into México aboard boats. We’re skipping Tapachula, Chiapas. Grandpa’s blue line on the map is being revised and stretched into the Pacific Ocean toward Oaxaca, but Grandpa doesn’t know. None of my family knows. They think we’re taking the bus to cross the river on a raft. All the adults here thought that también.
After another six days of delays, Don Dago wakes them before dawn and hustles them down to the water. He puts them on a twenty-foot-long motorized fishing boat, and at the last minute opts not to board it himself, promising instead to meet them in Mexico. They never see him again. Javier is left in the charge of Marcelo, a tattooed local tough who has grudgingly agreed to watch over him.
The change in plans is one of many to come, unsettling Javier and leaving him mostly incommunicado from his family for weeks at a time. Marcelo does little to protect Javier and eventually shirks his promise altogether, robbing the group of food and water and abandoning them in the Arizona desert. Two of the other migrants—Patricia, who is traveling with her adolescent daughter, Carla, and Chino, an earnest twentysomething whose face bursts with acne—reluctantly take Javier under their guard. They become a pretend family, which serves both as partial protection from the police and immigration authorities, who might be less likely to extort or detain a family than individuals, and as succor for the brave-faced but terrified young Javier.
While Solito contains many harrowing moments, it is also full of waiting. In a safe house outside Guadalajara, the group stays indoors for over a week, watching soccer games and telenovelas on TV as Javier times his breathing to the head-turning of a swivel fan. In Acapulco, they cram into a cheap motel with a view of the sea, and the men sneak out for a night on the town. Despite the TV and the novelty of new food, new people, and new words—migrante remains hard for him to pronounce—the boy is bored: he wants to be with his parents, and he desperately needs a hug. And yet, as Javier’s Aunt Mali puts it, “Coyotes take their time, like tortoises, tontito.”
Zamora frequently refers to his younger self’s vulnerabilities—not only his obvious youth and lack of protection during the at times terrifying journey, but also the shame he feels about his own body, including his struggle to poop on a toilet and his inability to tie his shoes. Each shower is filled with anxiety:
I don’t want her [Carla] to see me naked. To see my boobs. My belly…. I close the plastic curtain and the metal rings make their noise….
I hand her my shirt through the curtain, making sure she can’t see anything.
In front of the reader, Zamora bears no such shame. Nor is there any shame, or even much introspection, about his journey. The emphasis is on description. His migration is a fact and a necessity—and presented plainly as such—which is something many politicians and nativists across the world seem to refuse to believe, or think they can undo with threats or walls.
The group’s first serious ordeal is the exhausting motorboat ride in the Pacific that takes them from Guatemala to Mexico. Bouncing violently over the waves and sucking in diesel fumes, the passengers periodically lean over the inflated gunwales to vomit. Deep into the night, a dozen or so hours in, one man begins to hallucinate and desperately shouts for them to stop. The coyotes in charge of the boat ignore him.
“¡Here it is, cabrones!” an unnamed martinet of a coyote yells a little while later, slowing the boat in the middle of the ocean and turning off the motor. “¡Your one and only stop! ¡Shit, piss, puke, but do it fast!” The migrants do so, although the waves cause more vomiting, and then they hunker down again, the engines roaring back to life. Shivering, soaked, terrified, Javier is eventually beckoned by Chino and crawls into his lap, getting zipped into Chino’s jacket for warmth.
“I can’t believe we haven’t seen islands,” Javier thinks in a typical wide-eyed stream of sentences earlier in the boat ride.
I want to see one. I want to see a lighthouse. Maybe we can stop. Maybe we will poop there. Maybe then I’ll throw up. I want it to get dark to see how far from land we are. To see the stars. The moon. I’m less afraid. I want to see more birds. I want to get there already.
This waist-high view of the world is one of the wonders of Solito. Readers see or know enough to recognize the very real dangers on the journey, which are brought into sharper focus by Javier’s curious gaze. The boat journey lasts twenty pages, with the reader almost falling into a hull-slapping trance before the migrants finally reach the coast of Oaxaca. But we are quickly brought back to reality when they hit land. The next series of coyotes corral and prod them, yelling “¡Get in a truck, get in a truck, the back, the back!” “Everything is happening so quick,” Javier thinks. “Against the sand, the tires sound like they’re about to rip open.”
The group is hustled into a safe house for hurried showers, fed Bimbo donuts and conchas (packaged sugary treats that are a staple on the voyage), and then loaded onto a public bus. At an immigration checkpoint somewhere farther north in Oaxaca, government soldiers board the bus to screen for undocumented migrants (a practice now outlawed by Mexico’s Supreme Court, which deemed such stops racist, discriminatory, and unconstitutional in a landmark ruling last year). One of them asks Patricia, Javier’s “pretend mom,” for her papers, looks at Javier and Carla in the seat next to her, and asks: “¿Your children?”
“Patricia pretends she’s sleepy and nods so much I feel her body shaking,” Zamora writes. “A minute. Two minutes. The sweat is now a puddle in my armpits, but I don’t move. I keep breathing. Normal. Normal.” The guard flicks through their papers, hands them back, and lets them continue north. The scene soon repeats itself: another checkpoint. By now Javier has figured out how to crack his eyelids just enough to see the jackboots as the soldiers board the bus. This time, another rider fingers the group. “¡Take them! They are not Mexican,” she says.
Immigration officials pull them off the bus and force them to kneel and then lie down on the ground. “The Boots,” as Javier refers to the officials, “their guns pointed at us, like mouths, like eyes,” shake them down, rob them of the little money they carry, and threaten them until their coyote forks over more. Eventually they’re released to continue their way north, though the bus is long gone and they are left afoot.
The book takes on an even darker tenor when they get to La Línea, the Line—the US–Mexico border—and the gap between what the reader sees approaching and Javier’s youthful point of view widens. As the scholar Kelly Lytle Hernández has written, “The migrants’ journey of unsanctioned entry into the United States reached its climax rather than its beginning along the US–Mexico border.”2 (“Nadir” might be the more accurate term.) The reader knows it, and so, in some way, does Javier:
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this: there’s nothing around. Just yellow-red dirt. Rocks. Some cactuses. A lot of bushes. Dogs barking. Roosters crowing….
There’s no fence and no asphalt road with a McDonald’s parking lot on the other side. There’s nothing. ¡Not even big trees! Just cactuses and bushes.
There are echoes of Hemingway in such descriptions, as when For Whom the Bell Tolls focuses on the squirrels scampering in the pine canopy outside Segovia before the bombs start thundering down. But instead of a battle Javier faces yet another wait. The group hunkers at another safe house for a few days, this time near Nogales, eating and drinking as much as possible to strengthen themselves for the crossing. Finally, with a larger group of about fifty people, they get the green light from their new coyote—like Don Dago, he’s the mero mero, the best—and “con todo a los Yunaited Estais.”
As they head out, the coyote gives Javier and Carla each a pill, which tastes “weird, bitter” and makes his head throb and his legs start shaking: “I’m so awake. It’s almost eleven, the latest I’ve stayed up since the boats, and I’m not tired at all.” It’s unclear what the pill is, but coyotes regularly dole out various forms of stimulants to their charges. At migrant staging areas, where groups wait out the sun, passing patrol cars, or the next order from a guide, it’s not uncommon to find empty pill tabs flecking the dirt like confetti.
Zamora does something striking in these drawn-out scenes: you expect to finally reach that climax of the crossing, but he maintains his focus squarely enough on the minute-by-minute—the deer he spots, the dust, the swish-noise of pants—that the horrors seem mundane. The horrors are mundane, in that thousands of migrants are forced to suffer them every day. Ask someone on the migrant trails how their trip has been. “All good, gracias a Dios” is a typical answer. Talk to them more, however, and you might soon find out they were kidnapped, repeatedly robbed, nearly drowned, or had to tromp alone for days through a jungle—or worse. It’s not that they are shy about it, but simply that such dangers and indignities are expected, that people deal with adversity by normalizing it, absorbing it.
“We walk an hour that way,” their latest coyote tells them, “then it’s Gabacholandia”—slang for the United States. “Don’t. Get. Lost,” he warns. “Whoever stays, stays. We. Will. Not. Wait for you.” He adds, “If you get lost, it’s your fault.” But anybody can get lost in the southwestern deserts, especially when they’re exhausted, dehydrated, and often purposefully scattered by Border Patrol.
No More Deaths, a migrant aid organization I used to volunteer with, has extensively documented that the Border Patrol not only intentionally pushes people into the most distant and dangerous reaches of the desert, but that it also intentionally separates them, dusting them with helicopters or otherwise frightening groups so that they split up and are left isolated and disoriented. The tactic is one of many in the US’s arsenal of anti-immigrant measures collected in a policy called “Prevention Through Deterrence,” which has been in place since the 1990s. The idea behind it is that if the Border Patrol makes crossing painful or deadly enough, migrants will just quit—either by turning themselves in or by not trying in the first place.
As Zamora writes in a poem called “June 10, 1999,” from Unaccompanied, “I’ve always known this country wanted me dead.” What Solito shows is that despite numerous and expensive government efforts to block migrants from finding their way forward toward family, freedom, and safety, those who need to migrate won’t quit. Not quitting is how they save themselves. Not quitting is how they arrived at the border in the first place.
One thing apparent in Solito, which is often lost in the headlines about catastrophes, is that people remain people while they migrate, and make themselves at home as much as they can. They laugh, goof around, and forge friendships. Journalists, myself included, rarely focus on what migrants seem to spend most of their time doing while migrating: not wallowing or rending their shirts, but just doing regular stuff. At most migrant shelters I’ve been to, somebody procures a soccer ball—I’ve played in high-spirited, often shoeless matches with migrants as they wait for the next train or recover from a grueling walk. Sometimes they fall in love. One couple I still keep in touch with met each other at a migrant shelter in 2015 in southern Mexico. They’re now married and raising their son together in Tijuana.
Javier first crosses the US–Mexico border outside Nogales, where at the time there was no wall or fence at all. He downplays the moment in typical fashion:
Our steps sound like eating cereal. All of our steps on the ground. Crunch. Our clothes rustling. Crunch. I can hear people’s water bottles sloshing. Some carry plastic bags, and they rustle louder than backpacks or clothes. The stars are out.
Days later, after being arrested by Border Patrol, jailed, and then sent back to Mexico, they are heading north again somewhere in the desert south of Tucson, and Javier can’t walk anymore. Chino picks him up and starts carrying him on his back. “I haven’t cried,” Zamora writes.
I don’t want to cry. My heart pumps fast. The fastest. Faster than when I saw the helicopter. My stomach hurts. My legs. Everything. My skin is sunburned. My lips are ripped. And then—I can’t stop. I try keeping the sobs in by crunching my belly. My chest pops up. I can’t breathe.
A truculent American rancher sees them and, wielding a shotgun, threatens to shoot them. Instead, he calls Border Patrol and the migrants are shoved back into Mexico. If they want to arrive, if they want to survive, they’ll have to risk their necks again.
Toward the end of Javier’s trip, he learns another term for smuggler: pollero. His new pollero—not unlike Don Dago, he is overpromising, domineering, and as vulnerable to the shifts of luck as all of the guides—refers to the migrants as his chickens, and Javier recalls the same nursery rhyme my wife often sang to our infant son: Los pollitos dicen pío pío pío. Cuando tienen hambre, cuando tienen frío. “The little chicks say pío, pío, pío. When they’re hungry, when they’re cold.”
“We are like chickens,” Javier writes. And after the pollero gets them jackets for the cold, they will “walk across into La USA with our warm feathers.”
See Luis Chaparro, “Migrants Died in Detention Fire Because They Couldn’t Pay $200 Bribe to Be Released,” Vice World News, April 6, 2023. ↩
Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra!: A History of the US Border Patrol (University of California Press, 2010), p. 95. For more on her work, see Francisco Cantú, “An American Story,” The New York Review, March 23, 2023. ↩