JAVIER ZAMORA’S UNACCOMPANIED AND ERIKA L. SÁNCHEZ’S LESSONS ON EXPULSION
WHEN I heard the news that Javier Zamora and Erika L. Sánchez, both of whose careers I’d been following, had placed their books with two of the most prestigious poetry publishers in the country—Copper Canyon Press and Graywolf Press, respectively—I knew I had to find a way to visit them and ask them about their work. Both identify as Latino and have close connections to a narrative about undocumented immigration; they both also received the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, which recognizes early talent and promise. But their personal stories are as distinct as their voices, as I learned after spending time with Zamora in Washington, D.C., while we were both in town for different literary events, and with Sánchez in the Chicago area, where she was born and raised.
Javier Zamora’s story begins in a small town in El Salvador called La Herradura, or “the horseshoe,” where he was born in 1990. The country’s violent civil war was still years from ending and the Zamora family began to fracture under the weight of living in the part of the city occupied by the military. Zamora was only a year old when his father, an eighteen-year-old fisherman, fled the country under cover of darkness. “The family myth is that that’s how I learned to walk,” Zamora says. “I followed him out the door.”
Four years later, his mother migrated north to join her husband, but Zamora would not see his father until age nine, when he made the treacherous trek from Central America to the United States, unaccompanied by a family member, under the charge of other undocumented immigrants.
As we walk along the National Mall, past the Washington Monument and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Zamora can’t resist a pause in the story he’s told many times but which still moves him.
The small party of border crossers traveled through Guatemala and into Oaxaca in southern Mexico, where their “coyote,” or smuggler, unexpectedly abandoned them. For six weeks Zamora was lost in limbo, his
parents unable to reach him. A fellow border crosser he remembers only as “Chino” became his guardian angel and guided him the rest of the way, which included a dangerous expedition across the Sonoran Desert to reach the United States, where he was reunited with his anxious parents in Tucson. The family eventually settled in San Rafael, California.
That crossing left an indelible impression on Zamora, who remains haunted by the experience, one he relives when he hears about other unaccompanied minors. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reports that nearly sixty thousand unaccompanied children attempted to cross the border in 2016 alone.
“I had to write that book, I had to give it that title,” Zamora says about his debut poetry collection, Unaccompanied, published this month by Copper Canyon Press. We are now seated comfortably, sipping cappuccinos in the café of the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden, both aware of our humble origins and the fortune that led us to this present, as immigrants who became poets.
For Zamora, that meant serendipitous connections with early champions, like Tom Ryan, his soccer coach, who helped Zamora enroll in the prestigious Branson School, in Ross, California, just north of San Francisco, on a sports scholarship. It was here that he met poet Rebecca Foust, who introduced him to the poetry of Pablo Neruda. “Becky opened one door after another,” Zamora says. She made it possible for him to imagine pursuing an education despite his standing as an alien with “Temporary Protected Status,” similar to DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Foust mentored an enthusiastic Zamora regularly, nurturing his hunger for literature and feedback. But what most impressed her was that “his empathy and awareness of language in those early poems were just extraordinary for a writer of his age,” she says. “Anybody would have seen it. Another thing that struck me about his work was his subject: poems showing very sensitive, sophisticated thinking about what it means to be an immigrant in this country today.”
Despite his eagerness to pursue his newfound passion at the college level, he encountered the limitations of his situation: There was no academic funding available for undocumented students—a fact that sowed the seeds for his future activism—so he looked for hope wherever he could find it.
Haunted by his country’s civil war, Zamora also felt a sense of responsibility to become a historian for his community, so he studied the subject as a major at the University of California in Berkeley. But the voices of witness were not in the textbooks, and neither were his personal connections to the larger narrative— like the story about his grandfather, who once guarded the cell in which Roque Dalton was incarcerated. The celebrated poet escaped and Zamora’s grandfather lost his job. “Where was the best place to write and share those stories?” Zamora asked himself. He quickly realized that it was in poetry.
“At Berkeley I had two life-changing encounters: one was taking ‘Poetry for the People,’ which made it possible for me to imagine a place at the literary table without losing touch with my roots,” he says. “And the second was learning about Solmaz Sharif, the Iranian American poet, an immigrant like me who had also been to Berkeley. I decided I wanted to follow in her footsteps.” Like Sharif, whose debut, Look, was published by Graywolf in 2016, Zamora applied and was admitted to NYU’s MFA program, and then, in 2016, he, too, moved back across the country to attend Stanford University, as a Wallace Stegner fellow, where Sharif is currently a Jones lecturer.
By the time he was twenty-one, Zamora was certain of his career path. He had just published a chapbook titled Nueve Años Inmigrantes with Organic Weapon Arts, a small press out of Detroit, and to honor his homeland and its national poet, he had Dalton’s poem “Como Tú” tattooed in its entirety along the left side of his torso. The poem contains the famous line, “Poetry, like bread, is for everybody.” Zamora smiles. “I put that poem on my body because I too was a poet,” he says. “There was no denying it after that.”
However, another possible complication arose: how to explain to his parents about his chosen path in life. When Zamora was a child, his mother spent most of the day watching other people’s children while his father labored long hours as a landscaper doing arduous tasks Zamora knew all too well, having helped his father after school and before soccer practice throughout high school. His parents had instilled in him a strong
work ethic and encouraged him to find a practical profession. Being a poet was not exactly that.
“Even though I knew what I wanted to be, I still hesitated telling my father,” Zamora says. “It seemed like such a disappointing next step to take after all that sacrifice, after such a long road from El Salvador to the U.S.” Father and son were working together, painting a house, when he decided to reveal his plans. His father simply replied, “You go where your heart is telling you to go.”
This was the permission Zamora needed in order to move forward, and not long thereafter, in 2015, after completing his MFA, his literary journey began to skyrocket. He served one year as the Olive B. O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University, and during this time he was awarded a coveted poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A year later came the Ruth Lilly fellowship. But one accomplishment was the most personal: the public acknowledgement of his work with the Undocupoets.
“When I began to submit my poetry manuscript to contests, many publisher websites stated that only U.S. citizens could submit. We wanted to change that,” Zamora says. That “we” included fellow activist poets Christopher “Loma” Soto and Marcelo Hernández Castillo. Together their grassroots efforts, including a petition that garnered hundreds of signatures, proved fruitful, and soon most presses removed the requirement—one that made no sense in a political climate in which undocumented young people were coming forward and becoming visible in all walks of life, including the arts. The Undocupoets were recognized with the 2016 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, Inc., the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine.
“I’m tired of walking in the shadows. I want to be seen,” Zamora says as he explains his professional mission. That fervor and bravado is what first caught Copper Canyon Press editor Michael Wiegers’s attention when he met Zamora at NYU and, later, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. “His generous spirit shone through the poems,” Wiegers says. “He was and is so excited about the world of poetry and the work of poetry—and that is, for me, a very contagious thing. He actually believes in its transformational power, and I think he lives that daily. How, as an editor, could I not want to be a part of that?”
Zamora is ecstatic about the release of Unaccompanied, though he knows this book is coming out amid so much uncertainty about his fate as well as the fate of others who share his alien status. The current administration in Washington continues to send mixed messages that intensify anxieties and create mistrust in political assurances. The threat of deportation refuses to dissipate. Zamora, however, doesn’t appear shaken. He has lived through his country’s civil war and a perilous expedition through the desert. He will survive this period of unease as well. At this point in our conversation we are standing in front of the Capitol, taking a selfie. Around us, dozens of tourists from all over the world are doing the same.
“These buildings don’t mean anything to me,” Zamora says. “But that I’m walking in front of them, without fear, with plenty of hope, means everything.”
FOR Erika L. Sánchez, the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants who became citizens long after her birth in 1984, Chicago and its working-class suburbs have always been her stomping grounds. Sánchez remembers particularly the black and Mexican communities like Pilsen, on the west side of Chicago, and Cicero, a suburb farther west. “And cheesecake,” she adds. For many years her father brought treats home from the dessert factory where he worked.
We are driving through the city streets in her ’99 silver Infiniti as she notes specific points of interest. “Over there was the Cove Motel, just a block from where I lived. It was always full of prostitutes.” That image stayed with her when she began to negotiate the ways men perceived her sexuality as she hit puberty.
“Age twelve is when everything collapsed,” she explains. Sánchez embraced feminism and atheism, and she began to question the differences between her Mexican identity and that of her parents: “I wouldn’t call myself a Chicana until college, when I encountered that word,” she says, “so in the meantime I sunk into depression— what exactly was I?”
As the only daughter in the family, Sánchez was somewhat of a puzzle— a young woman who rejected gender norms by becoming a tomboy, her bangs hiding her eyes. At one point she even shaved her head. “My mother wanted me to be a homebody,” she says, “but I craved adventure.”
With limited resources, she sought an escape in serial books like Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club, painfully aware that she was exploring worlds so dissimilar to her own. Her reality was street violence and poverty and rarely seeing her mother because she worked the night shift at a paper factory. “There was such a difference between what was happening in my ’hood and what was playing in my head when I read,” she says. To bridge this divide she turned to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and lost herself in the moody, gloomy language that more accurately reflected her disposition.
Sánchez zooms through the center of Pilsen and snags the first parking space she finds once we arrive at the National Museum of Mexican Art. We’re going to continue our conversation inside. “I rarely came here as a kid even though it was so close by,” she says as we walk in. “But this is where I’m having my book-release party.” Her collection, Lessons on Expulsion, released in July, is the first title by a Latino poet published by Graywolf Press.
As an adolescent, Sánchez felt “perpetually frustrated” and channeled her thoughts in journal after journal. She was certain that there was something more for her out there, and until she figured out what that was, she withdrew deeper into her own mind. “Judy Blume saved me,” she says. “So did Adrienne Rich and Gloria Anzaldúa.” A number of these books were loans from her older brother Omar, who was an English major at Illinois State. It was his education that encouraged her to apply to nearby University of Illinois in Chicago, where she enrolled in 2002.
As a college student she began to spread her wings, but it was the year she spent in Spain as a Fulbright
fellow in 2007 that really made a difference. “I began to understand my freedoms, but also my privileges,” she says. This softened the way she perceived her mother—and her mother’s expectations of her Mexican daughter—but she also accepted that there was no turning back. She returned from Europe with a renewed sense of purpose. What was once an act of personal expression became a calling, so she decided to pursue an MFA degree.
Her three-year residence in Albuquerque, attending the writing program at the University of New Mexico, was “a challenging time, but it did give me the space to write,” she says. And it was here that she studied under Dana Levin, a Richard Russo Visiting Writer, whom she credits with enriching her love of language. Levin recalls Sánchez’s writing fondly: “We throw this word around a lot these days, but Erika really was the epitome of fierce—fierce about writing and revising, fierce about tackling sex and family and identity and violence as subjects, especially as they intersected in her life experience, in the world, in her imagination.”
Despite the vote of confidence, Sánchez faced a difficult adjustment after she completed her degree and moved back to Chicago. She didn’t have much luck finding a job that could further her writing career, so she took a job in marketing in 2010, an error in judgment, she now concedes, that cost her dearly. “I cried in the bathroom all the time,” she says.
There was, however, a saving grace: Oh Hells Nah, a blog she kept for two years, in which she worked through her complicated emotions, much in the way she kept journals as a teenager. Because she used a pseudonym, she had permission to say anything, “and this was liberating,” she says. The blog addressed the anxieties and challenges of being a modern-day Latina navigating cultural pressures and the guilt of resisting them. She wrote openly about sex and desire, with a level of selfdeprecating humor that allowed her to write her way out of the dark place in which she found herself.
Then, in 2015, her luck changed. “Receiving the Ruth Lilly fellowship gave me validation,” Sánchez says. “And not long after, Graywolf accepted my manuscript.”
Editor Jeff Shotts explains the appeal of the collection: “The extraordinary ways that she interweaves sometimes very personal poems about growing up the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants with larger-scale, even more journalistic poems about narco-traffickers, sex workers, factory laborers, and border violence and history make Lessons on Expulsion an ambitious, rare kind of first book.”
Soon after, more good news: Knopf bought her young-adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,
forthcoming in October. Sánchez wanted to mark the occasion with something special and personal but also slightly rebellious, as per the title of her novel. She chose a tattoo: a silhouette of two horses on her upper right bicep. The horses were inspired by the Larry Levis poem “Anastasia & Sandman,” which in turn inspired the two horses in her novel. “My mom wasn’t thrilled,” Sánchez says. “But she’s resigned herself to my shenanigans. Very little surprises her anymore.”
Not everything took a turn for the better, however. As her career ascended, her long-term relationship with her significant other began to fall apart. The two were married only a year and a half before but it became apparent that it was best to separate. Devastated by the breakup, Sánchez coped the best way she knew how: by channeling her energy to the writing, revising with fervor her literary debuts.
Nonetheless, this year will be another great one for Sánchez: Besides celebrating the release of her books, she has bid farewell to the Midwest and relocated to New Jersey, where she’ll be a Princeton Arts Fellow at the university for the next two years, starting in the fall.
The emotional labor and heartache that it took to get to this point in her career isn’t lost on Sánchez. “It’s exhausting,” she says. “But it’s also important work. It saved my life, and I hope it can save someone else’s.”
Sánchez makes that statement with her signature smile. When I point out that we haven’t moved from the entrance of the art exhibit this whole time, she bursts into laughter, and this eases the gravity of the moment.
“After this, I’ll take you to see the Chicago skyline from Palmisano Park,” she says. “There’s a circle of Buddha heads up there, but people keep taking them. Everyone wants to have some peace.”
We exit the museum, climb back into her car, and she stomps on the gas pedal. We’re off, full speed and fearlessly, which appears to be the most comfortable way Sánchez moves forward.
Erika L. Sánchez