Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Javier Zamora: Nine Hellish Weeks as a Nine-Year Old Crossing Borders from El Salvador to the US

Javier Zamora's journey demonstrates the realities of what refugees experience everyday.
LBJ Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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In this week’s Scheer Intelligence interview, as in his New York Times bestselling book, ​“Solito: A Memoir,” ​celebrated poet ​Javier Zamora​ ​cuts through the nasty dehumanization about undocumented immigrants with the focused memory of his perilous journey as a child refugee attempting to join his family under the most vulnerable of circumstances. With their lives overturned by the U.S.-sponsored war in El Salvador, Zamora’s parents had found refuge in California, but it took eight years and the risky efforts of a paid smuggler to open the possibility for their child to join them.

​Zamora tells Scheer that the story as written in his book “complicates the issue and it really makes us immigrants into actual human beings, not these flat caricatures, the politicians spew out of their mouth and sometimes the journalists also write us into. What I mean by that is that they flatten us into our trauma, only our trauma, when we are not only our traumas. I am not these nine weeks. I am far more than these nine weeks that I describe​,​ and I allow readers to embody, for them to walk in my shoes, so to speak.​”​

​Zamora points out that of all the Salvadorans that fled during the war, less than 2% of them were granted refugee status​: ​”​We were all refugees of the war. But​ ​because of Reagan politics and because of the Cold War, if you were fleeing a ​’​democracy,​’​ a democracy that the United States was financially supporting at one time more than any other country in the world, more than Israel​,” you were not a refugee.​​ ​”​At one point my country was getting more than $1.8 million a day. That’s taxpayers’ money. When the U.S. was so invested in my country, you couldn’t say that people that were fleeing a democracy were refugees. And so, more than 98% of Salvadorans don’t have papers or were deemed undocumented, since the moment they entered this country.​”

Among them was ​first Zamora’s father, then his mother, and eight years after his father left came the most dangerous journey, when the nine-year old boy left on an unnerving trip so that in many ways was typical of many “undocumented immigrants,” including some in his group who he feared died in the Sonora Desert. It is in their memory that this book is dedicated. Until this book, the trauma of that experience largely produced silence.

“I want to talk about silence,” Zamora tells Scheer in the podcast, “because, since the moment that I crossed the finish line, meaning the U.S.-Mexico border, and I am reunited with my parents, I chose to end the book there, because that is just the beginning of a long story of silence.”

​Zamora chose at age 29 to end his period of silence and write ​”Solito.” The book, he tells Scheer, is for those who have died trying to cross the border, “and for every immigrant who has crossed, who has tried to, who is crossing right now, and who will keep trying.”

Credits

Host:

Robert Scheer

Producer:

Joshua Scheer

Transcript

Robert Scheer:

Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence where the intelligence goes to my guests and Javier Zamora, who is probably well known to many listeners of NPR station like KCRW, has risen to be one of America’s major poets, writers, and the book that he wrote, it’s so compelling that we’re here to discuss “Solito: A Memoir,” Penguin Random House. We’re on Election Day when we’re doing this. The issue of immigration floats around there and the like a… I don’t know, float. It’s more like a cancer, moves through our body politic and all the lying about it, often quite bipartisan. If there’s one thing you should ever look at, read or anything, if you ever want to talk in a meaningful way about immigration as a human concern, it’s this book.

I have covered this issue as a journalist in my 29 years at the LA Times. I’ve been on the border. I’ve interviewed people about it. I’ve written about it. But until I read this book, I didn’t even know what I was talking about. It’s a story of a nine-year-old, spent seven weeks trying to get to the United States to see his mother and father. I’m going to let Javier talk about the writing of it. But I do want to start with one character, your grandfather. Even though I’m a gringo, I do take my nine-year-old to school, like your grandfather took you. My nine-year-old grandson who also has connection with Latin America and Mexico and most of the kids in his school. At first I was alienated by your writing because the grandfather is this smelly old person, which I guess I am also, to a nine-year-old. And then, he emerges as really a considerate and incredible figure.

Take us to the beginning of the story and this incredible book. I wanted to begin by actually the tribute at the very end, maybe you could get to it, to whom you dedicate the book. To all of the immigrants, and you bring it back to the political problem. And after all, you are coming from a country that the U.S. messed up, thought would presume that conceit that we can control their politics. Then you go through Guatemala, from El Salvador, another country that the U.S. was involved in a coup. And then, you go through Mexico, you finally get to the idyllic world of San Rafael, Marin County, California, where you’ve been. And then, you go off to NYU to college. So, just take it. It’s your book and it’s incredible. Fortunately, it’s one of those things that I really respect enormously, and I don’t even have to help sell it. It’s a great success. So, you don’t even need my pushing it.

Javier Zamora:

Well, thank you Robert. It’s an honor to be here and I’m glad to hear that you walk your nine-year-old grandson to school as well. I’ll begin by recapping the book. There was a civil war that happened in El Salvador from 1980 to 1992. I was born in 1990. My dad leaves in 1991 when I’m still one year old. My mom leaves in 1995 when I am five. She leaves me with my grandma, my aunts, and my grandpa. By the time that I’m nine years old, my parents have tried to bring me here in multiple ways, but none of them have worked. And so, in their logic that they’re going to use the same coyote or smuggler to bring me here, the same one that my mom used in 1995. Her trip was relatively fast and safe. She made it here in 14 days and the coyote was with her every single step of the way.

And so, they were expecting the same treatment for me. Of course, that did not happen. At the beginning of the trip, my grandpa accompanied me because he wanted to make sure that everything was going to plan. For the first two weeks, he comes and stays with me in Guatemala at the Mexico-Guatemala border. It is during those two weeks that it seems that I get to meet my grandpa for the first time. Because, for the first nine years and the first five years of my life, he was not the best character around and I was afraid of him. But during these two weeks, he tells me a lot about his life, and he tells me, he gives me a lot of the wisdom. For example, he tells me, reminds me of this character, a Cadejo, which is this mythical figure in Salvadoran folklore. And he tells me that I get one and that, that mythical figure is going to protect me. I believe him and I pray to this mythical figure for the rest of the 90s. Yeah. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Scheer:

Well, let’s talk about him a little bit. The book is so rich and the writing, it’s incredible. You were a pretty smart nine-year-old, although you were not toilet trained and you couldn’t tie your own shoelaces and had the marks of a rural life I guess, and economically were deprived one. But you clearly were a very sharp student. You were even doing this perilous journey of seven weeks in the spring of 1999, which makes you I guess, about 30 something now, right?

Zamora:

32.

Scheer:

Yeah, 32. You still were doing your homework at the beginning under your grandfather’s supervision, which is one of the things I’m reflected in my grandson. I’m sure he objects to my constantly pushing that. Probably not as much as his mother would like. But, your grandfather would represent the complexity of this history. Who are these people? The other, the immigrants, and so forth. At the end you say he does end up coming to the United States, but he was in the military or police, right? He actually protected the president and he was there in that village as part of remembering the politics and the madness. That runs through your book, that you’re on the side of the most vulnerable. How could you be more vulnerable? Crossing a border by yourself when you’re nine? You don’t really, by yourself, you get support from this group, including the coyotes.

But the fact is this, we have refugees and we have migration, because people have suffered and part of that suffering has been visited upon them by the powerful countries, the rich countries. And certainly El Salvador is a very good example. So, give us that background. Your family is thrown up in the air and then descends and manages to get back together again. But it’s not because of their own capriciousness, or their ambition, or their desire for the bright lights of LA or something, right? They’re actually victims of a history. This is visited upon them by powerful people, including the nation that they try to get to, for a different measure of safety.

Zamora:

Well, as an undergrad, I majored in history. I think I needed to major in history in order to understand this question of why am I here? Why is my family here? Through history, I learned a lot of facts. For example, El Salvador during the war was a nation of 5 million people, after the war close to half a million flee. Most of them come to the United States. In 2022, we are a nation of 6 million people, 1.5 to 2 million plus now live in the United States. Before the war, there were less than 70,000 Salvadorans that lived in the United States. There are a lot of facts that get thrown around by politicians, by journalists, and the facts don’t seem to land well. They don’t seem to make a difference. And so, I guess, I was pushed towards writing my family’s truth, because another fact that stuck with me is that, out of all the Salvadorans that fled during the war, less than 2% of them were granted refugee status.

We were all refugees of the war. But, because of Reagan politics and because of the Cold War, if you were fleeing a “democracy,” a democracy that the United States was financially supporting at one time more than any other country in the world, more than Israel. At one point my country was getting more than $1.8 million a day. That’s taxpayers money. When the U.S. was so invested in my country, you couldn’t say that people that were fleeing a democracy were refugees. And so, more than 98% of Salvadorans don’t have papers or were deemed undocumented, since the moment they entered this country.

And so, this is the backdrop of where my grandpa comes in. My family is not unusual in El Salvador. I had members of both my dad’s and my mom’s side of the family that half of them were in the right and a lot of them were in the left. My dad was the leftist in a family. He’s the last of 17 siblings. Three of them were leftist and the rest of them were right wing. He has a brother that was also security for the president like my grandpa was in the ’80s, in the ’70s.

And so, my grandpa was and still is very right wing, and he’s a complicated figure. He’s a complicated figure that I think learned to drink what he witnessed and his emotions away. But, because he loved his daughters… And my mom, before she fled the country, she made him promise that he was never going to drink again because she was afraid to leave me, her only child, her only son with him. And so, he did. He hasn’t drank since he made that promise. He’s like most human beings, like all, I will go as far as say all human beings. The characters in my book are very complicated.

A lot of those characters are also the immigrants that I came here with, which I call “the six.” We set out with eight people, the coyote and this other woman named Marta being two of them, plus six others. There was Chele who was a 32-year-old-man. There was Marcelo who couldn’t have been older than 29, Chino, who was probably 19 years old. Marta, who was this beautiful woman who was probably 28. Patricia, a mom, who she was probably like 27 with her 12-year-old daughter, Carla, and myself. This is the group that sets out and slowly we become “the six” and then we become “the four.” And “the four” is this group who I dedicate the book to, which is Chino, Patricia, Carla, and myself. They are the core group that actually ends up taking care of me. They are the reason why I survived.

Scheer:

You use this word that they’re complex figures and of course chauvinism, stigmatization, it all is based on denying the complexity of the other. An incredible thing about your book is that not a single person in this book can be disregarded, once you read the book. They all have, yes, their contradictions, their passions, their intelligence, their wisdom, both earned from experience and their own thoughtfulness or anger or whatever. And you end the book, “I never found out what happened to Chele or to any of the countless others who are with me. I fear they died in the Sonoran Desert. This book is for them and for every immigrant who has crossed, who has tried.” Okay, I’m crying. Do you have that in front of you? Can you read it? “Who has tried to, is crossing right now and who will keep trying.” God, this has never happened to me on a podcast, but my own mother was an undocumented immigrant from Lithuania, left there after the Russian Revolution. Her group was persecuted by the Bolsheviks as they had been by the Czar.

I’ve been on all sides of this. I’ve been on those INS, now ICE raids. I’ve been in the fields when people were arrested. I was on the border with a progressive guy in the Carter administration, Leonel Castillo, who was the immigration commissioner. But yet, when they’re rounding these people up, they’re rounding up, at the best sense, maybe sheep that they might want to preserve, or foxes that they’re going to kill. The dehumanization is baked into the whole immigration issue.

What your book did… The reason it is the indispensable book to read about this subject is you categorically deny that vicious simplification and disregard for humans. You do what Christ did. I’m not a religious person… commands in a parable, at least of the good Samaritan that you have to care about the other. We don’t have almost none of that in our discussion of immigration. It’s all politicized, it’s all… The humanity is taken out. I don’t want to… Yes, the book succeeds on many other levels, but for me, God, I found it indispensable really to understand what’s at stake here. It’s those people dying in the desert and they are you.

Zamora:

Yeah, right. I want to talk about silence as well. Because, since the moment that I crossed the finish line, meaning the U.S. Mexico border, and I am reunited with my parents. I chose to end the book there, because that is just the beginning of a long story of silence. So, from the age of 9 up until I’m 29, when I begin to write this book, I can’t remember. Or, I don’t want to remember this story, because if I do, I have to at the same time recognize that a lot of these characters, a lot of these people, I don’t know what happened to them. And that passage that you just read is true. I fear that these people died, like many others have died. Countless others that don’t even make the figures. Border patrol started counting numbers of people dying at the desert in 1999. We don’t know how many others died before and continue to do so.

I think it’s that life toll, that realization that somehow I survived and I am not one of those figures, is what caused my silence. And also, what causes silence in immigrant communities. We don’t want to remember this. It is hard to remember this. This meaning our own because no two stories are the same. But, we don’t want to recount these stories that we keep hidden. And sometimes, we keep them hidden because of us, of our own brains. Because, that’s what our brains tell us in order to survive. But also, because of these politicians and because of these journalists. Because every time that a politician tells us that crossing the border is a crime, we internalize that. For 20 years I have felt that I did something wrong. When in reality, we are all complex human beings and sometimes, we are forced to do something that doesn’t make sense. But, that doesn’t make it wrong and that doesn’t make me wrong.

I hope that this book, like what you were saying, that it complicates the issue and it really makes us immigrants into actual human beings, not these flat caricatures, the politicians spew out of their mouth and sometimes the journalists also write us into. What I mean by that is that they flatten us into our trauma, only our trauma, when we are not only our traumas. I am not these nine weeks. I am far more than these nine weeks that I describe and I allow readers to embody, for them to walk in my shoes, so to speak.

Scheer:

Actually, what’s so great about your book is, it’s a tribute to literature. It’s what journalism lacks. It’s not the fault. I’m a journalist. It’s what I’ve done all my life and that’s the job. It’s an important job. But you’re a poet, you’re a writer, basically. What’s so compelling, and I say it’s the rare occasion for me, where something I want to celebrate is also celebrated by the larger society. This book is a big hit. But if you want publishing language, it’s accessible to people. People are inspired by it. And we might talk a little bit about your journey. You were in a very privileged community where you end up there in San Rafael, but you run into some teachers, one of whom ends up being what? The poet laureate of the United States and they inspire you and people along the way.

What you say is complexity, is really the significance of being human.

Zamora:

Yeah.

Scheer:

It’s so interesting that you don’t want to talk about it. Because, late in life… My mother lived to actually be close to the age I am now. We had two bronze candlestick holders in the house and I never could figure out why she wanted to hold onto them. They were ugly and heavy. One was owned by her sister, my aunt who came across with her and steerage and on a perilous journey. I’m sure it had characteristics similar to yours. They were older. They were young women and they were 20-year-olds. Only late at the end did she tell me the candlestick holder she used is her defense mechanism to protect her from other immigrants, from people who wanted to abuse her and so forth.

The idea. Yet, she never talked about it. She always put the best face on being an immigrant garment worker in New York and so forth. Oh, it’s great. I get to stand in line at the concert. I get to have a son who goes to college. All that kind of stuff. What I found compelling about it, what is it — Seven weeks? It’s seven weeks showing of… And it’s important that it’s a variety of human beings. Even the guards in Mexico that want to get money, the police, there are some contradictions, some doubt. The coyotes. They’re not just exploiting, they’re aiding. Why don’t you talk about that a bit? Heroes, like your grandfather. You’re scared of him, and then he turns out to be a source of wisdom. I’m not pushing grandfathers because I’m one. But, I’m saying, this is really what literature’s all about and that journalism isn’t. And politics isn’t.

Zamora:

Yeah.

Well. I want to remind listeners and readers that I am describing a network that existed in 1999. I volunteer at the border now and the players have changed. In 1999, the cartels weren’t in the business of smuggling people. Now, they very much are. And so, if you stay with me, 1999, some of these smugglers genuinely, and I also want to extend and actually say that they do, and they did, help make people’s lives better. Their job was created because of a demand. The demand was that people were fleeing places that weren’t safe. And so, these people, coyotes, smugglers were helping people. And in my case, that certainly did occur. Not all the time. Not with our initial person, Don Dago, which is the coyote’s name from El Salvador, because he left us. So, there is that type of coyote. But, there’s also the coyotes that eventually do take us and help us along the way.

And so, that’s just an example of how, I guess, to put it back into capitalistic terms: if there’s a demand, there’s going to be a person that’s going to do that job. There are going to be people that love that job and are going to do the very best that they can. There are others that are not. That’s certainly the same thing with coyotes in 1999.

I also want to talk about privilege. I have a green card now. I could never have imagined writing a book like this, if I did not have papers. I also couldn’t have written a book like this, if I didn’t have the privilege to have a therapist that generally held my hand as I walked or retraced my steps with her. I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t have such a supportive wife and partner that I do, who also held my other hand and helped me retrace this journey. Which, from December of 2019 until I finished editing the book in August of 2022, of this year, these people were alongside me. My job was to remember and retrace my steps, which is a huge privilege, that the average immigrant who has suffered, maybe not as much, or maybe 10 times more than I suffered during those nine weeks. They don’t have the privilege to do so.

Scheer:

Well, I want to thank you for that summary. Before I let you go, though. Okay. The book ends, you don’t even know if you’re going to see your parents. You think they’re there, the other side of the door. Then, we know that you end up, from what’s written about you, in what is a privileged section of Marin County, Northern California. One of the richest in the country. I assume your family was living in more difficult circumstances, even there, but it must have been a world apart from where you grew up in El Salvador. Take us there. How does it end, and what do you do? You become a normal, suburban American kid, or what?

Zamora:

Well, technically, it is suburbia. I just remember 24 hours after I crossed the desert and reunited with my parents. Then, we land at SFO. We drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. Marin County is beautiful. It is one of the richest counties in the world. At the time, I think it was number seven. It’s still top 10. As we drive closer to what I thought was my parents’ home, there are less and less houses. There are these other things called apartment buildings after apartment building. We turn into a neighborhood in San Rafael, called the Canal, which I want to say, it’s perhaps 95% recent immigrant community like I was that day. We get to a door, and my parents still remind me of this. I said, “Okay. Where is the house?” I just remember my dad almost crying because they’re opening the door to an apartment complex.

I think that is a metaphor for my life in the United States. You know? What I left in El Salvador, I left acres of land. I left different oranges, different mango trees. That is a childhood that, perhaps, doesn’t exist for many people in the world. If I wanted a fruit, I could just go to the back, and take it from the tree and eat it. Then, I get to Marin County, being so close to the rich, and yet, not being rich. Then, being in a two-bedroom apartment that my parents rent out one of the bedrooms, and then, they rent out the living room. I am stuck in this small bedroom. My parents sleep right next to me. My whole world is crunched. It is that crunch that makes it so difficult for 10-year-old me to really make sense of why I did what I did, meaning survive the nine weeks that it took me to get here.

It is that question, I think, it’s the reason why I’m a writer today. I’m just trying to understand why, and how, do refugees from the Salvadoran Civil War wind up in the richest county in the United States, and why their lives are not like those around them, meaning the gringo citizens surrounding the Canal in San Rafael. I think that is the question that I am still trying to understand, today. I think that’s going to be the main question of my next book. From the ages of nine up until 21, my entire time that I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, I was undocumented. It’s not until I graduate UC Berkeley that I get this status called TPS. That’s kind of like DACA, or what Dreamers have. It’s not until then that I leave the Bay Area. So, to me, the Bay Area, Marin County, the Canal specifically, it’s a complicated place. I think that it’s also not an unusual relationship to have as an immigrant to wherever it is that you land from your home countries to here.

Scheer:

Yeah. You’re also quite close to San Quentin-

Zamora:

Yeah.

Scheer:

… Prison, with its infamous death row, and a largely racialized population of people that have suffered, many ways more than people in your home country. One of the largest prison populations. So, it is, and yet, there’s a consciousness. There are people who mean well. Let’s end on a positive note. You do mention in your book that you had teachers there, one of whom goes on to become poet laureate of the United States. Then, you’ve had this incredible success with this book, and it’s deserved. I don’t know. We always forget, of course. We pay tribute to immigrants for having made America, which they clearly did. Okay? Then, you’re a good example of that. You know? You still don’t have the full citizenship, but you’ve contributed enormously as a poet, and now as a writer of a memoir, to our life. So, let’s talk about it as a happy ending, at least, so far.

Zamora:

Yes. My life in this country is, at times, unbelievable, even to myself, but I would caution against using the term “dream” to refer to my life because I don’t want to sign up to something that doesn’t necessarily happen for most people. I am very aware that my “success” hasn’t and didn’t happen, and doesn’t happen, for many people. Most of the people in Bahia Vista Elementary School… I was not the smartest kid. At Davidson Middle School, I was also not the smartest kid. We forget that luck has a lot to do with it, and I am very lucky. I have been very fortunate to be at the right place, at the right time. For example, I got a full ride to go to the Branson School, which is one of the “best” high schools in the country. I only got there-

Scheer:

Is that the Catherine Branson School?

Zamora:

No. Marin Catholic is the Catholic one. The Branson school is where Julia Childs went, and-

Scheer:

Oh. Yeah. But, wasn’t the woman that it’s named after. Catherine Branson, I think.

Zamora:

I think. I don’t know. I don’t know. Perhaps. I don’t think-

Scheer:

It is one of the really elite schools in California-

Zamora:

Yeah, yeah.

Scheer:

… private schools. No question about it.

Zamora:

Yeah. That happened by luck. You know? A coach saw me playing soccer. It turns out that that coach, that coached me from 6th grade up until I’m 18, he happened to be the athletic director of the Branson School. So, he helped us with the application process, etc., etc. That’s what I’m talking about. On paper, I have all the accolades. I have gone to X, Y, and Z University. And-

Scheer:

Well, tell us about that. No, no. It’s part of the American fantasy, and yet, corruption in a way-

Zamora:

Yes.

Scheer:

… the singling out of certain people who are, then, useful and acceptable. You know?

Zamora:

Yes.

Scheer:

Okay. I’m putting myself in there.

Zamora:

Yeah.

Scheer:

I grew up in the Bronx with immigrants, and so forth. Yeah. You know? If you can make yourself useful to the system, or at least not be ultimately threatening, you get some chances. Who knows where your writing will go. Maybe, they won’t like it-

Zamora:

Yeah.

Scheer:

… also. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that? You ended up… What? At Stanford, Harvard, all these places, and…

Zamora:

Yeah. I graduated from UC Berkeley. My last year, they started a scholarship for undocumented students. I was one of the first undocumented students at UC Berkeley to get that scholarship because for undocumented students, we don’t qualify for federal grants or federal loans. It was difficult to be a student. At the time, it was the number one public university in the world. From there, I go to NYU. When I go there, it is the richest university in the world, or the one that costs the most. I get a full ride. Then, I go to Stanford and Harvard. At all these, what I do want to add, and again, complicating the narrative, that at all these places, I felt like an outsider because I usually was the only brown student, or first generation student in a room. Very often, I was the only previously undocumented student in a room.

I want to complicate this idea of a dream. A dream, for me, would be where I don’t have to say that, “I am the first off, first off, first off. Blah, blah, blah.” That carries its toll. We also have, in the United States, this narrative of the good immigrant versus the bad immigrant. Well, it’s more complicated than that. When I was at all these institutions, I was suffering, mentally speaking. My mental health was not the best. I did things that I shouldn’t have done. So, that’s what’s also not talked about, the toll that these dreamers, these immigrants, carry with them for being the first. I am tired of being the first. I think that a lot of people are. So, that’s what I want to say. I hope that, as a writer, I’m also complicating those portrayals, or ideas, that people throw onto my life and my CV.

Scheer:

I’m happy that we had a break, and we’re doing this. I had, I don’t know if you know, another writer, Obed Silva, in my class last night. I did a podcast with him. He’s written a book about his own cross border journey back and forth from Mexico, and that he was in a gang, and he got shot, and he’s now this… He’s also teaching literature at Cal State, over in East LA. He’s written another book that is very well received. Yet, you mentioned luck, accident. You know? Yeah. He survived it, but he did serve time in prison, and it was hard. The system was rigged against him. If he had taken the plea bargain, it would’ve been 12 years, and he would’ve been finished. That’s the problem with success stories. It makes the failure of others their fault.

Zamora:

Oh, yeah.

Scheer:

That’s got to be challenged because-

Zamora:

Absolutely.

Scheer:

… the system is really rigged against us. You know? Getting that scholarship you mentioned, but not everybody can get to use it. Not everyone gets admitted. There isn’t enough to go around. You know? I live in Los Angeles, been here a long time. The story of most immigrants in this town, who did not come from the selected WASP areas of the world. I remember, when I was first covering this issue, the quotas were 25,000 from Mexico, and 25,000 for Iceland. Well, Iceland had 300,000 people, and no great desire to come here. In my own coverage of this issue, hypocrisy was the name of the game. You know?

Zamora:

Yeah.

Scheer:

Take a country like Mexico, almost everybody in Mexico has as much a claim to be in any other part of what’s now called the United States as anyone else who arrived here, unless they’re Indigenous. You know? The Indigenous people live on both sides of the border. So, I think this is an important point because you are now in a position where you are being celebrated. I hope it lasts. You certainly deserve it. It’s one of the most powerful books that I’ve ever read. I think it’s incredible. I want to be clear about that. You deserve any success, but you will be under pressure to be the poster immigrant. “Why can’t everybody be like that?” What you’ve just said is you weren’t like that. You’re complex.

Zamora:

Yeah.

Scheer:

One of the strengths of this book was your honesty, emitting… Just the act of going to the bathroom, or tying your shoes, and your own doubt of self. Yet, the love that was shown for you by your relatives, by people who were strangers-

Zamora:

Strangers. Yeah.

Scheer:

Yeah. I mean, I think it’s the most compelling thing about this book. Donald Trump, particularly, tried to make the people coming across the border as just zombies, inhuman people, and opportunistic, and so forth. This is a love story. I mean, Yes. They’re complex. Yes. They might smell bad at times, when they’re sweating, crammed into a van, or something. Yes. People are worried about themself. This is really… I mean, is that a fair point on which to sum this up?

Zamora:

Yeah.

Scheer:

Is it a love story?

Zamora:

They are all survivors. That is a term that, I think, rarely gets used when we speak about immigrants. Refugees, sometimes. I think we are all surviving something, and running away from something. If we treat immigrants as survivors, maybe, we, who are no longer immigrating, or who have never immigrated, can have a bigger level of empathy for these people that are just human beings, being asked to survive the unsurvivable and the horrendous, even in those horrendous scenes that I describe, and scenes that continue to happen as me and you are speaking, right now, these individuals show superhuman abilities to just embody empathy. You know, I, certainly, wouldn’t be alive if the individuals around me didn’t show me the empathy that they did, and the love that they did. So, I just hope that me writing this gives back some of that love that they gave me when I was nine years old.

Scheer:

Well, that is the spirit of the book. By the way, sometimes people hesitate to pick up a book like this. You know? Okay. How much suffering can you handle? Amazingly enough, because it is so human, it’s a page turner. I do want to tell people that. This is a book that you will, believe it or not, enjoy reading-

Zamora:

Thank you.

Scheer:

… because you will see yourself in it. Not just because I happen to be from immigrants, of course, almost all. The book is also about Indigenous people, and about race, and about color, and divide and conquer. Okay. I’m going to go out on a limb, here. It’s brilliant. It’s actually a brilliant exposition on the human condition. You use the immigrant issue as a way of discussing, “What is this common humanity that we refer to every once in a while?” If it exists, it sure exists in your book. So, let me end on that note of endorsement. Thanks for doing this.

Zamora:

Thank you so much. Yeah. That’s quite an endorsement. Thank you, Robert.

Scheer:

Okay. It’s spontaneous. So, I got to stop gushing and get more professional here. I want to thank, by the way, some very fine people. Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho at KCRW, the terrific NPR station in Santa Monica, for getting these things posted, getting this out there. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, who happens to be my son, and the grandson of those immigrants on both sides of our family that came from the… He’s the one that pushed me to do this, and said, “You know? Enough talking to old white guys. This is an incredible book. You’ve got to get this guy on the show.”

So, a special shout out to Joshua Scheer. I want to thank the JKW Foundation, in the memory of a terrific writer, Jean Stein, for putting up some funding for this. Last one, Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who won the poetry award. She’s from a Mexican and Persian background, won a major poetry award at UCLA many years ago, and works with me on our website. She’s the one that was very familiar with your poetry. I think you came in, even, to speak in one of her classes. So, I do want to thank her for getting me to stay up all night to read the book, which was not difficult to do.

Okay. On that note, see everybody next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.


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