The poems everyone needs to read: Javier Zamora’s “Unaccompanied”

I don’t usually talk about myself in book reviews, but this topic is close to my heart. I’m white and a citizen of the U.S. I have always had shelter. I have always had food (except for one December when I was 19 and chose to buy gifts instead of groceries). I want for very little. I work hard, but I’ve never done physical labor. I have a college education. I also love Spanish, teach Latinx American children, and abhor the xenophobic, racist immigration policies the U.S. has toward Latinx immigrants.

I cried reading this collection, something that I don’t normally do from page poetry alone. Javier’s starkness, his honesty about the struggles and strain of being of two places, being torn between family and opportunity, is heartbreaking. The poems are powerful; “If I step / out this door, I want to know nothing will take me…” he writes in “How I Learned to Walk”. It’s so fucking unfair how the U.S. knowingly discriminates against people from Mexico and Central America. It’s wrong. And yet, is it possible to right it?

One of the important parts of changing our immigration policies is to educate people about the conditions of other countries, the why behind families’ decisions to leave. People in the U.S. are so privileged that we take our lifestyles and our relative safety (relative, not absolute) for granted. While far too many millions are low income and food insecure, we still have plenty (particularly the upper and middle classes). We have jobs, even if those jobs don’t pay high enough wages. We have food banks, social services, and community organizations that support pregnancies. We have schools. We have freedom of speech and the freedom to assembly. Many U.S. citizens enjoy living in this country; is it so wrong for other people to want to do the same?

In a love / anti-love poem to Salvador, Javier writes, “Every day cops and gangsters pick at you / with their metallic beaks, and presidents, guilty… // Tonight, how I wish // you made it easier to love you, Salvador. Make it easier / to never have to risk our lives.” Javier also describes border-crossing scenes, how, when caught and released, one family “would try again / and again, / like everyone does.” Another poem, called “Disappeared”, lists people and organizations to hold responsible for missing immigrants. Javier also discusses the conditions – and fear – with which undocumented immigrants live after settling in the U.S.: “everyone’s working / Mom Dad Tía Lupe Tía Mali / working under different names…” Far from the lazy “mooching” stereotype that persists in the imaginations of too many Americans, Javier shows readers that his family doesn’t take their new opportunities for granted.

There is also longing in these pages, a disconnect between worlds, as being undocumented means being unable to return to one’s home country, therefore being forever unable to see family. “When I call abuelos… / always they ask when I’ll visit, // soon, Abuelos, soon. What I mean is / I can never go back.” In another poem, the speaker says, “…if I don’t brush Abuelita’s hair, / wash her pots and pans, I cry.” How to cope with such ongoing loss? “The most beautiful part of my barrio was the stillness…” he writes in “Pump Water from the Well”.

This collection gives me hope; Javier gives me hope. His humility and advocacy are impressive; he brings humanity to an issue so many Americans selfishly dismiss as nonexistent and unimportant.

If you’re able, I encourage you to two copies of this book (available from Copper Canyon Press for $16 plus shipping) and read it with someone in your life who doesn’t understand immigration. I’ve purchased one copy for a student so far; this collection is one of my top 5 I’ve read in the past year, and I plan to purchase more. Change must happen with each of us calmly, lovingly correcting our friends and family members who don’t understand why their views and opinions are harmful. It takes effort, and time, and so much patience. But we are the only hope we have for a better future. As Javier quotes, “[T]oday for you, tomorrow for me.”

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