Skip to main content

Solito: A Memoir

Review

Solito: A Memoir

The Spanish word "solito" means alone. In his memoir, SOLITO, Javier Zamora shares the perilous journey that he made as a fairly sheltered nine-year-old from a rural town in El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico, to the US.

A disclaimer: I typically don’t like memoirs. But I lived in Mexico for a few years and was a dual language teacher. Many of my students' parents journeyed to the US and lived as undocumented workers in order to provide a better life for their children. I am both fascinated and horrified by the dangerous trips that migrants make to try to come here --- fascinated by the bravery and fortitude of those daring to risk their lives, and horrified that their existence in their native country was so fraught that making such a journey was the best option for them.

The details in SOLITO are impressive as Zamora takes us, almost step by step, all of the 3,000 miles from La Herradura, El Salvador, through Central America, and across the Arizona border into "La USA," as they call it. We learn a lot about life in his small town and how his grandparents support and care for him. His parents are already in the US, his father leaving when he was only a year old and his mother joining him a few years later.

"While SOLITO is a moving account of a child's perilous journey, it's also a reminder of how we can find compassion and family where we least expect it."

Zamora and his grandparents live simply, with no phone or indoor plumbing. He attends a Catholic school and works hard to try to earn a scholarship. His parents send him toys that he zealously guards. Many of his classmates are also without their mothers and fathers, and every so often some of them will go missing as they leave to join their folks in the US. It's all very hush-hush; if the authorities get wind of these defections, they might try to stop them. Although Zamora is aware that he will be making "The Trip" soon, he doesn't know when.

Zamora tells us about his daily life and his relationships with his relatives and friends, along with the people in their small town and how they live. So when he finally gets the call to be ready to go, we have a better understanding of what he’s leaving. He's parting with the familiar, those who have cared for him and love him. But the life he's abandoning is not one that has much promise or a secure future (or perhaps no future at all). The only way forward is to join his parents.

The narrative is vivid as Zamora relates remembered (or recreated) dialogue and description --- "She slices the pineapple, yellow juice coats her hands" --- and Spanish dialogue is sprinkled throughout. However, even a Spanish speaker like myself might be confused by the El Salvadorian dialect. Zamora shares some of the differences and how, when they are in Mexico and trying to blend in, using the word "pajilla" instead of "popote" for straw labels them as migrantes. This is definitely a book for adults or teens; there is a liberal use of profanity in both languages.

For example, "Vos. Shhhttt. No te hagás el maje, cerote" has several words that I believe are specific to the Spanish of El Salvador. I was able to guess at the meaning, but only because I speak Spanish. A non-Spanish-speaking reader might be nonplussed by the plethora of Spanish in the text. I wish there was a section at the end of the book with translations for some of the frequently used words, like chamarra for jacket. On the other hand, the liberal use of Spanish and Spanish slang does make SOLITO feel more authentic. And we do feel as if we are immersed in the trip, living in the smoke-filled small rooms as the group of six waits days and even weeks for the next leg of their journey.

What struck me most about Zamora's account was the paradoxical nature of how those around him treated him. At the start of his journey, his grandfather saw that someone from their town was also making the trip: "That's good, you have someone you know." Small-town people often feel like they are extended family, but that man ended up betraying them. However, it turns out that a few strangers were the ones who cared for Zamora and protected him. Also paradoxical is the method of travel. At times, they ride on plush buses with soft seats and bathrooms. Yet at the end, like all those trying to reach “La USA,” they must endure crossing the desert with its burning days and frigid nights.

While SOLITO is a moving account of a child's perilous journey, it's also a reminder of how we can find compassion and family where we least expect it.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on September 16, 2022

Solito: A Memoir
by Javier Zamora

  • Publication Date: September 6, 2022
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth
  • ISBN-10: 0593498062
  • ISBN-13: 9780593498064