SINCE MY FIRST encounter with a white person—a Border Patrol Agent who detained me in the Sonoran Desert when I was nine—whiteness has continued to follow me every second of my life on this side of the border. It’s with me when I write, it’s with me when I sleep, it follows me to the bathroom, it’s deeply ingrained in my work, and it’s been hard to disentangle myself from it—especially now that I’m writing a memoir during a pandemic about immigrating here as an unaccompanied nine-year-old.
Writing about the intimate moments of my childhood trek north has been extremely difficult, because at times over the last months, my physical world matched my psychological world. When the pandemic started, I was living in New York City where I contracted COVID-19 in April, broke up with my ex-girlfriend of almost two years, and decided to move across the country to finish my memoir in Tucson, Arizona—the same place where my eight-week immigration journey from El Salvador ended on June 11, 1999, when I was reunited with my parents. By moving, I wanted to escape from how New York felt in the pandemic, to depart fully from my old relationship, to give a new budding relationship a real chance; and I wanted to find out more about the desert landscape through which I had crossed. I wanted to know the people. I wanted to know what it means to feel “safe” in Arizona, to juxtapose that feeling with the history I have with the landscape—a history of life-threatening danger.
Anger, fear, resentment, and frustration towards power bubbled up while I was quarantined in the 500-square-foot apartment I shared with my ex. There are many reasons why people break up; I believe one of the main reasons my ex and I broke up was that we never learned how to support each other emotionally. Inside my head and inside my apartment, I was trapped. While I wrote about not being allowed to leave a coyote-hiding-house in Guadalajara for two weeks, having Mexican police point their guns at me and rob me in Oaxaca, having Border Patrol incarcerate and point their guns at me in the Sonoran Desert, and about evading Immigration growing up in California, outside my apartment were historic masses protesting the continual murder of black bodies in this country. I was engulfed by the reality that this has happened, is happening, and will continue to occur—Black and Brown people murdered at the hands of police, the army, and border patrol. In my physical entrapment, I felt connected to this anger. I understood it. I shared the wish to abolish this police state, so inherently tied to white power. But, as a legal resident of these United States (not yet a citizen) I do not have the legal right to cast a vote in this election. I’m 30 years old and I’ve never voted in my life. Everyone seems to speak for immigrants; not many people ask us what we think about the current state of the country. We, who also pay taxes, must constantly prove that we are extraordinary, the best of the best, in order to have a chance at being considered somewhat human. I can’t participate in this “democratic” right—not yet—but I plan to. Until then, I write to have a voice.
So in late September, my new partner and I decided to move across the country and drive as much of the Texas-New Mexico-Arizona border as we could.
I had always wanted to drive along the border, but it had never felt safe to attempt without a green card. Two years ago I became “legal” in the sense that I obtained an Extraordinary Abilities Visa. (I mention the name of the visa because it’s a testament to the hoops and hurdles immigrants have to clear in order to be treated as equals.) Still, even with this recent legal status, I couldn’t shake the shadow that still follows me. Whenever we drove past a border patrol or a cop, I expected to be stopped. I expected them to know I wasn’t really a citizen, that I didn’t really belong in this country. These feelings are in my head and they are not in my head. These are feelings that this country has wanted me to have.
We stopped in Atlantic City, D.C., Charlotte, Nashville, New Orleans, San Antonio, and El Paso. To be honest, I didn’t find out anything I didn’t already know. What I was reminded of was whiteness. Power. Hierarchies. The worst of it was being reminded that my girlfriend’s white body is worth more than mine. Twice we were almost stopped for speeding and when the police saw me with her, the cop nodded me off and gave me a “warning.” If I had been alone, I can’t imagine these situations would’ve played out the same way. I was reminded of what it means to drive without a license, of being stopped for minor violations that turn into hours long ordeals, of how white men in the South will always address my white partner and not me. But everyone knows these micro and macro aggressions still happen in this country. I don’t want to add to the list of endless racist behavior that we, bodies of color, encounter every single day. It’s boring. It’s expected.
What I didn’t expect was how this road trip would make me think about allyship. My partner was there for me when I needed to pause and reflect, when I cried in an El Paso Hotel because the proximity of the border was too much, because my body was reminded of what it felt back then in 1999—trauma bubbles up in unexpected and expected ways like that. As basic as it may sound, seeing a true ally who talks and defends me in moments of danger or threat is what gives me hope. Allyship. That’s it. I don’t have anything else. I’m tired. Her mere presence and voice made me feel safe in truck stops, holding my hand while we drove past the biggest confederate flag in the United States, which you can see from Highway 29 in Virginia, hour-long debriefings of how we both felt inside hotels, making sure we were treated as a group crossing customs back into El Paso, etc. Her hand on my back was enough to ease me, to make me feel more secure. And at the same time, it makes me so mad that in 2020, I’m still made to feel safer in the context of whiteness. Countless hours of therapy have been devoted to reconciling this feeling about my girlfriend’s whiteness, and yet here we are. I am learning as well: there have been times when I was not there for a friend when I had more power than they did; I’ve had partners who were not white, and who were not there for me. This November, if you do have the privilege to vote, remember immigration; remember your queer friends; remember your friends of color; remember your friends with disabilities; remember all the things that could be better than they are right now.
Joey and I made it to Tucson. It’s been three weeks since we’ve been here and she will cast her ballot as a US citizen this November in Arizona. Maybe she makes a difference. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe her vote matters more here than it did in New York City, I don’t know. What I do know is that the allyship I witnessed on that drive is one I’ve longed to see in the seat of American power. I can’t say I trust that I ever will; certainly my own undocumented family has never had a true ally there before. But without that, I fear whiteness and immigration will remain topics this country avoids, until we see another “crisis” and are forced to address them again. But why wait?
For now, I will continue to attempt to finish this memoir, which I hope will let people see: That even when we’re crossing, we are more than the sadness, than the trauma; that, even then, a nine year old can appreciate the beauty of the terrain that almost costs him his life. Back then, I was too young to understand the danger I faced, or maybe because I understood that danger, I concentrated on: the beauty of the blue, white, red, face of a road runner; the beauty of the call of a cactus wren; the beauty of the stars in the desert; and of the neon green hose that saved my life on that Arizona rancher’s land where I was detained for trespassing because I’d run out of water.
Remember that child, but also remember that children grow up.
Javier Zamora was born in El Salvador and migrated to the US when he was nine. He was a 2018-2019 Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard and has been granted fellowships from Colgate University, the Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, among others. Unaccompanied, Copper Canyon Press Sept. 2017, is his first collection. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he’s finishing his memoir. More info at: javierzamora.net