For the First Sentence series, we have asked authors to revisit the inspiration behind their stories or poems. Here, Javier Zamora writes about his poem ‘Cassette-tape’.
To cross into México we’re packed in boats . . .
This was the schedule: every two weeks my parents called the neighbors up the dirt street four blocks away because we didn’t have a phone in our home. We never knew exactly what time or day my parents would call. When they rang the first time it was always to give warning, so that the youngest child from the Chellito family could run and get us. Once we arrived, five or ten minutes later, my parents would call a second time. Grandma picked up, then grandpa, the aunts and I each got a turn speaking mostly with my mother (it was her side of the family) and a little with my father.
The letters came every two weeks as well, alternating and strategically planned to fill in for the time without phone calls. Between that, when the times were good, parents sent boxes of gifts almost every month: clothes, movies, appliances, mostly toys for me. When times were rough, I got one or two boxes a year (birthday and/or Christmas).
In these boxes, my parents sent cassette-tapes and the delivery man (who was not part of the postal service since international mail sucks in El Salvador for packages bigger than a letter) took cassette-tapes back to them. I had a month to record whatever I wanted, mostly it was my aunt Mali who tried to get me to talk. It was unnatural at first, I was five, and felt funny speaking to a boom box.
The ‘delivery man’, Don Leo, lived off of this network of communication. We were not the only family he visited; he had multiple families through Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, who he delivered goods to, for a price. I’ve always wondered what his life was like, driving up and down three countries every month the entire year. He was a US citizen, he could travel freely.
My aunt and I recorded in bed, at night, with our legs up on the wall. She must’ve been a teenager. She felt like an older sister and when the tape wasn’t on, she’d tell me about her crushes, or the latest beauty tip: she’d heard letting the blood circle down from your toes stopped spider veins from happening, thus our legs propped on the wall.
The title of this poem is uniquely important and dictates its ‘form’ because in El Salvador I used cassette-tapes (among other media) to talk to my parents in California. Dad left when I was one and Mom when I was four.
Despite the distance, my family used the technology we had to maintain our relationship. To hear how our voices were changing. To be part of the big events in our lives. When I missed my parents, I’d replay the tape when no one was in the house. Sometimes, when my aunt noticed I was down she would ask if I wanted to listen to a tape, and we both listened. Our ritual. Fast-forwarding. Rewinding. Pausing to go to the bathroom. Playing it all again. Accidentally recording over their voices. Heartbreak.
¿How could I recreate that on the page? The stop and go, the disjointedness of time, taking leaps, without knowing how long had passed. It was always the little things I wanted to hear and the things they forgot to mention that made us grow apart, that made me begin to really miss my parents, emotionally.
I still miss them. I see them and touch them and feel immigration has become a physical thing, like a tumor inside us, between us. It takes time, counseling, speaking, writing, to heal. I’m lucky I have writing. I’m lucky it found me at the right time because for the longest, I resented them and I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand what I felt. I didn’t understand my parents; they didn’t understand me. We fought, I called them names, blamed them, we grew apart. It’s poetry that brought us together. That’s what began my healing. Now, I read them my poems, they cry, we understand, we speak. Whenever I read in the San Francisco Bay Area, they’re in the crowd. I’m lucky they’re open to facing the hurt. I’m lucky they’ve supported me.
I resented them for not knowing that ‘to cross into México [I was] packed in boats’ with strangers. Both my parents immigrated here, but never got on a boat to cross into México. They know their own struggle. I don’t know theirs. I know a different one. It took me years to figure out that I resented them for this precise thing. Not that they’d left me, not that they put me in danger, no, but that they weren’t there with me, in my crossing. They didn’t see, didn’t feel, didn’t suffer what I did. Those two months they knew nothing of me, I knew nothing of them, only that I was coming here and I was coming to see them. The coyote, ‘our guide’, got in the Mexican cops’ ‘Fords’ and we, the group from El Salvador, had to find our way north. We’d been fooled. My parents had been fooled. It was supposed to take two weeks. It took two months.
When I got here, reunited with my parents, I never sent a cassette-tape to my grandparents who I left behind. In a way, I forgot them. This is another resentment, towards myself, towards my immigrant situation in this country. I was undocumented for a long time. Now, I have temporary protected status that is decided upon by the president, meaning Trump can take it away when it’s up for renewal in 2018. I haven’t been back to my country in eighteen years. I’m frustrated. I resent my status. It’s traumatic to talk to those left behind. It’s hard for me. It’s a burden to communicate over the phone. To write. To text. To Facebook message. I want to simply be back there with everyone, to rewind time and pause, and for the ‘war to stop’ in my country, but I can’t control that.
¿And isn’t writing like a cassette-tape? I’m constantly rewinding and pausing, skipping information like this, information that the reader does not know by simply reading the poem. It gives me agency. I can control what to listen to, what to write, what to skip over on this page. I can control what to say. A powerful thing in a world I have little control over.
I’m trying to show you, reader, the little details my parents skipped. I want to shed that distance, to heal, to connect. We need to listen to each other, even if it hurts, even if there’s blame, even if there’s resentment, helplessness. In the poem, Mom and I are together, we can ‘sing’ to each other. Now, on this page, you and I, are doing the same. Sing to me.
I’m sitting at a cafe, at the very corner, at a table that seats four and I’m by myself. Next to me, thick red pipes with signs that say ‘Stay off the pipes. Thank You.’ I find it funny that the You is capitalized. I don’t know what they’re for, the pipes, and I’ve never asked the baristas. My favorite is Olga, a thirty-year-old immigrant from Russia who takes ballet classes and learns English at the local community college. She was surprised when I told her I wrote, that I was an immigrant. You learned fast, she said. Next to the computer, an iced Americano. Next to that, a cup of water. The book I’m reading, Asco by Castellanos Moya, is frozen on page thirty-six, and this sentence underlined by the reader before me: la sangre es un azar, algo perfectamente prescindible.
Yes, (familial) blood is a gamble (luck), but I disagree, it’s not perfectly dispensable. The speaker is a Salvadoran immigrant who hasn’t returned to his homeland after eighteen years living in Montreal. He’s back for his mother’s funeral. He hasn’t maintained a relationship with his brother. He’s disgusted by El Salvador, by his family, by everything and everyone Salvadoran. He’s obviously hurt. He’s obviously never been heard, shared what’s bubbling inside. He doesn’t have poetry, only whiskey. Let’s not dwell in our distances. Let’s own up to our mistakes, our traumas, the reasons behind them; sometimes we can’t control them. Then, let’s apologize for our hurt and destroy every border between us.
Photograph © Jano Sanmartin