At Sonoma event, poet Javier Zamora tells of solo journey to US as a boy, importance of mental health

“The book serves as a form of healing,” Javier Zamora told an audience of about 50 people who gathered Sunday inside a former church in Sonoma.|

Soon after poet Javier Zamora began to write his widely acclaimed memoir, “Solito,” (Spanish for “Alone”), his therapist asked him what it would be like to talk to his younger self, the boy who left his native country and traveled without relatives to the United States.

That imagined conversation set the course for Zamora’s memoir, which is told by his 9-year-old self.

Born in La Herradura, El Salvador, Zamora was 9 when he migrated by land to meet his parents in San Rafael. They had immigrated years prior.

“The book serves as a form of healing,” he told an audience of about 50 people who gathered this past Sunday inside a former church in Sonoma.

Zamora’s appearance was billed as a “conversation” that, in many ways, was almost like a sermon — in this instance a sermon on mental health and immigration.

Held at La Luz Center, the event attracted a predominantly Latino crowd and was moderated by Claudia Mendoza-Carruth, a former La Luz Board president.

Zamora encouraged non-immigrants to consider the wholeness of the immigrant experience beyond the traumatic moments — other emotions and moments play into that journey, he added.

“There’s a lot of concentration on the sheer trauma of what immigrants experience and I don’t think most people who are non-immigrants understand that by just focusing on the worst day of someone’s life, you’re flattening that person’s life into this grotesque, absurd depiction of who that person is,” he said.

“I want them to realize they’re talking about people who live full lives.”

In Sonoma for two nights, Zamora held the first conversation in Spanish at La Luz Center on Sunday. On Monday, he spoke to a sold-out crowd at Hanna Center in English as part of the Sonoma Speaker Series.

Co-founded by Kathy Witkowicki in 2016, the series provides “a platform for interesting people to talk about interesting topics that inspire us, challenge us and concern us.”

Topics have spanned politics, art, science, and more, according to the event’s website.

Past speakers have included former San Francisco Mayor Willie L. Brown and Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr.

A manager at the Sonoma-based bookstore, Readers’ Books, suggested Witkowicki invite Zamora to the speaker series after noticing the popularity of his books.

After learning of Zamora’s story, Witkowicki reached out to Leonardo Lobato, executive director of La Luz Center, to see if the local nonprofit family resource center would be interested in hosting an event with the author.

Lobato happily agreed.

Lobato saw numerous parallels between Zamora’s story and the experiences of many in the Sonoma Valley’s strong immigrant community —particularly among those who come through La Luz Center’s doors.

Though the agency caters to all who seek its help, about 90% of its clients happen to be Latino, he said.

While Zamora believes that the course of his life was often steered by luck, he gave a nod to the difficulties many in the Latino community experience when talking about mental health, especially in the context of trauma and immigration.

Many members of Sunday’s audience nodded their heads as Zamora spoke, some also thanked him for openly sharing such a relatable story.

Lobato sees the need for these kinds of conversations firsthand at La Luz Center, which provides culturally relevant resources to those who may need them, whether it involves health care, income stability, housing or mental health.

When considering Zamora’s visit, he said: “It’s a story that inspires and, as Latinos, that speaks to us.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jennifer Sawhney at 707-521-5346 or On Twitter @sawhney_media.

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