Marcelo Hernandez Castillo began writing poetry in high school because it gave him a way to express himself without exposing his secret: as a young child, in 1993, he had crossed the border from Mexico illegally with his parents. “With poetry, I could really distance myself, and with prose I couldn’t,” he says. Currently Castillo is a successful millennial and an acclaimed poet. He has permanent-resident status and is the author of the powerful memoir “Children of the Land,” (Harper) a poignant and eye-opening look at his once-hidden life as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. This experience written as a personal account, is seldom seen in American literature even though it is a reality for millions of Mexicans living in the U.S. It’s an outstanding addition to this small but essential genre, highlighting that in each such immigrant there’s a distinctive story that deserves to be heard.
The book opens in 2006 with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on Castillo’s family home in northern California. Castillo was a senior in high school, and the ICE agents were searching for his father, who had been deported three years earlier. Castillo and his siblings convinced them to let them wake their napping mother so that she will not be startled by strangers storming through her bedroom door. “Sometimes I stuttered when talking to adults, but in such situations I was calm as if the panicked part of me had run,” he writes. The episode, however, had a lasting effect on Castillo’s already fragile sense of security. “Home was suddenly something to add to the list of dangers,” he writes. “We never opened our doors or windows again.”
This frightening prelude sets the tone for “Children of the Land,” in which Castillo recounts his family’s history, first as citizens of Tepechitlán, Mexico, and then as undocumented residents of the United States. In poetic language he states, “When I came undocumented to the U.S., I crossed into a threshold of invisibility,” a border he would forever struggle to navigate.
The book is written as a series of vignettes and it traces how migration has shaped his family life. He describes his father’s deportation as the beginning of over a decade long exile in which Castillo’s father builds a home and tends a garden in Zacatecas, Mexico, and his mother wrestles with whether to stay in California or reunite with her husband. The separation and continuing struggle for status create a host of traumas for the entire family as the years go by.
Of his own personal experiences, Castillo details how, in order to shield himself against possible identification as an undocumented person, he excelled in school and learned English “better than any white person, any citizen.” A high school English teacher encouraged him to pursue poetry. When he was old enough to work, he made a fake Social Security card to apply for the jobs that helped him support his fatherless family. After high school, he attended college and became an MFA student at the University of Michigan and qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed him to visit his father in Mexico, where he discovered the depth of his cultural disorientation. Struggling through ever-present anxiety, the author revisited his and his parents’ origins and then returned to take on the difficult interview that qualified him for a green card, thanks to his marriage to his Mexican-American childhood sweetheart. His footing in the U.S. finally legalized, Castillo unsuccessfully tried to help his father and mother qualify for residency in North America. Only after his father was kidnapped by members of a drug cartel was Castillo able to help his mother, whose life was now in danger, seek asylum in the U.S.
Castillo is caught between two languages, two countries and two cultures. The United States’ unwillingness to claim these children who grew up here but were born in other countries they barely remember has turned them into ghost residents, here and not here at the same time.
The majority of the memoir traces Castillo’s attempt to navigate the convoluted bureaucracy of the immigration system to reunite his father with his family and later, to rescue his mother after she takes an ill-fated trip to Zacatecas. Since he attained his own permanent residency without as many obstacles, Castillo begins to feel guilty and to grow bitter about a process “created by artificial laws founded on a history that was designed to beat us every time.” The emotional toll on the migrant’s psyche is ever-present, even for those who are granted refuge or clemency. Today Castillo enjoys a sense of stability. He published an award-winning book of poems, “Cenzontle,” and moved back to California to teach and start a family. Yet he still wonders “how much more I could have done with my life if I’d been spared the energy it took to survive.”
This book is just one voice, yet it speaks for the struggles and problems that countless others have tolerated and will continue to tolerate, especially during the current political climate that seems to generate animosity against migrants. In “Children of the Land” Marcelo Hernandez Castillo bares his truths with astounding intimacy making this haunting memoir just right for today’s world.