on Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

The title of poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir about intergenerational migration derives from mythical insects that are said to inhabit the mountains of Mexico, tiny creatures with incandescent bodies and the faces of children. In Castillo’s telling, los Niños de la Tierra crawl across the rocky terrain, always gazing skyward; if a human were to look directly at them, the unlucky person would be stricken blind. Early on in the book, Castillo recounts tiptoeing around a hill near his family’s home, neck craned, navigating by touch, careful not to make eye contact. It’s one of the quieter moments in the memoir, a touch of magic amid the endless paperwork, frustrating policies, and immobilizing anxiety experienced by Castillo and his family as they seek to become whole after centuries of movement among the newly formed borderlands. This moment returns, obliquely, when Castillo recalls the night before his family crossed from Tijuana into the United States: Apá, Ama, a five-year-old Marcelo, and his siblings prepare for the harrowing journey, when the young Castillo succumbs to an inexplicable spell of blindness, his vision slowly fading, before cutting out altogether. His vision returns, apparently with no permanent physical impairment, and yields a profound insight: “I could see something was more of itself closer to the center, and less of itself farther out—a gradient.” This observation serves as a kind of thematic scaffolding for the memoir, as Castillo explores questions of proximity and distance, of fluidity and finality, of separation and reunion.

The myth of los Niños de la Tierra is one of many such stories carried between countries by braceros like Castillo’s grandfather, Jesus, a story that crosses the border according to seasonal tides, entering and departing the strawberry fields and rolling vineyards of California’s bounteous valleys. The transmission of stories, of heritage, of identity, and, of course, of human bodies across the U.S.–Mexico border is a central theme in Castillo’s memoir, which recounts the many travails faced by the poet and his family, and which centers around three life-changing events: Castillo’s acquisition of a green card as a newlywed, his father’s deportation and petition to return, and his mother’s application for a visa. Each event forces the family to confront the infuriating machinery of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), complete with all the cruel inefficiencies of government bureaucracy: stifling queues, conflicting instructions, and mercurial eligibility requirements. At their most sinister, the whims of political sentiment wreak irreconcilable pain on Castillo’s family. First, Hollywood B-list actor turned president Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which could have allowed Apá to stay in the States, had it not arrived a year too late. Likewise, the California State Assembly passed Bill 674, which adopted statewide protocols for certifying U visas, shortly after Ama’s rejected application. In these ways, Castillo exposes the border, amnesty, and legal status for the societal constructs they are—malleable, impermanent, and imprecise. At its heart, Castillo’s memoir seeks to reveal the secret handshake accepted by the state for passage, the only currency it understands: evidence of suffering.

The quality of one’s suffering—its duration, extent, and the nature of affliction—must be legible to screening agents, and this question surfaces in every interaction with the state that the family members must endure. During his interview with USCIS, Castillo answers questions about his relationship with his wife, Rubi, about his arrival into and subsequent inhabitance of the country, and about his plans for life as a legal resident, cognizant always of body language, demeanor, and tone. Despite his preparation and rehearsed response, despite the closeness of Rubi by his side, and despite the proximity of his interviewer, an unbridgeable distance separates the two sides of the table: “I was speaking beyond the officer and to the entire country itself. Between us, a desk, but it might as well have been a long stretch of road.” Even when Castillo receives the congratulatory news that he’s been granted a green card, the victory is fleeting. “I still saw it as temporary, something that could be taken away for even minor violations of the law,” he recalls. In contrast to the unremitting reminder of his temporary legality (despite becoming a “permanent resident”), Castillo reflects on the fact that his family had been reliant on the same lawyer for many years: “Perhaps his generations after him would continue to become attorneys assisting my future generations in the same thing we were doing.” Castillo makes painfully clear the indispensable arrangement many immigrants must submit to, in order to navigate the legal apparatus of the state.

Unlike Marcelo, his father’s fate seems to have been sealed the moment he was forced to leave the country against his will. Ten years after Apá’s deportation, when he’s finally eligible to petition the U.S. government for the right to return stateside, Castillo and Rubi travel to Tepechitlán to help prepare for Apá’s interview at the embassy. What stands out most about the unfortunately fated preparations are the backdrops: so many scenes take place in the bright foyers and stark interiors of Apá’s house in Tepechi, or in nondescript hotel rooms on or near the border, that the sequences begin to bleed one into the next. The repetition wears treads in the reader’s mind, such that it becomes familiar, and if Apá were to be encountered anywhere other than Mexico, his home, that he would seem out of his element, misplaced, or miscast. Indeed, Castillo depicts the prompt rejection of Apá’s petition as a mutual refusal: “Neither he nor the U.S. would ever claim the other.” 

Conversely, when it’s Ama’s turn to undertake the exhausting gauntlet of USCIS procedures, the family finds hope in the traumatic past. In 1996, Castillo’s parents were involved in a traffic accident that left Ama irreparably injured, with glass embedded inside her body and lasting affliction. Since she testified against the motorist who caused the accident, a new lawyer points out, Ama should be eligible for a U visa, granted to victims of violent crimes who assist in the prosecution of a perpetrator. As Castillo notes, “It was her pain that held the answer all along, and rather than turn from it, rather than look away, we all should have run toward it.” And yet, despite her cooperation with the law, despite her long suffering, despite the glass slowly emerging from her body over time, bureaucrats in California refuse to recognize her suffering as sufficient evidence that she is entitled to protected status. The tragic irony of the moment is that Ama had experienced much more immediate violence, much closer to home, but felt she could never report it. As Castillo admits, with aching candor, Apá’s “hands were the only thing in his life that ever really came close to her.” And Ama wasn’t the only recipient of this brutal truth. In a characteristically poetic turn of phrase, Castillo describes the persistent residue of physical violence as “the sweet sugar on my palms after cutting open an orange.” 

Castillo’s occupation as a poet informs a great deal of the memoir’s trajectory, and he intersperses lyrics that would eventually crystalize into the poems that comprise his 2018 debut collection, Cenzontle. At times, the memoir functions as a documentary for this art, a behind-the-scenes featurette that explores the origins of individual lines, and readers will likely want to pursue the author’s extant and forthcoming poetry collections. Moreover, Castillo composes sentences that might as well be poetry, locating heart-wrenching metaphors and arresting images. Retracing a long line of unanswerable questions that led his family to spend decades living in flux between nation-states, Castillo extends his sorrow to all those who came before: “I wept quietly at the center of my blood.” In a lighter moment, wandering the frozen streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan, during his time as a graduate student, he offers a description of what it’s like to walk in snow, which sounds exactly “like a medical glove grinding between my teeth.” Castillo’s prose also includes formally poetic flourishes, such as lyrical refrains that resurface throughout the prose: the color of Rubi’s toothbrush (red), and the name he gave to his father’s belt (Daisy). These lyrical elements translate the frustrations and beauty of migratory life in the U.S. for audiences who may harbor serious misunderstandings about what it means to be undocumented. 

While the majority of his memoir traces and retraces steps toward settlement, slowly approaching certainty and clarity, the last fifty pages of Castillo’s memoir rapidly accelerate, building momentum as an unforeseen sequence of events catapults the family into entirely unexpected directions. It’s a smart, propulsive turn at the end of a deeply meditative and prismatic memoir, one that launches the reader into a quickly compressing present, even as the unsettled legacy of the family looms heavy on the mind. It’s perhaps a way out, this sudden turn to thriller, an escape hatch that, ultimately, leads its narrator to a semblance of solace. Despite the still uncertain circumstances of so many family members, Castillo closes the book with cryptic finality: “They found Apá blindfolded and tied up by the side of the road. He lived. That is all I have to say about it.” 

As a poetic recollection of an individual’s uniquely transient life, as a portrait of Mexican-American experience, and as a testament to the resilience of family ties tested to the point of breaking and beyond, Children of the Land is urgently necessary. It’s also unbearably timely, as the U.S. government doubles down on xenophobic and racist exclusionary practices by refusing to process legal applications for asylum-seekers, caging children and withholding medical treatment, and continuing to pursue aggressive policies for denaturalization of immigrant citizens. Likewise, it’s an important entry in the twenty-first century’s burgeoning canon of border lit, especially since some of the genre’s most commercially successful works have been written by authors who have not experienced life on the border firsthand. And Castillo delivers a narrative that is entirely authentic, both in substance and in the telling, one that cannot be reproduced, repackaged, or resold. 

 

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Children of the Land. By Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. NewYork: Harper, 2020. 384 pp. $28.99.

 

Diego Báez has received fellowships from the National Book Critics Circle, CantoMundo, and the Surge Institute. He is co-chair of the diversity committee for the International David Foster Wallace Society and a regular contributor for Booklist; his poetry and reviews have appeared most recently in The Rumpus and Spoon River Poetry Review. Báez lives in Chicago, where he teaches at Harry S. Truman College.