There was a time when Marcelo Hernandez Castillo made a secret of his life. Hernandez Castillo, who crossed the Mexican border with his family at the age of five, grew up in the shadow of his father’s deportation and for most of his adolescence kept private any details that would risk the same for him. “I couldn’t share my lineage with others,” he writes, about life before his family’s crossing. “I couldn’t give myself permission to have a past.” Now, in his new book Children of the Land, the author allows himself to come face-to-face with that very past, opening up to explore his lineage in an intimate and lyrical memoir that unfolds against the backdrop of the American border crisis.
The book, arranged in five sections fittingly titled “movements,” focuses on the crucial events and figures in Hernandez Castillo’s journey from his ancestral origins to the present day. Within each movement, the writer arranges vignettes in fragments that cross time and space, creating a sense of constant motion that lays out the complex and rich tapestry of his history. This form serves as a way of both enacting the fragmentation of displacement while also allowing the writer to tap into his prowess as a prize-winning poet, capturing details in a way only a poet’s eye can see.
In one moment, Hernandez Castillo is a boy selling oranges with his father. In the next, he is being honored at a literary gala on Park Avenue, his first time in New York City. Instead of feeling elated, we see him in the bathroom weeping from the guilt of being separated from his mother and from the awareness of having crossed borders of nation and class. The placement of the vignettes within each movement is both powerful and artful: playing with the boundaries of time allows the author to show how certain histories in his family have repeated themselves. The juxtaposition of his father’s attempt to re-enter the US in one vignette, for example, with the memory of his own crossing as a boy shows us what he means when he writes that he “was tapping into an inheritance” that he “didn’t know [he] had.”
Some sections read as prose poetry, stunning in their imagery and language. Imagine a border crossing in High Baroque, the desert journey more artful dance than life-threatening trek:
There was music? Yes. It started slow, but then picked up, and then slowed back down again. It was a waltz, it was a polka, it was the boogie-woogie jump swing, bebop. We were in a grand ballroom. Ama was in a gown. She was in a gown? Yes. Ama turned and turned as the hems of her dress blossomed towards the edges of the room. We all blossomed like bitter fruit.
Other sections, small history lessons, show how the immigration policies of the United States have affected and transformed his family. Together, these vignettes hold a conversation, creating a song that reveals the writer’s most intimate moments, the thread of his family’s displacement coloring every scene. Throughout each movement we see how the immigration policies of this country create fragments of people’s lives, of their identity, their family, their own sense of belonging. The reader is witness to the ways in which Hernandez Castillo’s entire family, through the deportation of the father, becomes a shattered body, its pieces scattered and changed but always attempting to come back together in spite of the forces preventing it from doing so. “All I wanted,” he writes, “was something to hold on to.”
Hernandez Castillo gives us access to some of the most vulnerable moments of his life in this memoir. His father’s deportation opens the book, but we follow Hernandez Castillo from that moment into adulthood, are with him when he meets and marries his wife Rubi and begins attending the University of Michigan as a graduate student, when he receives a DACA permit and is allowed back into Mexico for the first time since his crossing. Throughout the book, we endure with him the sense of being caught between three worlds: his father’s in Mexico, his mother’s in California, and his own as a burgeoning writer on the East Coast. What follows are his attempts to bring them all together while accounting for his own identity, his legal status a presence of its own throughout it all:
When I came undocumented to the U.S., I crossed into a threshold of invisibility. Every act of living had been an act of trying to remain visible. I was negotiating a simultaneous absence and presence that was begun by the act of my displacement: I am trying to dissect the moment of my erasure. I tried to remain seen for those whom I desired to be seen by, and I wanted to be invisible to everyone else. Or maybe I was trying to control who remembered me and who forgot me. But I couldn’t control what someone else saw in me, only persuade them that it was an illusion. There were things that I could not hide, things that would come out of me and expose me in my most vulnerable moments. It was my skin, my dark hair, my cheekbones, that I swore would give me away. I was afraid of the way I walked. It was easy to imagine being hit by a car, because even if they didn’t see me, I would for once be able to feel my body as more than smoke.
Children of the Land is as much a story about living undocumented in the United States as it is about the relationship between Hernandez Castillo and his father, one that was already fraught with tension before deportation widened their divide. The author finds himself coming to terms with his father and their differences despite his fears that they “were the same person in different bodies,” even sharing the same name. Hernandez Castillo’s father, a man who rejected America before America could reject him, brought with him the customs and traditions of life and family he learned from his upbringing in Mexico along with other dogged beliefs rooted in patriarchy and machismo. His father and the rules of his house are so callused that when the writer discovers, upon seeing him for the first time in over a decade, that his father is capable of growing a lush and beautiful garden, Hernandez Castillo wonders “if those petals were the soft edges of him I was forbidden to touch.” Deportation separates people, this book makes that clear, but people remain tethered to one another, held together by a bond that is sometimes strengthened and at other times challenged, the elasticity of it stretched to the point of snapping and beyond.
This is not the voyeuristic, intrusive look into the life of an undocumented person some readers might be looking for. Rather, it is a memoir told by a poet, one in which the writer finally has the freedom to speak on his history, and with it, the agency to choose which parts of the story to share and which to withhold. When, for example, his father is kidnapped, a victim of warring cartels in the Tepechitlán region, Hernandez Castillo tells us rather simply, “They found Apa blindfolded and tied up by the side of a road. He lived. That is all I have to say about it.” Hernandez Castillo aims to shares something bigger than the romanticizing of trauma. Instead, he writes about the maddening frustration that comes with living life in a duality, the work of waiting for things to change, and the labor that comes from hiding. These are skills Hernandez Castillo is forced to develop, skills he relies on to stay in this country, all the while contemplating “how much more I could have done with my life if I’d been spared the energy it took to survive.” It’s an energy that fights against so much in the book: an unexpected change in laws, an antagonizing presidential candidate, simple clerical errors, the power of one person eager to take out their bad day on someone at their mercy.
What the writer ultimately discovers about his past is that he has always been moving. “To depart was in my blood,” he writes, “to live longing in the absence of another was ingrained in me.” He is acutely aware of the generations before him who enacted the same ritual of abandon and migration, of existing in liminal spaces where one learns to be both visible and invisible in order to survive. It’s a realization that brings to life the policies sustaining America’s immigration system which create pockets of erasure in people’s lives and the lives of the people around them. In the wake of his father’s deportation, the writer uses this memoir to chart a constellation of all that is rendered unseen as a result of his departure. More than a longing for an origin story, Hernandez Castillo’s memoir is an attempt to bring the invisible to light. This book examines what it means to belong to a nation, to a family, to a body, in a new perspective and voice that has been missing from this conversation.
Perhaps one of the deepest effects of this book is the chilling way the border itself lingers throughout its pages. Children of the Land shows how our southern border, both the physical thing itself and what it represents to millions of people, encroaches on so many aspects of a person’s life. Hernandez Castillo reminds the reader of an important point that often goes unsaid: that the true function of the border is “to be visible, to be seen, to be carried in the imaginations of migrants deep into the interior of the country, in the interior of their minds.” At once separating nations in the exterior and creating interior walls in the people affected by it and the policies around it, the border is, in this book, both a living thing and a ghost. “I always felt like it was on my back,” Hernandez Castillo writes, “looming just above me, the omnipresent nature of the beast.”