If you’ve kept up with the hoopla surrounding the American Dirt release and are looking for an alternative, “own voices” book to read that covers similar issues (immigration, the U.S. southern border, living undocumented in America), then you might want to get your hands on a copy of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir, Children of the Land.
Castillo is a critically-acclaimed and award-winning poet and his memoir reads like the story of a poet. He is also an undocumented immigrant, whose parents brought him and his siblings to the United States from Mexico when he was very young. He went on to become the first undocumented student to graduate from the Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan.
His memoir reads serendipitously, or perhaps expectedly, like the confluence of these two things: poet and migrant. It is somehow both searingly direct and beautifully imaginative. He manages to balance the difficult and the wonderful, the extraordinary and the commonplace, in language that reflects a deep reflection and in-touchness with self that, as the reader will discover, was hard fought and hard won. It also expresses the pain of a boy at long odds with his father and of a man without a country. Those two realities, being essentially fatherless and essentially homeless, are reflected in the anchor-less he describes; it makes sense that he has found his home in poetry.
Some of the most profound and affecting moments from the memoir, for me, are the ones that are the most ordinary and American. He writes, for instance, about being an English professor and about how he learned to work with students coming out of high schools with “earned As” but who, really, couldn’t write well at all. The exhaustion, confusion he felt about this, and the love he he had for his subject despite the fact that he couldn’t seem to give enough of himself to his students, resounded deeply with me. Equally substantive, though, are the insights he provides about the immigration experience. He illustrates the way immigrants have been and continue to be treated at our borders, as inherently inferior and even diseased people. Now, as the world deals with this new pandemic, this strikes painfully. The way we fear the other, the way we scapegoat them, is an unconscionable tragedy. Reading a first-hand account of a family that has experienced, supplemented by the history of Federal policies that propped-up and perpetuated such stereotypical hatred, was painful but illuminating.
Two of the most moving elements of his memoir, though, are the way he describes never being “quite enough.” Not quite American enough; not quite Mexican enough. He shares moments in his life when he felt he was losing his language, when his English was too good for someone like him, or when he felt his Spanish slipping away so that he had to stumble through conversations with neighbors, family members. That swaying, that rudderlessness, is haunting, particularly when we understand just how many people in the United States must feel like this all the time, whether they’re in limbo at the border or going about their daily lives all around the country. The second powerful section is his portrayal of the immigration system and just how difficult and time-consuming it is, even for those who are following the rules. Castillo shares his experiences working through the immigration process for both his mother and his father, and it’s eye-opening to say the least. Even laws specifically established to help people like his mother, for example, whose case was a special one (I won’t say more than that), are ultimately made to be toothless by the people who work the system and choose whether or not a person’s value is enough.
Children of the Land is not an easy or enjoyable read. There are moments of beauty, both thematically and from the writer’s perspective about life and the world, and beauty in the language and style; but it is a difficult story, not just for Castillo but for his entire family. Being reminded that his is just one story of millions amplifies the discomfort and helplessness one might feel when reading it; but ultimately, that’s the point. There is a helplessness and a desperation that consumes entire groups of people, entire families, and that influences them for generations. Castillo’s memoir illustrates this brilliantly and damagingly.
“I ventured to believe that the function of the border wasn’t only to keep people out, at least that was not its long-term function. Its other purpose was 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. It was a spectacle meant to be witnessed by the world, and all of its death and violence was and continues to be a form of social control, the way that kings of the past needed to behead only one petty thief in the public square to quell thousands more.”
“I tried to hold the words of my poems inside me like the sounds of snow, but they were nothing like snow, they disappeared as soon as I wrote them” (124).
“He is screaming as if he has seen the future already and knows the past” (357).
“What seemed like hope at first turned into almost an embarrassment. How could we be so naive as to think we could fix this?” (243).
“We needed to ease our way back to him, the way you wade into frigid water, slowly letting your body get numb enough from the waist down to take the dive.” (240).
“I didn’t want to tell people I was a poet because I didn’t want to explain (mostly to white people) what lead me to writing, which would be followed by something like ‘I bet it was a great outlet of expression for such a hard life you lived'” (90).
“Apa always said time stood still out there, like it was broken and would never work again no matter how many watches you wore, which meant that one step was no different than another–they were going nowhere” (41).