Children of the Land
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
HarperCollins | January 28, 2020
Exploring “the migrancy of affects” in her essay “On Being Moved: Sympathy, Mobility, and Narrative Form,” Miranda Burgess writes how, between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “innovations in global transportation and its systems gave rise to [an] increasing awareness of, or feeling with, one’s neighbors.” The migration of communities from rural to urban centers, along with the increased circulation of the written word and images, collapsed social differences on top of each other. The greater our proximity—visual and physical—to someone, Burgess argues, the greater chance we have at understanding them. But, in recent years, with the explosion of social media and non-stop news cycles, along with the increased scrutiny of immigration and its policies, we’ve experienced a kind of proximity fallacy with our new neighbors. We see the headlines and pictures of families suffering, torn apart from each other, but do we understand them any better? We risk becoming audience members to immigrants’ exploited traumas.
It takes an intimate account like Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir, Children of the Land, to refocus our attention on what matters when discussing immigration reform—i.e., the person and their family. A poet, essayist, translator, and immigration advocate, Castillo was born in Zacatecas, Mexico. He came to the United States as an undocumented child, later graduating with a BA from Sacramento State University and an MFA from the University of Michigan. In Children of the Land, Castillo shares with lyrical prose his family’s experience of hiding in plain sight and continually being separated by internal and external forces. He carefully balances multiple timelines, sweeping readers back and forth between past and present.
“I started to become undone, like a loosely coiled ball of yarn that was bound to come apart eventually,” Castillo writes of coming of age as an immigrant. “I felt like neither the U.S. nor Mexico wanted me and that I was between two opposing magnets…my chest heavy beneath their weight.” Castillo gets us so close to the struggle of living without a home and a fluctuating identity that he achieves a universal truth in his private experience: he seeks peace; he seeks belonging in places that aren’t yet ready to accept him. He questions how to react to getting his green card and reading the words, Welcome to America! Was he not here all those years before? Did he not exist?
Negotiating both personal and political borders, Castillo writes the body onto the page as well, revealing his physical experience of being an immigrant. He stands up to ICE agents as a child when they break down his family’s door and he holds up his mother, translating for her. The States’ security apparatus, deployed at a moment’s notice, becomes an all-engulfing panopticon. When not hiding, Castillo learns he can try to appear more American, less othered, another form of invisibility. But this is both the States’ desire—to whitewash the immigrant to a master narrative—and fear—that they might lose track of the other in the process. As Castillo grows into his body and sexuality, and eventually marries and becomes a father, he reflects, “Memories lie to me, and this is why my body can never be a map.” He’s been pulled between the forceful expectations of two cultures for so long that his past and present collide.
Another one of Castillo’s gifts, along with sliding readers into his life with a selfless touch, is his ability to enter another’s perspective. From the looming presence of his father, ever the prideful husband, to that of his caring wife, and his siblings, blossoms his experience of community. But it’s his mother’s journey, a needle and thread holding her family together, where Castillo pours his love. We learn early on of his mother’s constant efforts to keep her children safe after his father’s deportation; Castillo devotes much of his life to returning her gesture. He carts her from administrative office to facility to lawyer to court and back to offices, exhausting the Kafkaesque immigration system that seems to shift under them whenever they’re finding their footing. The proximity of his heartbreak to her quiet strength is the true sympathy the reader will come to witness; her love is without walls, always with him.
Castillo writes his family’s story into the history books of immigration. He invites readers into the fragile parts of his life, exposing an inherently violent and broken political system. Showing his family’s journey as they work through their own relationships, he encourages us to not just watch, but listen.