Children of the Land
“There has been a fair amount of important discussion recently about the stories of immigration across the southern border, about how those stories should be told and who should tell them. Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Children of the Land should be at the center of that conversation.”
All questions of authenticity or appropriation disappear on the first page of Hernandez Castillo’s powerful memoir. The second paragraph begins, “It was a Sunday afternoon when I heard a knock on the door.” ICE agents come in, fully armed with their hands on their guns. They terrorize the author, then 15, and his younger siblings. Although he never has to say it, Hernandez Castillo lets us know the truth of the old phrase, “I was the man; I was there!”
By the time of that raid, the author’s father had already been deported. He, his mother, and all but one of his siblings, were undocumented immigrants. When Hernandez Castillo came to tell his story, some ten years later, because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA), he had been able to come out of his legal limbo, get a green card, finish graduate school in writing, and assume the responsibilities for his family. His mother was still undocumented, still living precariously beyond the letter of the law.
But that summary says nothing about the power of Children of the Land. Hernandez Castillo is one of our leading young poets, whose first collection, Cenzontle, won one of the major awards for a first book of poems and came out a couple of years before this memoir. That title is the Spanish word for “mockingbird,” a bird that can imitate the songs of many other birds and will fiercely defend its territory. It is a strong metaphor for the work this writer has to do. The poems deal with the same material that Hernandez Castillo confronts in the memoir, but there they were more impressionistic, more lyrical, less dependent on the narrative he has to tell.
Yet the texture of the memoir feels the same. The border between Mexico and the U.S. becomes something more pervasive, more internal, than any line on a map or wall across the landscape could make it. The idea of it, the psychological presence of it, shapes the people who have to live with it.
In addition, there is the terror of surveillance. Hernandez Castillo makes it very clear that if someone is undocumented, he or she must live with the fear of being watched. After trying for years to find a way to live in the United States, his mother returns, at least temporarily, to Mexico. He wants to find a meaning in it: “It was about her not having to work any longer. It was about her not having to still fear immigration in old age, to not have that looming sense of surveillance always following her. I didn’t want her to be undocumented anymore; I wanted her to feel like she belonged in the country in which she lived.” But by this time in Children of the Land, the reader understands that these hopes might be shattered.
Throughout this immigrant story, Hernandez Castillo tells his own tale, his own fears of authority, his conflicts with this father, his growing understanding of his complicated sexuality, his own sense of loss. Near the end of the book, he writes: “Part of me hated the U.S. I hated what it had done to my family. But maybe Mexico would have done the same thing.” There are no easy solutions in this book.
There has been a fair amount of important discussion recently about the stories of immigration across the southern border, about how those stories should be told and who should tell them. Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Children of the Land should be at the center of that conversation.