The experience of being an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, written as a personal account, is seldom seen in American literature even though it is a reality for millions of Mexicans residing in the United States. The most notable of these authors is Reyna Grande, who relates her journey over the course of two compelling memoirs, “The Distance Between Us” and “A Dream Called Home.”
The publication of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s “Children of the Land” is an excellent addition to this small but necessary body of work, underscoring the fact that in each such immigrant there’s a unique story that deserves to be heard.
Castillo borrows his title from a legend he learns from Mexican laborers returning from the U.S. to their homeland. They talked of “Los Niños de la Tierra,” apparitions rumored to haunt the mountainside, their stares capable of causing blindness. Castillo, however, casts these ghosts in a more sympathetic light when he wonders, “Maybe those children belonged to someone, trapped in the north like everyone else, unable to return to the land of their birth.”
In his version, Los Niños de la Tierra open our eyes to see the immigrant’s predicament more clearly.
“When I came undocumented to the U.S. [at age 5], I crossed into a threshold of invisibility,” he writes.
Indeed, his family settles in Northern California but feels doomed to a life of constant anxiety. A clandestine existence means keeping window curtains and mouths closed, avoiding being noticed altogether. Their fear of drawing attention is so great that when the teenage Castillo is struck by a car, he begs the EMTs for his immediate release. Later, as he recovers in the hospital, his mother declines to press charges to avoid becoming entangled with the law, but also because, as an unauthorized resident, she doesn’t think it’s her right.
The border wall, on the other hand, continually asserts its imposing presence, “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 the mind.”
Castillo’s father, however, is not as easily fazed, reluctant to accept that the family’s stay is anything but temporary. He sets his sights on returning to Mexico, investing the family’s income into building a home in Zacatecas. He grows resentful of his wife, who doesn’t share that dream and who wants to raise their children in the land of opportunity. Castillo writes that his father perceived his wife as disloyal and grew irritated by their children’s inevitable acculturation, becoming physically abusive. His father creates such turmoil that when he’s deported, Castillo welcomes their separation.
A reprieve from his father’s rage, however, does little to diminish Castillo’s sense of rootlessness, even after he qualifies for DACA status (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program). He continues to feel that “neither the U.S. nor Mexico [want] me” and that he’s “becoming smaller and smaller day by day, unthreading.”
Yet it isn’t a home he’s seeking but “an origin.” That opportunity arrives when he finally attains his green card after marrying high school sweetheart Rubi and is able to travel to Mexico with the hope of reconciling with his father after 10 years.
The bulk of the memoir traces Castillo’s effort to navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the immigration system in order to reunite his father with his family and, later, to rescue his still-undocumented mother after she takes an ill-fated trip to Zacatecas. Since he achieved his own permanent residency without as many obstacles, Castillo begins to succumb to guilt (“How many others deserved my green card more than me?”), and to grow resentful of a process “created by artificial laws founded on a history that was designed to beat us every time.”
Castillo’s bittersweet success and failures in resolving his family’s difficult situations illustrate how the odds are stacked against asylum seekers and so-called “good” immigrants who follow the rules only to be met by an institution that can be indifferent, unfair and cruel.
The emotional toll on the migrant’s psyche is unshakable, even for those who are granted refuge or clemency. Castillo, for example, manages to complete a graduate degree from a Michigan university; publish an award-winning book of poems, “Cenzontle”; and move back to California to start a family. He enjoys, for the first time, a sense of stability. Yet even after overcoming a series of ordeals over the years he remains unsettled, wondering “how much more I could have done with my life if I’d been spared the energy it took to survive.”
“Children of the Land” is only one man’s voice, yet it amplifies the struggles and dilemmas that countless others have endured and will continue to endure, particularly during today’s political climate of animosity against migrants.
In this courageous memoir, Castillo lays bare his emotional truths with remarkable intimacy and insight. Ever the poet, Castillo can’t resist a lyrical stroke here and there, like when he describes arriving in Mexico “the same way as the light entered the rosary, and when we departed the corridors of its prisms, we did so no longer wholly intact either, a little broken.” The same outcome awaits the reader who encounters this book.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
Harper: 384 pages; $28.99
González is a professor of English and director of the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark. He was born in Bakersfield and raised by farmworkers who migrated between Mexico and the U.S.