Children of the Land – Merciless Politics & Personal Pain merge to describe the treatment of illegal immigrants on both sides of the Mexican/American Border. A memoir of lasting depth.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir, Children of the Land, merges merciless politics with personal pain. What actually happens to a family of illegal immigrants when the governments on both sides of the Mexican/American border treat human beings with casual indifference? Especially, how does that affect a teenager as he grows into manhood? Castillo answers with his heart as well as his head. Children of the Land exposes the anguish he feels, even now, when his green card keeps him safely on California soil. I almost wrote “precious” green card, but Castillo would disdain that adjective. To him, the green card is just one more bureaucratic slur of indifference among the countless insults he has suffered his entire life. “If I sharpened the edges of my green card when it came in the mail,” he writes, “I could cut myself open.”
Castillo chooses to tell his story from a very personal perspective. His narrative focuses inwardly on Castillo himself and on his relationships with his parents. Although he has siblings, they are mentioned only peripherally. His wife moves tangentially through the book, but even her persona isn’t examined in depth. Certain key events are held at arm’s length, too. For example, Castillo’s family crossed illegally from Mexico when he was too young to process many details. What he recalls is filtered through a five-year-old’s memory, so the pages describing that crossing are few in number and necessarily vague. Equally mysterious is how and why Castillo’s father ran afoul of a Mexican cartel. That specific information isn’t pertinent. What matters is how Castillo and his mother are forced to react.
Reading Children of the Land is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle missing a handful of pieces. There are gaps, but that doesn’t interfere with the overall impact of vicariously experiencing Castillo’s emotional highs and lows. A well-published poet, this is his first book of prose. In many ways, it reads like poetry, like a series of tone poems searching and delving into a man’s soul. Sometimes I wished he had been slightly less introspective, but the overall force of his book makes up for the self-indulgent moments. This is an important book for Americans to read because it puts a human face on those whom certain newsmakers would keep us from knowing humanely. What, exactly, does it feel like when armed I.C.E. agents raid a family’s California home? Hands on guns, “they had the house surrounded.” Does that familial sanctuary ever feel safe again?
Each prose poem chapter of Children of the Land explores one key event that Castillo shared with either his father or his mother, his Apa or his Ama. I don’t want to be more specific about those occurrences because to do so would give too much of the Castillo story away. Suffice to say that some of them are traumatic and all are poignant. Further, these happenings trigger Castillo’s memories in distinctly poetic ways. Adjacent recollections deepen his narrative, and his figurative language heightens his prose. The border fence, seen from the air, snakes divisively, malevolently, across inhospitable terrain. A cocktail party substitutes metaphorically for the shallow indifference of too many Americans. False papers and countless pseudonyms dissolve in bleach that can never whiten Castillo’s skin.
Castillo thinks figuratively, but his experiences as an illegal are all too real. Opportunities grasped and missed. Putting a human face on the children of illegals lies at the heart of Children of the Land. Equally important is projection. How many lives are destroyed by DHS policies? How many gifted poets and thinkers are we heedlessly stifling? Silencing? Destroying? Castillo makes you think, he makes you feel, and not always in comfortable ways. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo: Centzontle; Dulce.