Memoir/Biography/Autobiography · Nonfiction

Children of the Land

When I originally heard about this novel, for some reason, I thought it was fiction. I actually thought that all the way through when my hold on it at the library came through and I checked it out and brought it home. I seriously don’t know what I thought it was about or why I knew I wanted to read it, but I was totally set on it. Anyways, I finally paid attention enough to reading the blurb on the inside cover and realized it was a memoir. I have read quite a few (wonderful) memoirs recently. It’s not really a genre I would ever have said I liked before this year. But after some standouts, like some of my favorite reads of the year are going to be memoirs (Know My Name, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and In the Dream House, at least), I think I might be noticing a legitimate shift in my reading preferences here. Anyways, that’s enough about me for now…

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

“Every act of living became and act of trying to remain invisible. I was negotiating a simultaneous absence and presence that was begun by the act of my displacement: I am trying to dissect the moment of my erasure. I tried to remain seen for those whom I desired to be seen by, and I wanted to be invisible to everyone else. Or maybe I was trying to control who remembered me and who forgot me.”

In Children of the Land, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo shares his family’s story with the world. Looking across generations, with, of course, a particular focus on his own experiences, Castillo opens the door into the individually secreted away and purposefully hidden/downplayed realities of the trauma of immigration to the United States (from, in this case, Mexico). Castillo speaks to the mental/emotional strain of constant fear and vigilance, the relationships broken/lost to years of separation, the unreasonableness and arbitrariness of immigration law/rules, the complete dehumanization of the immigration processes, and the way those processes have changed over the years as generations of his family have crossed from Mexico to the US and back again. He also shares many personal stories: of his own temporary blindness while crossing the border as a child, his father’s violence and distance, his relationship with his wife, his efforts to secure green cards for himself and other family members (particularly his parents), his work as a poet, grappling with his own sexuality/bisexuality, the efforts he expends to seamlessly fit in/to become invisible, the many incidents and pains of living (both the daily variety and the kinds with longer-reaching implications) and how those are different for people without formal documentation (to name not a few, but nowhere near all).  

Well, the first, and most striking, thing I want to mention about this memoir is the writing. Oh my ever-loving goodness can Castillo put words on the page. It’s breathtaking. Every sentence is laden with…weight…in a way that makes reading this affecting, striking, hard and lyrical at the same time. It’s a book that is hard to read because topically it’s just so heartbreaking, and yet you cannot help but be awe-struck by the way Castillo is able to get such complex and contradictory emotions and situations into such beautiful language. Honestly, this trend of poets who turn to longer works is one that I am definitely in support of, because as with Ocean Vuong’s debut novel that I read earlier this year, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the molding of words, the crafting of sentences, is simply stunning.  

Topically, I’ll just give a slightly deeper look at things, because the little summary I started with covers much of it. I feel like, as with many memoirs, the only way to really understand and appreciate what is in these pages, to truly be fully affected by it, you’ll have to read it yourself. In the meantime, I’ll just point out a couple aspects of Castillo’s work that really stuck out to me. First, the way he talks about and muses on the symbology of borders, their purposes both physical and metaphysical and what their presence can do to a person, to a soul, to a country/people. Just, wow. The way he is able to communicate the effects of there being no safe space, not even “home,” for a person without documentation, that there is nowhere to go where you don’t constantly feel watched/aren’t constantly on guard, and how exhausting and draining it is to live in that perpetual mode of fear and panic, sometimes literally, takes the reader’s breath away. Also, his reflections on the processes of immigration, the health screenings and costs (financially and otherwise) and the way stats/dates/numbers/names/histories (the “measurables”) matter more than the fears and longings and feelings and hopes and the things that actually make a person who they are, are so important. The expectations of what can/must be objectively “proven” (like, if a relationship is truly based on love and if it will last…because like, that’s impossible, who actually knows that???), the way that, even if you manage that, things are so arbitrarily decided and followed-through on, the way that lack of ability to control or predict an outcome or have faith in the permanency of an outcome once it happens can affect a person’s mental health and sense of self and efficacy and the way that informs the continued internal conflicts he has and cannot escape from even after getting his green card  – Castillo conveys all of it with such literary skill. The general dehumanization and ridiculous, unnecessary hoops/rules of immigration process, the inherent supposition that the US is better than all places outside it/the people coming from those places, the way Castillo must grapple with the need to show love for a country that has shown no love for him, the suppression and helplessness of the immigration process: the reader cannot escape or hide from the terrible reality in the same way Castillo, his family, and untold numbers of other immigrants cannot escape the living of it.

As a final note, Castillo also spends a lot of time unpacking his family, their relationships with each other and the ways the immigration process [negatively] impacted those, combined with the aspects of them that were already unhealthy. He shows the effects both immediate and long term of the “emotional whiplash” of a parent’s sudden mood changes, the way fault-lines within families are cracked wide open under arduous circumstances. And through it all, you can read, in the tenderness with which he crafts the words he uses for these sections, how much he cares for them all, especially his mother and wife, Rubi. He recognizes an individual’s failings, but contextualizes it within the reality they live, and that care and consideration in treatment is beyond touching to read. Along these lines, he does this same unpacking and exploring within himself, showing the parts of who he is that were informed and worsened by circumstances, by the end, attempting to give himself the leeway and understanding that he gave the rest of his family but has trouble internalizing he also deserves. As with everything else in this memoir, there is a desolation about it, but his way with words makes you want to keep reading despite that.  

If you are looking for an eye-opening, nuanced and representative but also deeply personal look at the horrific immigration situation in the United States and the contradictions of being trapped between two cultures/two lands (neither of which fully claim you, nor do you feel you truly belong to), you won’t find much better than this. It wasn’t easy; these topics never are, shouldn’t be, easy to read about. And the writing, while gorgeous, doesn’t lend itself to a fast read. But this is a book that should be sat with, sat in, for a while – so that works out as it should. Just an exquisitely, tragically beautiful memoir.

And, as always with those books where I wax poetic about the writing, here’s an unreasonable number of quotes and passages that I marked while reading:

“We were young but could already turn off the parts of ourselves that hurt like a light switch.”

“It didn’t matter how good I was at hiding, I knew they would always find me if they wanted. It was useless to blend it, to not bring attention to myself – speak neither too loud nor too soft. It didn’t matter if I perfected my English – speak like a person who is wandering but not lost. It was useless to try to negotiate two worlds at once when only one of them was visible while the other one threatened to collapse. And yet I tried, but it came at a price. So much of my energy was spent trying to avoid getting caught. I wonder how much more I could have done with my life if I’d been spared the energy it took to survive.”

“In the act of immigrating, I was always looking for what I had lost, perhaps forever. And so part of me, even a microscopic part, was always looking back.”

“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 imagination 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. The biggest threat to immigrants who succeeded in crossing was the fear that the apparatus was always watching you. It was the idea that was most menacing, that infiltrated every sector of a person’s life – total and complete surveillance.”

“We each had our own definition of joy and kept its secret hidden as if in a secret box. No one would share their key; no one would allow anyone else to see inside their box.”

“I wanted to approach questions as I would approach a large body of water, as things in which I could drown, knowing how easy it was to drown, knowing exactly the limits and dimensions of my body and what it would take to drown it.”

“I couldn’t possibly expect them to believe that love was a constant, that once you had it you had all of it forever, that it was like an object you could hold and call yours.”

“They wanted definite answers to the indefinite, beyond simply is your marriage real. They wanted the specific outline of love.”

“Getting the green card and all the benefits that came with it seemed like such a simple thing to ask for such a small price. All I was asking for was peace of mind, for protection, for basic human rights. And in return, for the duration of the interview at least, I was supposed to speak and look patriotic. I was supposed to show or prove an attempt at assimilation; that I aligned myself with undeniable American values – “values” that ensured the continuation of a system historically aligned against me. I had to align myself with a history of denial toward the violence committed on entire generations of people.”

“Would there ever be, in my lifetime, a point in which I could say absolutely everything about myself with complete abandon, without fear of judgement or repercussions?”

“I couldn’t give myself permission to have a past.”

“To say that the whole enterprise was a scam would trivialize it as petty theft. It was much more than that. It was an entire industry distilled into a few city blocks. There were hundreds, even thousands, of people moving between the embassy, the clinics, the hotels, and the mall across the street every day. They were all doing the same thing we were doing. They were paying into a system that was central to the engine of America – immigrants paying for immigration. In a way, I didn’t see how this was different than paying a coyote to cross; both seemed just as corrupt. Besides, in the end both would cost just as much.” – omg this observation is breathtaking and not in the good way

“It felt like we were at the beginning of a new era, as if from that day forward, our lives would be different. Anything that could have been would never be. Everything that was, would be forever.”

“I thought love could come out of his anger – bitter plants that make the sweetest honey. I confused each of his flowers with a small act of tenderness. There is a tender way we can confuse violence with love, trying to convince ourselves that it wasn’t so bad.”

“They wanted to see a spectacle, something quantifiably violent. But not everything happens like it does on TV. There isn’t always a musical accompaniment to underscore the emotional landscape of tragedies. There is pain that isn’t instantaneous, that is difficult to see, that spreads multiple generations, that doesn’t always have a clear cause, that can’t be measured but is nevertheless real. Sometimes it is more real because it is hidden, because you have to go through your life keeping it to yourself, unable to tell anyone the depths of your suffering.”

“…law told women like my mother how they should suffer and provided a checklist for correct forms of suffering.”

“My father learned about love from his father, who learned it from his father’s father. He learned that love was not something that you did, but something that you made sure someone remembered, for better or worse.”

“That’s what we wanted, to be at that place that time had healed without having to go through time.”

“My family, all we did for generations was leave each other. To depart was in my blood, to live longing in the absence of another was ingrained into me. And yet.”

“Things never really stayed fixed for long. Our life was dedicated to the unbreaking of things, and things kept wanting to stay broken.”

“I still thought I could control the outcome of our lot; I still had the gall to think that anything I said or did cold make a difference.”

“I policed my body to the point that I could do nothing without consulting the voice in my head first – ‘Is this a good idea? Have you said too much?’ It was exhausting just to live like that.”

“But I want to experience love the way I experience drowning – never coming back to the surface, never finding relief. Always just a click away from dying, which I admit is selfish, because it’s easier to be desired than to go on with the work of desiring.”

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