Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times
Martin Wolk - December 8, 2020
Last month, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo bought a new couch. That might seem like a small thing, but it felt huge to the Yuba City, Calif.-based poet, whose lyrical memoir, “Children of the Land,” describes an upbringing lived in the shadows as part of a family of immigrants from Mexico.
Growing up, “we never really tried to invest in nice things,” says Castillo, who joins the L.A. Times Book Club on Dec. 15. “The majority of our life was moving, moving, moving, moving, moving.”
But at age 32, Castillo has settled down and planted roots in the Central Valley. With help from an Obama-era program for “Dreamers” who were brought to this country as children, Castillo was able to gain a foothold, earn two college degrees and eventually win a coveted green card: permanent residency status.
He spent Thanksgiving week settling into a rented home with a yard he described as perfect for his family, including his wife, Rubi, 3-year-old son and a Shih Tzu-poodle mix named Kimchi. And for a crowning touch, they have that couch: “Not hand-me-down, not used, not from a thrift store, not gifted or all dilapidated, but a good quality, durable couch that will last me 10, 15 years.
“It felt like a milestone in my life — almost on par with graduating from graduate school or from college,” he says. “I almost got weepy when I finally sat down. I mean, I’m renting this house, OK, but I own this couch.”
To understand, consider the circumstances of his upbringing. Castillo was born in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas, where his parents lived in a house with a dirt floor and a tarp roof. Eventually, they migrated to Northern California, where Castillo’s father sold fruit at flea markets and his mother worked in a fruit plant. Marcelo was 5 when his parents brought him across the border without a visa.
It was a difficult life, marked by financial struggles, constant uprooting and fear of immigration raids. “Some people have enormous dreams,” Castillo said. “I wanted a boring life.”
In 2003, when Castillo was 15, his father was deported, setting in motion much of the action described in the memoir.
Castillo says his father was hard on the family, enforcing a code of machismo that extended to the clothes his children wore to school every day. No shorts or baggy pants were allowed — only fitted blue jeans with a belt and a tucked-in shirt, a rigid style out of touch with the times. Hair could be neither too long nor too short and had to be combed to one side. Sneakers were OK, but for reasons unknown, they could not be white. “If it was up to him, we would also be wearing cowboy hats to school,” Castillo writes.
More frightening, he writes, were the episodes of anger, screaming fits and worse that left the family traumatized. When his father was deported, the family was broken, but his mother was relieved too. “Amá says that even though it was hard on us, I should be glad he was gone when and as long as he was, because otherwise I would have never left the fields or peach orchards,” Castillo writes. “His gift was precisely the absolute fact of his absence.”
Still, after Castillo was approved for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) in 2013, he traveled to Mexico for a reunion with his father, their first meeting in 10 years. Despite their conflicts, Castillo worked tirelessly to win his father’s return to the United States, a grinding journey through the immigration bureaucracy. When the initial efforts failed, Castillo’s mother returned to Mexico in 2016, a decision the family now regards as a mistake. Eventually, Castillo and his family were able to get both parents back into the United States, where their applications for asylum status are still pending.
After high school, Castillo got a degree from Sacramento State and went on to the University of Michigan, where he earned a master’s in fine arts. His chapbook “Dulce” was favorably received, and he expanded it into a full-length book, “Cenzóntle” (Mockingbird), which won several awards, including a Golden Poppy from the California Independent Bookseller Alliance.
After earning his MFA, Castillo returned to the Yuba City area and is now the distinguished visiting writer at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, where he teaches poetry. He also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University in Ohio; before the COVID-19 pandemic, he also taught incarcerated youth in a program organized by the Yuba Sutter Regional Arts Council in Marysville, Calif. With an eye toward helping other writers of similar background, he co-founded Undocupoets, which successfully advocated to remove citizenship requirements from many poetry prizes.
In January, Castillo published “Children of the Land,” which Times reviewer Rigoberto González described as a “courageous” work: “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.”
In the memoir, Castillo said he tried to combine the lyrical approach of his poetry with a more straightforward account of the obstacles and indignities his family faced. Short sections are labeled as musical “movements,” meditations on his state of mind and his family’s history. Longer, more prosaic sections detail efforts to win residency status for his family, with some of the accounts written almost contemporaneously as events unfolded in several journeys back and forth across the border.
“With those sections, I felt like I didn’t have the luxury of being oblique or coded,” Castillo says. “I didn’t want to risk being misunderstood, because there were real consequences at hand.”
For the same reason, he maintains the privacy of his family members, referring to his mother only as Amá and not naming his siblings.
His mother, after her sojourn in Mexico, is back in Yuba City. While the asylum case is still up in the air, the family is more settled than it’s ever been, and Castillo says they no longer live with the constant, “debilitating fear” they had when he was younger. The endless cycle of moving seems to be over.
Book club: If you go
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of “The Undocumented Americans,” and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of “Children of the Land,” will be in conversation with Times editor Steve Padilla.
When: 7 p.m. Pacific Dec. 15
Where: L.A. Times Book Club event livestreaming on The Times’ Facebook page, YouTube and Twitter.
Cost: Free. Register on Eventbrite for a reminder and direct links.