Children of the Land, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s powerful, poetically infused memoir, adds a soul-searing voice to the canon of contemporary immigration narratives.
It’s an old tale for Castillo, the journeys over the border repeating down through his family’s generations. Undocumented himself as he crosses over the desert into California as a child, temporarily blind from the stress, he is like his parents, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. Heading north, then as now, is to save loved ones from poverty and crime, to secure a chance to begin again, even though it often means leaving others behind and never being accepted where they land.
When Castillo is still a child, his father is deported and banned from the U.S. for 10 years. His mother resists following her abusive husband and tries to support her children with the low-paying work that many people who lack documentation must hold in order to stay invisible. When her children are grown, she tries to go home to Mexico, but it’s yet another journey fraught with complications. Castillo continues his own daunting border crossings as a DACA graduate student and, finally, as an adult clutching his hard-won green card. His interview with an immigration official is nerve-wracking for the reader; later, when it’s his father’s turn, we hold our breath all over again.
Castillo grows up riddled with the shame of his family’s invisibility. He cannot even talk about his family’s past, for fear of revealing his fragile hold in the U.S. He struggles to belong in a country with a long history of ambivalence about immigrants (as any visitor to Ellis Island can attest), while his family’s Mexican home lies literally in ruins. A 1917 practice of delousing naked migrants with chemical showers has given way to physical examinations, blood work and vaccinations—which cost the person immigrating hundreds of dollars. Being detained means sleeping on cement with shoes for a pillow. Asylum seekers wear ankle monitors for months so that their whereabouts can be tracked. Applying for permanent residence can take years and thousands of dollars more. Still, they come, seeking a better life.
Children of the Land shines a light on the true story of an immigrant’s plight and serves as witness to the power of hope.