Review: Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Review by Ronnie K. Stephens

children of the land cover - title and author name with colorful leavesImmigration remains one of the most controversial topics in America. As the election looms, conservations about our southern border center on the humanitarian crisis in detention camps and the erection of an imposing wall. Children of the Land, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s new memoir, humanizes the debate in a brilliant and lyrical journey of self-actualization. Fans of Sara Saedi’s Americanized and Christy Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo will appreciate Castillo’s ability to balance storytelling and authenticity.

Told in a nonlinear fashion, Castillo begins his story in the United States. Early in the book, ICE agents raid his home, simultaneously affirming the predictability of his everyday life and upending any sense of security his family might have had. As the memoir progresses, readers learn that Castillo has a complicated relationship with his abusive father, made more difficult when his father is deported and prohibited from returning for ten years. For the remainder of the book, Castillo and his family try desperately to obtain legal immigrant status amidst an array of confusing and often shifting legal requirements.

Castillo first crossed the border with his family when he was five years old. Just before leaving Mexico, he went temporarily blind, a memory that highlights the urgency of Castillo’s desire to “dissect the moment of [his] erasure.” The author centers the question of visibility throughout the narrative, explaining the various ways that he and other undocumented immigrants carefully avert the scrutinizing gaze of white America. The border, like the ICE agents who raid his home, manifests as an internalized and ever-present fear, rather than a concrete barrier between his two lives.

Time is treated with remarkable fluidity, moving backward and forward in time with little notice. “I  was an hour ahead of Ama. I was in the future. Maybe I could call her in the past and tell her to stay,” Castillo considers after leaving his mother in Mexico, illustrating the arbitrary nature of social constructions like borders and time zones. This approach to time allows the author to contextualize events in real-time, a wise and effective decision that renders the narrative both engaging and poignant.

The author offers a keen and necessary analysis of his experience, turning his gaze on the internalized trauma of being an undocumented immigrant in America. He asserts that “the function of the border…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” before comparing the border wall to public executions. Though the analogy may seem hyperbolic, the history of violence and exploitation evoked by images of the wall is undeniable. Castillo does well to highlight how unique each immigrant’s experience is while maintaining a sense of universality to the trauma itself.

Overtly political rhetoric is nicely balanced by moments of sheer poetry, reinforcing Castillo’s background as a skilled lyricist. Just after his father is denied re-entry into America, Castillo laments, “If only we had met him hours before to wrap the rosary around Apa’s neck, bursting open like sharp flowers.” These moments elevate the memoir considerably. Despite the arduous and often stagnant process of pursuing citizenship, Castillo’s command of language and ability to capture intensely emotional moments keep the narrative fresh and accessible.

Language plays a central role in the author’s self-actualization. At one point, he notes how English has contributed to his erasure, recalling a memory that proliferated with English vocabulary at a time when he and his mother only spoke Spanish. “She wasn’t speaking in English, and although I didn’t know English at the time, my memories of those days are peppered in English now,” Castillo explains. “I have to work to put the Spanish words inside my memories…” This inability to bridge aspects of his identity arises often as he grapples with everything from sexuality to nationality, which makes the story all the more compelling for readers from diverse backgrounds. At the center is his experience of immigration, but spreading out from the center is a layered and nuanced conversation on intersectional identities.

Children of the Land is a necessary book that benefits from arriving at exactly the right time. Debates around immigration and border policy abound as we approach the next presidential election. Here, Castillo reminds us that we cannot have those conversations in the abstract. Immigration is not a story of policies and procedures, but one of human experience. This may be the most important memoir of the year.

ronnie k stephensRonnie K. Stephens is a full-time educator and father of five, with a strong interest in poetry, fiction, and activism. He recently completed an MA in creative writing and an MFA in fiction at Wilkes University. During his time at Wilkes, he was awarded two scholarships and won the Etruscan Press Prize. Stephens has published two full-length poetry collections, Universe in the Key of Matryoshka and They Rewrote Themselves Legendary, with Timber Mouse Publishing out of Austin. His first novel, The Kaleidoscope Sisters, was released in August 2018.




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