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Marcelo Hernandez Castillo On 'Children of the Land'


"Children Of The Land," a memoir by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, the prize-winning poet, opens with a knock on the door his family had feared but had long expected - ICE agents in Northern California looking for his father, who was already gone. Marcelo Hernandez Castillo would go on to be the first undocumented student to graduate from the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. He joins us now from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Thank you so much for being with us.

MARCELO HERNANDEZ CASTILLO: Hi, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Can you please take us back to that Sunday afternoon 2006? You were a senior in high school.


SIMON: As they left, the ICE agents offered what maybe under other circumstances might sound like an innocuous phrase, but when you read it in your memoir, it's chilling.

HERNANDEZ CASTILLO: Yeah. The phrase is, we'll be in touch. And that left the door open for a lot of uncertainty because part of the argument of the book is that the border wall doesn't just exist, you know, down on the southern border. It exists in the interiority of people who have crossed. It's almost like a surveillance state. You never know who is watching. You never know when they're watching. And so your body just feels always tight.

SIMON: You crossed the border with your family when you were 5, and - I don't even know the correct term to use - you went blind.

HERNANDEZ CASTILLO: Yeah. And I always wanted to write about it because I didn't know what was happening. I was so confused. I mean, I was little, and I distinctly remember fumbling through, like, a patio, feeling the grout between the bricks and trying to find my way.

SIMON: There's something almost metaphorical - isn't there? - in the little boy - little 5-year-old boy who crosses the border in great anxiety and then can't see.

HERNANDEZ CASTILLO: Yeah. I mean, there is. And it also talks to what I mention in the book about this idea of visibility. At what point did I begin my erasure, whether through my own mechanisms to survive or through others? At what point did visibility and hypervisibility become such a big factor in my life? And at what point did I not see the world around me?

SIMON: And what would you say to people who say they feel for what might drive people to risk everything to cross the border, but after all, it's the law?

HERNANDEZ CASTILLO: I don't think they understand just how interconnected geopolitical forces are. The border is fluid. If you talk to anybody who is from a border town, they'll tell you about this kind of fluidity. And to many other people, it doesn't seem like that. It seems more rigid.

SIMON: I have to ask you, Mr. Castillo, about the controversy over the novel "American Dirt."


SIMON: Yeah, you've spoken about it. It's a novel by Jeanine Cummins. I haven't read it, I will stipulate. It's an immigration story written by a woman who, although she has some, I guess, Puerto Rican ancestry, she is white.


SIMON: What's your reaction?

HERNANDEZ CASTILLO: I mean, it was the book of the year. Oprah Winfrey picked it as a book club. You know, the problem isn't that a non-Mexican writer wrote about the Mexican immigrant experience. Many writers have done that. They've done it well. And I read the first chapter of the book, and I noticed immediately that it was told in the first person. And it was told in a manner of you are in, you know, you are in her head versus just having it in the third person. And that kind of distance shows that kind of respect that you are honoring, you know, some of these stories while also acknowledging that you were not there; you are witnessing. This is what poetry and literature of witness is. This is why I love poets like Carolyn Forche, whose new memoir just dropped as well.

SIMON: What would you like someone who reads your memoir or, for that matter, hears your voice today know about what you've learned and felt about people who live without documentation?

HERNANDEZ CASTILLO: Yeah. I mean, we only hear the tip of the iceberg on the news. And it's my hope that with this book, those stories are believed and not just glanced over. Reading the stories, you know, should - and knowing about these experiences, knowing how the world is functioning outside of a lot of people's bubbles should be the least common denominator.

SIMON: The poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo - his memoir, "Children Of The Land" - thank you so much for being with us.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.