The visit was terrifying. One day in 2006, when Marcelo Hernandez Castillo was a teenager, ICE agents in green fatigues showed up at his family’s Northern California home. The men were looking for Castillo’s father, unaware that the elder Castillo, an undocumented immigrant, had been deported three years earlier.
Castillo and his siblings shielded their mother from apprehension, but the episode had a lasting effect on Castillo’s already tenuous sense of security. “Home was suddenly something to add to the list of dangers,” he writes. “We never opened our doors or windows again.”
This chilling prelude sets the tone for “Children of the Land,” in which Castillo movingly recounts his family’s history, first as citizens of Tepechitlán, Mexico, and then as undocumented residents of the United States. In poetic language typical of this book — Castillo is now a celebrated poet — he states, “When I came undocumented to the U.S., I crossed into a threshold of invisibility,” a border he would thereafter struggle to navigate.
Borders of all types, whether physical barriers such as checkpoints between countries or psychological impediments such as prejudice among ethnic groups, pose perpetual hardships. As Castillo puts it, “There isn’t a single square foot on earth that is not affected in one way or another by borders, even the oceans.”
Indeed, all of the book’s main events — starting in 2013, when Castillo, a grad student in Michigan, travels to Mexico on a DACA permit to see his father for the first time since the deportation — involve the challenge of crossing borders. And Castillo deals with many of them: preparing for his interview when his Mexican-American wife, Rubi, submits a petition for his green card; dealing with immigration officials in an attempt to bring his father back to the States; contending with his mother’s wish to return to Mexico; struggling to fit in as one of the few brown-skinned people in his Michigan town; and dealing with his own conflicts, from the anger and impatience he inherited from his father to awareness of his bisexuality.
The narrative sometimes takes peculiar tangents — a digression on the protocol of late-night talk shows is especially odd — but most of this book offers a bracing reminder of the difficulties faced by immigrant families. Castillo writes one indelible scene after another, as when his father, waiting in a Juárez hotel room before his immigration interview, cuts off a Skype session with the U.S. grandchildren he has never met, as the thought of not being with them is too unbearable. For the Castillo family, some doors and windows remained frustratingly shut.
Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Newsday and BookPage.
Children of the Land
By: Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.
Publisher: Harper, 362 pages, $28.99