What It’s Like To Live Undocumented

An interview with Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of “Children of the Land.”

Illustration by Violet Reed for HuffPost

This article is the second in a series called “How To Human,” interviews with memoirists that explore how we tackle life’s alarms, marvels and bombshells. The first interview was with Ada Calhoun.

When Marcelo Hernandez Castillo crossed the border as a child with his family from Mexico to the United States, he experienced stress-induced blindness. It’s a horrifying, parent’s-worst-nightmare detail that no one could possibly imagine without having known it.

Castillo weaves devastating details throughout his new memoir, “Children of the Land,” which publishes Tuesday from Harper. They are details that only a person who has lived without papers could know. Details like driving in a car with your mother and turning off the radio when a show about what happens to migrant bodies in the desert comes on. What it’s like to dive into the immigration system in search of a legal path to keep your mother in America, and get your father out of Mexico. What it’s like to be interviewed for a green card and have to prove your love for your partner. What it’s like to help your mother prepare to move back to Mexico — to self-deport — because that is the only way she can be reunited with her husband.

In writing from the heart of truth, Castillo paints an honest and nuanced portrait of the undocumented life. His memoir published weeks after “American Dirt,” a novel about a mother and her son fleeing Mexico after a drug cartel kills their family. It is written by Jeanine Cummins, a white woman, and was criticized by readers and the Latinx community for its cliched descriptions of Mexico. The book has created a debate over who gets to tell certain stories.

Castillo is also the author of “Cenzontle,” a collection of poetry. In an interview with HuffPost, he talks about his often painful writing process, and how he feels like his story, the immigrant story, has no ending.

The book is just so vivid and anchored in scene, just like a movie. Same with the action, the back and forth across the border, the waiting to hear from immigration. It creates this enormous tension for the reader. Is that something that you played with when you were writing it? That aspect of time and when to slow down and speed up, when to go back in time, when to stay in the present?

Being a poet really allowed me to move things around and not be faithful to a particular chronology. For me, that was far more interesting, because that is a more accurate representation of the undocumented experience. You’re not just living in the present; you’re still living in the legacy of the past and the consequences of even things that happened, say, in 1916. We’re still waiting or we’re still moving or we’re still doing this maddening back and forth that just seems to not end.

I love the historical re-creations you do for your grandfather, your great-grandfather and even when you are writing about your mother’s ancestral home. Could you talk about the research you did for that and how you re-created those scenes?

I interviewed an uncle of mine who’s in his late 80s who actually went through the whole process of delousing. I used documents that I found, too. They weren’t necessarily passports, but just little cards that said your name, the date, your physical features, occupation and port of entry and then the return. And I read a wonderful book by David Dorado Romo called “Ringside Seat to a Revolution.”

There are beautiful scenes in the book in which you describe the ruins of your mother’s ancestral home. Did she tell you about it?

I’ve always known about it because at family gatherings, I remember as a kid the only conversations were conversations about Mexico. Issues about land. Conversations about cattle. Conversations about who was where. Conversations about who died. It was always directed that way. I grew up almost having an idea of these places and of these homes and this landscape before I ever actually went back. After 21 years away, I ended up going back because of DACA. I was able to see firsthand the places that my mother was talking about. They were abandoned and in shambles.

Seeing it for myself, it was pretty devastating to see my mother’s house the way it was. There was so much life, she explained, on that ranch, just how alive it was. How, with all of my aunts, their kids everywhere, the arroyo was still going. It’s just a very picturesque, very beautiful, quiet place.


There’s a part, I think toward the beginning of the book, where you describe watching interviews with David Letterman, old ones, ones which were staged in which the guest predetermined what questions were off the table. I love that you drew the parallel with your interview with immigration, in which immigration could ask you anything at all, no matter how intimate. Could you speak to that juxtaposition?

Yeah, that’s one of my favorite sections of the book. That’s one of the parts that I changed the least. I have never thought about it so deeply until it was time for my own immigration interview. I had always loved the glamour of Hollywood, this opulence that I didn’t have; it’s a kind of freedom. But I was very intentionally thinking about those parallels and thinking about how the interview is a phenomenon that creates new knowledge that wasn’t there before.

I have an idea as to how I want to answer the questions you’re asking right now and you have an idea based off of your questions. At the end of the day, we have a product that didn’t exist before because of collaboration.

The part of the interview that talks about love is something I spent a lot of time thinking about because of the comparison between that and the celebrity interviews. I think for me it was, I would say ... I’m at a loss for words.

My observation is that celebrities in front of David Letterman got to dictate what could and could not be asked of them. And then you set up a parallel where you are asked during your green card interview really intimate questions that no stranger should be allowed to ask another person. You had to prove that you really loved your wife, and that you were not just marrying her for a green card; in the parallel you show what separated the two kinds of interviews.

Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That expectation for those rules to be followed and then something strange happens when those rules are not followed.

A glitch in the matrix.

Where suddenly you have somebody who doesn’t follow the rules and who ends up with this meta commentary on the gaze. One of the best ones is in that Crispin Glover video where he turns to the camera and wonders if he’s even being filmed. That gaze. For me the interviewer at immigration had all of my documents spread out in front of her and I had to prove what she already knew. I just had to repeat it.

The only thing that we needed to discuss was that idea of love. If it was a constant, what would be a basis for rejection? Did they really expect love to be a constant? If I would’ve said we’re getting married, but I don’t love this person, or if I had said, we will stay married for the rest of our lives, but I don’t love this person. She basically is an arbiter of love and she decides what counts. I love her incredibly right now, but I fear that in the future that level of love will wane. Would that be cause for rejection?

Let’s say in the future, if a person breaks up with a person who they got their green card with, if things go as they are, would that be grounds for being stripped of their citizenship. It’s pretty scary.

I was reading the acknowledgments and I noticed you thank Sandra Cisneros. I was wondering what was that relationship? Did she mentor you or offer you feedback on your memoir?

We met through a mutual friend. I was in Miami in 2018 for the Miami Book Festival and she was there. I went to a reading where she was at and she walked out and I tapped her shoulder and I just started weeping and, really, just weeping. She just held my face for a long time and we just stood there silently and she’s like, “I have your book, I know who you are. I have it on my nightstand.” I said, “Get out of here, and stop.” She said she liked the book. I just actually could not believe it.

We talked for another hour or so. She said, “If you ever need anything from me, here’s my email. If you want me to blurb your book, here’s my email.”

The time came and I asked, and she said, “Yeah.” When it came to it and I sent her the manuscript, I was devastated because she went through it with a fine-tooth comb.

She gutted it. She went into it: “This is missing a comma. There’s a lot of spelling mistakes. There’s an inconsistency in your Spanish versus your English.” We went back and forth for months. I almost thought that she wasn’t going to blurb it at all because there were just too many problems with it. But at the end of the day she did. She wrote back with her blurb I was just so grateful for that, for taking her time. How many requests does she have, right?

It’s that level of commitment to community and paying things forward that I really admire and want to take on myself. It was just really beautiful and really touching.

So much of the memoir is about you trying not to be seen, to hide in plain sight. I was thinking about the struggle of trying to be seen and not seen and in the writing as well, like what you choose to place on the record, and what you choose to leave out. I was wondering if you could speak to the process of that. Did you try and dump everything on the page and then be judicious about what you took out?

Yeah. It was very purposeful, because it was difficult ... I didn’t enjoy writing this book. I hated it. It was probably the most difficult two years of my entire life, because I was still recovering from 2016 and there was a lot of changes going on. I had just recently been diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. I haven’t told anyone that. I wanted to not necessarily let that be something that I have to hide.

But I had to be very careful about how I presented my family because they’re very, very private to the point where they don’t want their kids in the pictures of other people’s cameras. My brother has told me, “I will never be OK with this book,” but he understands that this is my job. This is my occupation. This is what I do and this is what I’ve continued doing. I had to purposefully and very intentionally control what I could say about my experiences.

I told my editor that I didn’t want to sensationalize any of this. I wanted to instead look at the interior of what’s happening on the exterior. I didn’t want to focus on the details. I wanted to focus on the effects of those details on my personal health, on my emotional well-being, on how I understood and how I walked through the world in this body.

That was the case with my book of poems. It’s written in a way that is surreal. At that time, I was still undocumented. Writing that book didn’t jeopardize me. It didn’t put me in danger. But memoir is a memoir. You can’t do that. You have to be more exposed; you have to be more naked. You can’t hide behind imagery. You can’t hide behind symbolism. You’ve got the thing itself, rather than what something is. Something is life.

I think that’s why I turned to prose in the first place, because I finally came to a point where there were things I had to say that I couldn’t in poetry. You have to say it in prose. This narrative that I have built, I did it very carefully. I excluded my brothers and my sister, in part, to respect them, but also because this is a story of my relationship to my parents and my relationship to my wife and my relationship to my son and my relationship to my grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors. All the intersecting voices of all of those.

You speak about going from writing in cryptic form, when you were waiting for your mother to go back to Mexico, to giving yourself permission to write about your life in a less cryptic way. Could you speak about that moment? Is that where you maybe figured out you wanted to write a memoir?

I think it was the fact that I stopped writing poetry. And I couldn’t handle not writing. I ask a lot of friends of mine if they enjoy the actual ride of writing or do they enjoy the lead up to the writing or do they enjoy once they finish. A lot of my friends all say, yeah, I really like the writing. For me it’s very difficult. I like the end result of once it’s all done. The actual working of it, it’s very, very difficult for me. I wasn’t writing poetry. I was super depressed because my mom was leaving. Then I started writing prose just to make myself ... fake it until you make it, right? And just make myself believe that I was doing something with my hands.

And then also by that time I had already gotten my green card and I felt a tiny nudge toward being able to say a little bit more. I had a little bit more protection. That was in 2015 and so the current administration wasn’t in place. Had it been 2016, ’17, ’18, it would’ve been a very different work. I had to consult both of my lawyers, plus Harper’s lawyers, to make sure that we were good and that there wouldn’t be anything that would really jeopardize me. It would be a very different book if I had written this in the Trump era.

Were there other memoirs that you turned to while you were writing for inspiration or just to look and see how they did it?

Yeah. Being mostly a poet and not a nonfiction writer, I had to really do my research in the genre. I read a lot of memoirs, seeing the conventions that people do. Some of the memoirs that I really liked are “The Distance Between Us” by Reyna Grande, in which she documents the tale of how her parents came to the U.S. and left her in Mexico for a long time. I really enjoyed other folks that played with genre and played with form and played with fragments. There are the works of Anne Carson or some poets who have also written memoirs, like Mary Ruefle’s “Madness, Rack and Honey,” which is just stunning and beautiful. And then the classics, Joan Didion. I lived for Joan Didion.

I bought a Kindle and I just started getting as many because they were a lot cheaper on Kindle so I could go through a bunch of them and I would just be on a plane and I would just be at home and really thinking about how to approach it. But the wonderful thing is that I don’t have an MFA in nonfiction, and I didn’t have the pressure of these are the conventions and this is how it works. If you don’t do this, it might be a failure. I was very free to just fail, just wonderfully fail and not really care about failing because I knew that I didn’t have much experience with it. I knew that I could really just go ahead kind of like take the dive into the blue. Let’s see what happens.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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