Keeping with this week’s theme of immigration and community in mind, I asked Marcelo Hernandez Castillo to chime in on his own experience. What follows is his essay about place, origin, and stalks of corn. Thank you Marcelo.
I don’t know where my grandfather is buried, only that he’s been lying somewhere in the desert for the last 60 years. He died crossing the border like so many others, attempting to provide a better life for his family. To cross a border as an undocumented immigrant is to risk crossing a threshold into invisibility. And so, for 21 years, every act of living has been an act of trying to remain visible. Recently, I keep going back to a line by Wendy Xu in which she says “I am trying to dissect the memory of my erasure.” And it is true, our act is an act of dissection, of opening ourselves up to what has been hidden. I have to keep redrawing myself back in a landscape because erasure is a constant. I’m negotiating an absence and presence simultaneously that was begun by the event of displacement. And because of such displacement undocumented immigrants are taught to guard our presence for fear of deportation, to have an intrinsic fear of being seen. But you can’t live like that, not for long.
Perhaps to be a writer of color and to write about place is to always write about what has hurt you. The places we inhabit are always in relation to an origin and in the act of immigrating, you are always longing for what you have lost, perhaps forever. I’m thinking of a way back, of mapping the lineage of pain caused by separation. What would that look like? I’ve thought of reversing my parent’s journey but it doesn’t work like that. And for many, there is no going back, undocumented immigrants come to this country and die in this country without ever seeing their family again. My cousin was forced to sit by while they buried his father 2000 miles away in Mexico; forced to mourn from a distance. And so, a substitution occurs, because it must, because there is no other option. You need to replace the object of mourning with something else, something physical you can hold in your hand to replicate the act of touching their deceased body, whether that be a picture, or an old coat that belonged to the deceased. When they buried my uncle, his children in the US mourned through the phone, hearing only the wailing on the other line. My cousin asked to touch me because I had touched her father last.
And so poetics, as far as I am concerned, is a way to make sense of this separation; of mourning as third party mediation of senses. Place, then, can’t simply be somewhere you can travel to, or occupy, it must be something else. For writers of color, the history of place is just as resonant as its present. To some people, the trees are still trees despite who has been hung from them. To think, how many trees in the US alone are still living where once hung the body of a black or brown man, woman, or child. To think how many bridges we drive over, completely unaware of the weight they’ve once carried from beneath their rafters? Are they still trees, or are they something else? I can’t pretend that I do not exist in a space fraught with the memory of pain lived by people like me. I can’t avoid it. Rope and trees has been replaced by a gun and a badge, in the end, we still have the body and we still have the spectacle.
How many bodies lie at the bottom of the Rio Bravo? Some prefer to see a river but deny the bodies, they prefer to see the beauty for the sake of their comfort. I am skeptical of the “nature poem” that insists on its singularity, on its continued refusal (through omission) of the terror that lies beneath the water.
I don’t know if the function of place and landscape in American poetry is to restore and preserve a classifiable lineage of influence and identity. We seek place in order to avoid being alone with ourselves because the untethered self is a terrifying thing. Because then we must face the reality of how fucked up we really are, which means that the landscape, in a sense, may only be a distraction, or a respite from a life of limbo. But to those who are separated from their home, their entire life is lived in limbo. How can we expect to move forward if we don’t know in which direction to walk?
Place is inextricably intertwined with language. Because I acquired English later in life, I am forced to step outside of myself in order to look at myself in both expression and representation. I change language depending on my surroundings. The parallels between place and language complicate ideas of hierarchy and teleology that govern who is authorized to speak for a landscape. I’m thinking here of Tarfia Faizullah’s book “Seam” in which she says “It belongs and does / not belong to me.” I have to take ownership of what has already been stripped from me since before my birth: an authority to command my existence, my validity, and my origin. And I have to continually think, “what is mine and what has been taken from me?” And when you feel as if you don’t belong, when you’ve been exiled from your landscape of origin, what allegiance can you spare for a country that denies your worth?
To command the language that is privileged for a specific place is the price we must pay in order to be seen, to be allowed to speak and be heard. The locus of language operates in multiple directions. I am informed by the landscape in what I hear and I inform the landscape by what I say, and that in itself is valid. This brings to mind the writings of the young Mexican poet Yaxkin Melchy who says:
“Hundo un pie en el lodo
lo que no he leído es la belleza de la descomposición
palabras que antes fueron árboles
ahora están aquí deshaciéndose en el agua.”
In 2013, after 21 years of being undocumented, I was granted a temporary visit to return to my country of birth, Mexico, to visit my father who was deported 10 years prior. I remember flying over the mountain range of the Sierra Madre and having a strange feeling overcome me. I cried as we began to descend into the Guadalajara airport. I didn’t know what to call my own home, or how to feel about it. I cried because I was angry that it took 21 years to step foot on ground I had dreamt about for so long. I was angry because we flew over a meaningless border and presented a meaningless piece of paper just so that I could be reunited with my father and the rest of my family.
Ten years had passed since his deportation; we were both different men. I was 15 when he left and he was 55. We were now 25 and 65 and I brought my wife to meet him for the first time. I couldn’t stop looking at his face, and seeing what ten years of living alone without his family had done to him. I was almost happy the day he left because he was not the best father. We were terrified of him. There were many times as a child when I would come home from school and see my mother’s face completely shattered and bruised. But in the airport that day, I saw a different man, much smaller than I remember. As we drove to my hometown, with each mile, I felt I was going into myself, to a point of singularity. It was early morning when we arrived and I fell asleep, and for once it wasn’t a dream.
During my visit, I asked to visit the abandoned home in the mountains where my mother was born. I was speechless when we arrived as I saw the ruins of a home neglected for decades. I waded through a thicket of weeds high as my chest through each room whose roof had collapsed entirely.
I sat in the middle of what had been the courtyard and cried. There was corn growing near my feet, sprouting from the seeds of seeds of seeds that my mother dropped while desgranando mazorca when she was a child. The same courtyard that saw 5 or 6 generations of my family grow up, have kids, and continue with their lives. There was nothing closer to “origin” that I could think of, other than my mother’s womb, but somehow the idea of origin always escaped me, somehow it still didn’t feel like I completely belonged to it because I was removed for so long. But I did feel a sense of largeness that I had never felt before. I felt that I extended outward for miles. I wanted to take my clothes off and lie on the dirt. I wanted to touch every adobe brick with every part of my body.
The reality, however, was less glamorous and less Lana Del Rey inspired. I didn’t thrash naked in a point of my origin. I merely took a few pictures, cried by myself in the middle of a clearing surrounded by crumbling walls, and eventually left. I wanted so much more, but I couldn’t access it. I eventually returned to my mother in the states, and to everyone else waiting on the “other” side of the impenetrable line. When she saw the pictures of her childhood home, she was sad to see what had become of it. The ranch her single mother raised her on and the neighboring ranches were all ghost towns. The majority of the people migrated to the U.S., leaving behind only the deep roots of their plants and flowers.
What else is left for me, other than to accept how meaningless questions of place are without realizing the privilege of mobility, citizenship, and acknowledging the damage that the legacy of colonialism has done to marginalized people. The landscape will outlast me; the border will still be up, and the trees will continue to be nothing but trees if we don’t raise our eyes to their branches.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and crossed the border through Tijuana at the age of five with his family. He is a Canto Mundo fellow and the first undocumented student to graduate from the University of Michigan’s MFA program. He teaches summers as the resident artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. He was a finalist for the New England Review Emerging Writer Award and his manuscript was a finalist for the Alice James Book Prize and the National Poetry Series. His poems and essays can be found in Indiana Review, New England Review, The Paris American, Gulf Coast and Southern Humanities Review, among others.