Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir opens in 2006 with two ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) pounding relentlessly on the door of his small home in Northern California. Eight additional agents surround the exterior.
The modest home is occupied by 15-year-old Marcelo, his mother and two younger brothers. The ICE agents are looking for the father and husband, deported to Mexico three years earlier. The agents ransack the house, rifle through drawers, and pull out their guns in front of the family, even after they are told the father is no longer in the United States.
Young Marcelo is grateful when the agents leave because he knows they could have taken his mother, him, or any of the small brothers into custody and possibly deported them to avoid the embarrassment of a false search. That was a common practice of the ICE agents. Marcelo also is relieved when they don’t go to the next house and take someone else, as they often do, to cover up their mistakes.
Castillo’s heart-rending memoir describes his life and that of his family living in the United States as undocumented immigrants from Mexico. He writes elegantly and honestly of his efforts to seek legal entry into the U.S for his mother and father. He writes of the anxiety and pain he suffers from his need to remain unnoticed, at the same time driven to use his intellect and education in productive, satisfying ways.
In 1993, Castillo’s family crossed the Mexican border illegally when he was 5-years-old. The family was seeking escape from the relentless poverty that prevented his parents from being able to support their children. (They were not facing persecution from the government, a requirement they would have to prove to the border agents to have a chance at asylum in the U.S.)
During the journey, Catillo was temporarily blinded from the trauma of the crossing. HIs family managed to get to a migrant labor camp in northern California. They were hired by American companies looking for cheap labor to pick fruit on farms and work in factories. They still live in northern California. His parents continue to fear deportation on a daily basis although his mother has legal rights to be here.
Castillo graduated from college and is now an award-winning poet on the faculty of a college in Northern California. The story of his recent efforts to gain asylum for his father are heartbreaking. His mother’s decision to move back to Mexico to be with her husband after more than 10 years apart results in a catastrophe that exemplifies why so many people are fleeing their own land.
Woven within this memoir is a narrative that vividly explains what it is like to live in the country as an illegal person, as a DACA recipient, and as a green card holder. A person who has even entered legally faces many obstacles when he tries to obtain permanent resident status. The laws change often and without notice.
DACA provides a way for brilliant people like Castillo to work in the U.S. and add to our culture. He fears for the young and old immigrants in this country who are subject to hate attacks, ridiculed, and live their lives in secret and shame because of the current attitude toward immigrants. Castillo laments the plans to phase out DACA, introduced by the current administration in 2017.
“Children of the Land” offers a startling, beautiful, harrowing look into the realities of being a legal or illegal immigrant in the country. I recommend this memoir to all.