Illustration by Elton Monroy Durán

This is an article from the spring 2020 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

At a young age, poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s (M.F.A. ’14)  fear of deportation was greater than his fear of death. By the time he graduated high school, his home had been raided by ICE, he’d been separated from his mother by the U.S. immigration system, and his father had been deported from the Northern California town the family called home.

Castillo learned to hide his undocumented status, which meant hiding parts of himself. The border appeared in his poetry as a snake, a long thread of hair, a hungry lake. As Castillo writes in his memoir, Children of the Land, “I ventured to believe that the function of the border wasn’t only to keep people out, at least that was not its long-term function. Its other purpose was to be visible, to be seen, to be carried in the imaginations of migrants deep into the interior of the country, in the interior of their minds.”

In the fall of 2012, when Castillo began the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, the border was on a lot of people’s minds. In June 2012, President Obama had announced a new policy: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which offered people who had been brought to the United States as children a two-year renewable period in which deportation could be deferred. Castillo, who had worried about enrolling in the program as an undocumented student, was one of its earliest beneficiaries. “Miraculously, DACA arrived as soon as I needed it,” Castillo says, “and my application was in the mail the first day.”

After spending most of his life in a Latinx community in California, Castillo found himself in the Midwest for the first time. He initially felt culturally alone, and he only communicated his residency status to a small circle of people. But working closely with other writers and being part of the artistic community in Ann Arbor helped. Castillo finished his degree and his manuscript, and he got ready to submit his manuscript for publication.

First books of poems are often published through prizes, and Castillo knew prize applications required proof of citizenship. He had always assumed he would cross that bridge when he got to it. “And then, I got to the bridge,” Castillo laughs. He had completed his first book, Cenzontle, and began contacting major poetry prizes independently, to see if there might be a path to publication for undocumented poets.

When Castillo heard that fellow poets Javier Zamora and Christopher Soto were interested in addressing this issue too, the three decided to begin a campaign together.

“That’s how it started,” Castillo says. “One by one people started getting on board.” 

They called the group Undocupoets, and together the organization successfully petitioned ten major book awards to reconsider and, in most cases, waive the U.S. citizenship requirement for submission and publication. Castillo’s work with Undocupoets cleared a path to publication for undocumented writers, making the poetry world more inclusive.

“I thought about how many voices were left out of M.F.A. programs and book contests,” Castillo says. “Who knows what they could have written, had they been allowed to apply.”


Cenzontle was widely celebrated and won many awards, including the A. Poulin, Jr. Prize, and was selected by NPR and the New York Public Library for their top book lists of 2018.

The book established Castillo as a serious talent in the world of poetry, and the tension and ambiguity of his lines drew comparisons to Surrealists and French Symbolists because of their ability to shift shapes, to behave like exquisitely layered masks.

Like the cenzontle, or mockingbird, Castillo was aware of inhabiting liminal space. He could be read and seen as a truth-telling poet, though he privately felt constrained by what he could say. Castillo was proud of Cenzontle, but he also knew what he didn’t — or couldn’t — put into it.

“In poetry I controlled how much to reveal, how much someone else could know about me. Having to hide a lot of myself, a lot of my past — that was reflected in the book of poems. I tried — I really, really tried. But the story couldn’t make its way onto paper in poetry. There was a layer of vulnerability I couldn’t tap into,” says Castillo. 

He needed to write another book.

100 Years of Migrations

In 2015, during Castillo’s third-year fellowship in the Zell Program, he began working on essays that would soon grow into what is now his first memoir, Children of the Land. He started with the story of his family’s migration, which hadn’t begun with him or his parents, but was a much older part of his family history. Working with a linear narrative was difficult, and Castillo scrapped chronology altogether for a shape that was both more poetic and true to his family’s migration, circling through real and abstract moments and rearranging them in time, such as when his great-grandfather was deloused in the same border town where Castillo’s father was deported 100 years later.

But a year into writing this book, after a series of complicated events, Castillo’s parents found themselves back at the border seeking asylum after being detained, and Castillo’s project changed.

“Once my parents’ ankle bracelets came off in fall 2016, this was not the same book,” Castillo says. He began again entirely, and with urgency. “I really thought about poets and their second books, all of the recurring images from the first book that get retraced by the second. I admire writers who take their second book in a different direction.” To the reader, Children of the Land introduces new material, but for Castillo it is a continuation of the things that he couldn’t talk about, things that he had left unaddressed by the lyric.

In Children of the Land, Castillo returns to the delicate images that fill his poetry — glass embedded in flesh, a runaway horse, geraniums — and tells the stories behind them that he had kept hidden in the poems. At La Loma, the adobe house on the top of a mountain near Zacatecas, Mexico, where his mother’s family had lived for centuries, he listened for the stories in those stones. His great-grandfather had set out for the United States in the first of five migrations 100 years before, and soon Castillo would be a father to a son born in the United States. It took a century for Castillo’s family to get there, and he felt every moment. “In America, my family’s past and present have never existed separately,” he says. “We’ve never been able to move on from everything that has happened to us in the past — it’s still with us in the present.”

Now that the book is out, Castillo is working on a partnership between Undocupoets and writing residencies around the country to provide time and space for undocumented writers to work outside of M.F.A. programs. Undocupoets, now co-led by poets Janine Joseph and Esther Lin, has begun offering fellowships to cover application fees for undocumented writers, and they’re working on a full-length feature project with Yale Review on stories told around the theme of documents.

As for another memoir, Castillo doesn’t think he’ll be returning to the form immediately. “I don’t think I was really prepared for how emotionally draining it would be to dig up all this mess for Children of the Land,” he says. “I didn’t know the extent of how much I had buried.” 

Excerpt from Children of the Land 

They used to say that there were children living beneath small rocks on the west side of mountains. They were insects that had the faces of children, about the size of a frog. Their faces were white and were always positioned upward to the sky. If you looked at their faces you would go blind, so you had to look up at the sky to avoid their stare. 
This was a myth brought back to Mexico from the U.S. by braceros like my grandfather Jesus. I liked to think of these myths crossing the border as well, returning to their origin from thousands of miles away. 
The Niños de la Tierra had fluorescent bodies that glowed in the dark. I remember climbing a hill the adults told me not to go near because the Niños de la Tierra lived there. I looked up to the sky as I walked, careful not to look down at their faces, afraid of going blind. 
Maybe those children belonged to someone, trapped in the north like everyone else, unable to return to the land of their birth. Or maybe that was the land of their birth, and they looked up because that’s where all the mothers and fathers were.
(From Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Used with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.)
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