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How poetry helped Marcelo Hernandez Castillo speak out on immigration

At a young age, language was Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s best defense.

Growing up undocumented, Castillo said that fluency in English — and, later, poetry — were the tools with which he could protect against deportation. Writing was “a way to kind of offset any questions or any suspicions about my documentation status,” he said. “By way of fear, along came poetry.”

Castillo, who entered the U.S. from Mexico with his family at the age of five, did not address his own story in writing until recently. After he received exemption from deportation under Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, a policy that applies to people who entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and before 2007, he became the first undocumented student to earn an MFA at the University of Michigan. And he returned to Mexico for the first time in 21 years.

Those two experiences gave him a new perspective on the trauma that had pervaded his experience with the U.S. immigration system, he said.

“It is very traumatic. It is a fear that is ingrained in you,” he said. “It wasn’t until much later in life that I began thinking in terms of my identity and how much that fear has caused.”

Castillo’s poems now interrogate the systems that uphold fear and make experiences like his invisible. “People write about the river without seeing the bodies beneath. People write about a tree without seeing who’s been hung from its branches. To me, that erasure has to be purposeful,” he said.

In “Immigration Interview with Jay Leno in the Desert,” Castillo examines the power dynamics inherent in interviews — a form of entertainment in media and pop culture, but also a method used by immigration authorities.

“For me, an interview has a lot of menacing connotations,” he said. “The form of the interview is something I want to further investigate. [It’s] something that has different meaning for people just watching Jay Leno than someone who’s going up for an immigration interview.”

The poem’s question and answer sections are profoundly disconnected, juxtaposing a talk show host’s breezy questions with images of a family crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.

“These questions are one of the very first times that I’m trying to come back to that moment … when we crossed,” he said. “It’s probably one of the first instances in my writing when I tried to address that crossing.”

You can read Castillo’s piece, or hear him read it, below.

Immigration Interview with Jay Leno in the Desert

What is your objective?
llllllllTo return all the street lamps
llllllllhidden by the boy’s gestures.

How long do you plan on staying here?
llllllllI don’t understand
llllllllthe question.

I said how long do you plan on staying here?
llllllllThey would have drowned
lllllllleven without our laughter.

Is that really your name?
llllllllYes, even the clothes on the dirt
llllllllgroaned like some orchards in spring.

Have you been here before?
llllllllI choked on an empty sleeve
llllllllwhere I thought an arm should be
lllllllltrying to put his fingers in my mouth.

Who are you wearing?
llllllllThe woman gave birth in the dark.
llllllllI thought I felt hands where there were none.

llllllllEveryone dug a hole.

Are you alone?
llllllllNorth was whichever way
llllllllthe mannequins were pointing.

llllllllThe softest bone is the one
llllllllthat will burn the longest.

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is a Canto Mundo fellow, a Pushcart nominee and has received fellowships to attend the Squaw Valley Writer’s Workshop, and the Vermont Studio Center. 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. With Javier Zamora and Christopher Soto (AKA Loma), he initiated the Undocupoets campaign which successfully eliminated citizenship requirements from all major first poetry book prizes in the country. This poem originally appeared in Muzzle Mag.

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