Poet, translator and essayist Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s newest book takes his enchanting and poetic language into the realm of memoir. Castillo details growing up undocumented in California after his family crosses to the United States from Zacatecas, Mexico.
He opens his story with the shattering experience of an ICE raid in his home in 2006. Though ICE was looking for his father, who had already been deported, Castillo knew the destruction they could wreak on the family. He translates for his mother when they demand information, trying to stay calm, and so sharply conveys this terrorizing experience, “we stood there, frozen, unsure of what to do. The inner urge to flee was replaced with paralyzed submission — we were cemented in place. In that moment, if anyone wished to do so, they could have walked through our door, commanded us to cut ourselves open, and we would have probably listened.”
Castillo’s memoir focuses on his ties to two places while concurrently not feeling tied to anywhere. Living most of his life in the United States, he strives to navigate a strained relationship with his father living in Mexico through a trip to visit him. Castillo tactfully flashes back and forth between memories of growing up, his time with his father, and traversing these complexities as a young adult. He dispels common misconceptions about his experience and details around getting DACA, a Green Card, and the naive, ignorant, and common questions around why his mother, “didn’t ‘just get papers if she had over thirty years combined in the U.S.,’ as if time alone was the remedy.”
Castillo’s poetic skills shine so brightly in the lyrical pace of this story, the creative chapter divisions, and his ability to move between worlds. The effect and beauty of this story comes so deeply from his ties and complications with family and relationship, between his Apá and Amá, and his fluid connections to both the United States and Mexico.
Visitors to Cambodia, who wander around
with crushed limes in their sugarcane drinks,
can say people of this country
suffered so much but are happy.
The poem Tuol Sleng, covers the twisted experience of visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school and site of Security Prison 21, where the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered over 20,000 people. Sok juxtaposes this horror with the experience of visiting the museum among tourists without connection to the trauma, building on disgust and heartbreak radiating through her poems.
One of the most beautiful in this collection is Ode to the Loom, a gentle dedication to her grandmother’s loom, loved and learned, used to weave and absorb emotion and quiet hours. On writing this poem Sok explains in a Lithub interview: “this poem offers a different tone in the book, I think. I realized then how much my grandmother was a part of this book. Her loom, her grief, her joy and perseverance. My grandmother had been missing in the book. I believe that my ancestors had a hand in making the book. Talking to them and trusting their guidance throughout my creative process — that’s how I discovered a lot of my poems too.”
Sok’s deep exploration of ancestry, home and duality of identity is covered with elegance and impeccably crafted imagery.
Hana Zittel is a librarian at the Denver Public Library in addition to being a librarian at the Denver Zine Librarian. She grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and pretty much just likes being outside with her pup when she has some free time, and reading, that might have been assumed though.