On any given day, the county jail in Marysville, California, holds about 170 immigrant detainees awaiting hearings. Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have an office nearby, the inmates will be shown via Televideo to one of the three judges of San Francisco’s immigration court. After their hearings, 90 percent of those inmates will be put on a green bus and taken to an ICE detention center for deportation. The Marysville jail is just one of the nearly two hundred jails where ICE held contracts last year. It also happens to be just a few blocks away from the home of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, a DACA recipient and poet who recently moved back to Marysville to be near his mother.
Castillo’s debut poetry collection, Cenzontle, will be published in April. It has been nearly four years since Castillo became a legal resident, after marrying his longtime girlfriend. But when the Department of Homeland Security bus rolls up to the jail on Friday mornings, Castillo feels a familiar paranoia. “Some people think the border just exists along the southern part of the United States, but it’s like a panopticon,” Castillo says. “Their omnipresence—that ICE can be anywhere—is what most attacks the psyche of undocumented people.”
Castillo’s family came to the United States when he was five years old. For twenty years, the poet lived in a state of hyperawareness, as if he were a prisoner in Bentham’s circular jail, trying to avoid the all-seeing enforcement agency at its center. “Your self is first and foremost dictated by your undocumented status,” Castillo tells me. “Nobody knows that you have to filter your experiences with: Can I do this or not?”
Castillo was excluded from the mundane privileges that documented Americans take for granted. When the local public library began requiring Social Security numbers, Castillo could no longer borrow books. When driving, Castillo strictly adhered to speeding laws. He would drive his brown Ford Taurus sedan, chosen for its discreteness, at exactly sixty-seven miles per hour when the highway speed limit was sixty-five, because “sixty-four would’ve drawn too much attention to myself,” he says. (More than once, he tells me, he almost got into a car accident because he was looking at the speedometer rather than the road.) While studying for his M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Michigan, he could not work as a teaching fellow or grading position to earn his scholarship, as most M.F.A. candidates do, because he didn’t have work authorization.
Constant hypervigilance made it difficult for Castillo to develop a stable sense of identity—so much so that for many years the poet avoided writing from a first-person perspective. “My poetry doesn’t exist anywhere,” Castillo says of the poems in Cenzontle, which won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize in 2017. “My readers have such a difficult time placing them in time and space. There’s no body attached to them. No attachment to the real world. This literally comes from this anxiety I had that I didn’t want to say too much.”
In 2012, President Obama announced his DACA executive action. That fall, Castillo began studying at Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus and was therefore eligible for the temporary relief. It was there in Ann Arbor, far away from the California county he had grown up in, that Castillo decided to come out as undocumented. The admission was hard for him; he had kept his undocumented status secret for so many years. He had not even dared to discuss it with his extended family. “The words had never taken shape in my mouth,” Castillo says of that moment. “It felt like I was looking at myself while saying it.”
Receiving DACA provided Castillo relief. The benefits were evident: the poet received his first government-issued ID, he could work for the university as a teaching assistant, and he was able to openly discuss his life with peers. It also emboldened Castillo and others to launch the advocacy group Undocupoets, which, in 2015, led prominent poetry contests, like those run by the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation, to remove American citizenship as an entrance requirement. This work has enabled the forthcoming publication of his own first collection by BOA Editions. (Northwestern University Press will also publish a selection of the poems in Cenzontle in April, in a chapbook called Dulce.)
And yet, twenty years of undocumented life still haunts Castillo, especially in his poetry. Many of the poems in Cenzontle were completed after Castillo received DACA status and later a green card, and yet they manifest the confusion and dislocation he experienced while living undocumented. “A very foundational part of me was in that mode,” Castillo says. “And that’s the poet I became. It wasn’t on purpose, but when I realized it and tried to change, it was too late.”
Castillo crafts evocative scenes that draw readers in, but then, after a section break or sometimes even a line break, the focus changes. Readers are thrown into a new scene, equally compelling but seemingly unrelated. This juxtaposition prevents Castillo’s work from offering the comfort of logic or predictability. Instead, they twist away from you:
After the first boy called me a wetback,
I opened his mouth and fed him a spoonful of honey.
I like the way you say “honey,” he said.
I made him a necklace out of the bees that have died in my yard.
How good it must have felt before the small village
echoed its grief in his throat, before the sirens began ringing.
Several of his poems evince a frustrated desire to be able to tell a life story and be understood. Describing the men of his family who share his given name, Castillo writes: “And all of us in one suitcase that hasn’t been opened. / I haven’t been opened.” Other, more abstract poems show the distance between the language of documented Americans and that of undocumented ones. In a poem titled “Immigration Interview with Jay Leno,” a stern interviewer asks immigration questions such as “how long do you plan on staying here?” To this, the immigrant responds, “We would have drowned / even without our laughter.” The effect is jarring:
Is that really your name?
Yes, the clothes on the floor
blossomed like the orchards in spring.
Have you been here before?
There was a man who knew the way.
I put his fingers in my mouth
when he pointed in the direction of the sun.
In his personal life, Castillo is still attempting to negotiate the chasms of communication that his poetry explores. He is currently at work on a memoir for HarperCollins, but he has found writing his life story in a narrative fashion difficult. Even though he no longer faces legal ramifications, it seems as if the necessary avoidance of his truth most of his life has made him fearful of telling it to this day.
In the collection, which takes its title from the Spanish word for birdsong, to sing of one’s undocumented life is to risk being consumed by it: “The song becoming / the bird becoming / the song,” the poet writes. “The bird unraveled its song and became undone.” And yet, in the collection’s first poem, the desire to tell the story is also inescapable:
Call it wound—
call it beginning—
The bird’s beak twisted
into a small circle of awe.
You called it cutting apart,
I called it song.
DACA and permanent residency have given Castillo the ability to speak openly, but he still has bouts of depression and anxiety and has sought mental-health treatment to help him adjust to his new residency status. Last year, when he could not afford therapy, he began jogging through Marysville to ease his anxiety.
One early Friday morning, while out on a run, he came to an intersection and checked his surroundings. There, midblock, he saw a white bus with darkened windows parked near an entrance to the Yuba County Jail. Curious, he jogged by the bus to check it out. He saw a navy blue Department of Homeland Security logo. The old anxiety flooded back. He considered if he should wait around, try to speak to an immigrant being taken onto the bus, so that he could tell his or her family what had happened. But he also did not want to be a voyeur—to, as he told me, “partake in the spectacle of bodies being hauled away.” He ran a lap around the block, and another, and on his final lap the bus was gone. He did not see anyone being led from the jail to the bus, but he knew what had happened. He felt like the intense worry that characterized his undocumented life was justified. In that moment, it felt like ICE really was everywhere. He has not gone for a run early on a Friday morning since.
Tara Wanda Merrigan is a freelance writer living in New York.