I don’t know why I went temporarily blind in Tijuana while waiting to cross the border in 1993. It didn’t happen all at once. It wasn’t like someone suddenly turned off the lights. First it was the colors that started fading, then it was the shapes, and then shadows altogether. Or maybe not in that order. I could explain the colors leaving, I knew that the world sometimes did that—seemed grayer than usual. I thought it was clouds. I thought the gray came from the walls themselves, and the dried trees and the loose dirt. Maybe that’s just what Tijuana looked like.
But it was shapes I could not explain. Their edges softening into the empty space around them until I couldn’t tell where one thing started and another ended. I could see something was more of itself closer to the center, and less of itself farther out—a gradient. Maybe the soul wasn’t just one thing but an assortment of many little things huddled together, like penguins keeping warm in a blizzard. Or like a flock of birds packed so tightly in a tree that you think they’re all just leaves, until a loud noise startles them and they shudder the bare limbs loose.
The things in front of me slowly became less and less of themselves, but they stretched out nonetheless, beyond the edges of themselves, as if they no longer wanted to be whatever it was that they were put on this earth to be—as if they too wanted to get a little farther north.
Even the sky no longer felt distant but rather like it began right above my head. And didn’t it?
When I tried to look at Amá and Apá, I saw an interchangeable thing. Part was more mother, the other part was more father, but it was one thing nonetheless—malleable, connected.
The trees and the cars and the houses and the children felt like the same thing, too. I could feel the dirt, I could feel the bricks along the wall and their grainy textures—how one square ended at the deep ridge of the grout. I could feel the grout, and I ran my finger along it until it scraped the tip. With time, maybe things would have separated again, maybe they would have gone back to themselves.
But initially, and because it happened so fast, it looked like someone went by and smudged the people’s faces with paint thinner. I could hear Amá talking to me, but I could only see the darkness of her eyes contrasted with her light skin.
After colors, after the shapes, and after the shadows, all that was left was contrast—one thing held up against another. I could tell there was a chair not by what it looked like but by the things around it. By what it was not. It never went completely dark, just almost.
I cried and felt my way along the edges of the wall. There was no here or there, except the sounds of the cars outside and Amá and Apá fighting in another room about what to do with me.
“Mijo, can you see me?” I heard my mother say somewhere in front of me.
“What about now, can you see me now?”
Soon we would be crossing. Soon we would want no one else to see us—to go invisible too, to move through the mountains like a flock of birds shaken by a sudden clanging of a bell.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to slowly disappear? First our shapes, then the edges of ourselves, and finally our shadows, how we looked against the backdrop of the sky. How easy it would be to walk right past the guards so that Amá would not have to run with my baby brother knocking around inside her big belly. We could take our time, stand in the middle of the checkpoint and watch the faces of others as they nervously talked to the guards. We could look at the landscape instead of trying to run away from it, pick up a few rocks and toss them leisurely against the lights and laugh.
I could hear Apá grunt and complain that I was watching the TV too closely and that’s why my eyes “hurt.” He didn’t say blind, he said that was why they “hurt.”
“He’ll be fine, just give him a few days,” said Apá.
Was it something so ordinary, so common? He’ll be fine. What was the point in worrying anyway? We had no money for a doctor, we hardly had enough money for food. All we could do was wait for my vision to return. And if it didn’t, would they go on without me? Would they lead me by the hand and describe what was happening around me? “Here is a mountain. Here is a snake. Feel the coarse leather of this man’s boot.”
When it came back, it didn’t return in the same order it vanished. Things were separate from themselves again—distinctly each their own. Amá was Amá, and Apá was Apá. The birds in the trees were again just birds.
I saw her face at last as she held me—rocking me to sleep. It wasn’t smudged. I would need my rest. Her shirt was green. If we were in a meadow somewhere far away, it would still be the brightest thing in that field.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is the author of Cenzontle, winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. He holds a B.A. from Sacramento State University and was the first undocumented student to graduate from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. His work has appeared or is featured in the New York Times, The Paris Review, People magazine, and PBS Newshour, among others. He lives in Marysville, California, where he teaches poetry to incarcerated youth and also teaches at the Ashland University low-residency M.F.A. program.
From Children of the Land, by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Used with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.