Q&A with a DACA Poet: Marcelo Hernandez Castillo Discusses Immigration, Reading His Poetry in His Conservative Hometown, and His Next Book

In the past few weeks, as a group of thousands of Central American migrants walks on foot to the US border and President Trump sends thousands of troops to the border to make a “wall of people” to prevent the migrants (dubbed the “caravan”) from seeking asylum, the six final lines of the poem “Cenzontle” (Spanish for “birdsong”) by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo have resurfaced in my mind repeatedly:

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.

Earlier this year, I wrote a profile of Marcelo, a poet and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipient whose poetry navigates his trauma and anxiety related to growing up undocumented in the United States. In that essay, published online at The Paris Review, I attempted to convey the experience of Marcelo’s poetry, albeit in prose. Marcelo’s lyric and image-rich poems, which have few direct references to his material situation (living undocumented, knowing that at any moment he could be separated from his family, the anxiety and hypervigilance that stemmed from this), carry readers across (metaphysical) borders into Marcelo’s interior landscape.

Cenzontle, which is also the title of Marcelo’s entire first collection, is a timely addition to a conversation about immigration that has become increasingly heated and politicized. Published in April, the collection came out just after Congress failed to meet the deadline for a legislative “solution” to President Trump’s executive order rescinding the DACA program.

Seven months later, I caught up with Marcelo, and the political situation around immigration had only become more difficult. Congress had still not found a fix for Trump’s rescinding the Obama-era DACA program, and reports of family-child separations —like the story about boys living in a converted former Wal-Mart store in Texas — had dominated the news all spring and summer.

What follows is a conversation with Marcelo, edited and condensed for clarity, about his publicity tour for Cenzontle, reading his poetry in his hometown in California’s Central Valley for the first time, and how he is pushing his writing further in his next book, a memoir titled Children of the Land, which is due out form HarperCollins in 2020.

— Tara Wanda Merrigan

Cenzontle is your first collection. What was it like doing a book tour for the first time?

I was really happy with how my book tour went. Many times, I would say to myself ‘I can’t believe that here I am, I get to do this.’ It was just amazing, and to see my book there in people’s hands was surreal. I worried that my point of view in terms of what I was writing about it was too specific and that my collection wouldn’t reach a lot of people. And no, I was wrong. There were a lot of people who came up to me and had good things to say about the book, and said they could relate. It seems like the lyricism of the collection allowed readers to enter the poem and be in it, alongside my story.

What was it like on your book tours readings, to present yourself so publicly and discuss an experience that for so long you didn’t talk about?

It was surprisingly not that difficult. In the past, I’ve been able to separate my professional and poetry life from my personal life. The work I did with Undocupoets, the poems I have published, the memoir I’m writing — all of it was okay because I was doing it in Chicago, I was doing it in Tuscon, I was doing it in Philly, where I felt that I didn’t have any bearing there because I wasn’t from there. I did feel a freedom to say whatever I wanted. Even when I had a reading in LA and I brought my wife, my baby and my mom — a little cluster of my private life — it was still okay because I was outside my hometown. When I had a reading at universities, I even went and ask administrators about their systems to help students who are undocumented.

One of the last readings I did this summer was at my local library. They’re really nice there, but I was really dreading this reading. I live in a very conservative county in a very conservative town. I live in California, but in the Central Valley in a town of 11,000. Nobody in Marysville knows that I’m a writer, and I did that on purpose in part to protect the ones that I love here. In the days leading up to the reading, the local newspaper ran stories about my book and I would go to the grocery store and someone would say “Hey, I saw you in the paper.” Or: “Oh, that’s what you do?” I was very afraid that somehow in the political climate that somehow me or my family would be targeted. Having a green card now doesn’t mean the same thing it did two years ago.

I had also never read in front of my entire family. I had never read my queer poems in front of them, and it compounded the level of stress. But in the end, I decided to just go, and it turned out to be one of the most satisfying readings of all the readings I had during the book tour. One of the most well-attended, too. I asked the people who came to the library, “For how many of you is this your first poetry reading?” Three-quarters of them raised their hand. I read and then the book sold out. There was a line out the door. Everyone wanted to take a picture with me. Immediately, all of my anxiety just melted. My hometown really showed up.

It’s often said that poetry allows people to connect with the feelings and experiences of others. I feel like with your poetry, the poetic form really does convey the emotional importance of your experience. Did the response to your work renew your faith in the power of poetry and confirm your desire to write poetry?

The book itself wasn’t specific to a place or time, and it isn’t overt in its politicization of a moment. It is more about what that politicization did to my interior, what politics do to us as we move through the world. I was really worried. I kept asking, is that enough? It paid off in the end to write the collection how I felt I should write these poems. It made me feel good to hear that people resonated with my poems. That’s what I think renewed my faith in my work and validated why I kept writing these poems like I did.

You and your wife recently had your first child. How has new fatherhood changed your perspective on being an American immigrant and poet?

Immediately following that reading at my public library, I isolated myself because I couldn’t handle being bombarded with the tragedy of what was happening, politically. When news hit about child and family separation, it hit hard, since I have been separated from my family myself. I was really active at first. I took part in a book auction to raise fund, act as a translator, but then realizing how unstable it is now being a permanent resident, I broke down. I isolated myself. I left social media.

I would look at Julian and be overcome with emotion. Having Julian has made it such that if politics were personal before, they’re now at the level of bone. As Trump’s rhetoric has ramped up, it’s made things harder. Because now, with Julian, the stakes are higher. Me, Julian, and Ruby are a multi-status family, and the Office of Denaturalization is open now.

With my next book, a memoir, I’ve focused on my relationship with my mother and my father. I’ve erased a lot of people out of it, for safety. But that hasn’t stifled my book. It’s been invigorating to focus more and write in-depth on a few topics. One thread is growing up in California with my family as an undocumented immigrant, and the other thread is about the process of getting DACA and going to Mexico through DACA for the first time in 10 years.

Your first collection stays in your interior world, and while politics is a pressure, it’s so implicit that I was hesitant to mention politics explicitly when writing about you and your work myself. I didn’t feel right writing about contemporary politics in detail alongside your life and work. Does your next book have that same kind of interior focus?

My book of poems does accomplish a certain resonance, but staying in that interiority I can only accomplish so much, and I want to grow as an artist. The memoir takes that next step from the interior, it steps out and looks at the moment and what’s happening now. I don’t think you can keep interiority and the current political climate apart, or keep them apart for long. For my own well-being and survival, I stayed in my interiority in my first book but for my second I can’t stay there.