Writing the evasive American Dream

Former DACA recipient defies the odds to win national poetry awards and a Harper Collins contract

Poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Photo BY serene lusano

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo had never seen such opulence. Inside a domed ballroom in New York City, a crystal chandelier twinkled and purple light splashed across every wall and gown. Bow-tied waiters swiveled around the merriment with trays of hors d’oeuvres. Tickets to enter the Park Avenue room were $500 a head on that night in March 2016, and these high-paying guests were all there to celebrate him.

But Castillo spent most of the night in the bathroom, he says, sobbing to the attendant who handed out mints and towels.

“I was telling him how bullshit all of this was,” Castillo recalls. “I just wanted none of it.”

Castillo—along with poets Christopher Soto and Javier Zamora—had just won the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award. They were the founders of Undocupoets, a movement to petition first-book-award contests to cease requiring proof of U.S. citizenship. Many prizes would only consider poets with papers. These included the prestigious BOA Editions’ A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, which Castillo won this spring. As a result of that award he will publish his first full-length book of poems, Cenzontle, in 2018.

The sprightly 29-year-old poet taught at Sacramento State University until this summer, and he usually speaks through a glowing smile. As the first undocumented writer to graduate from University of Michigan’s Master in Fine Arts writing program in 2014, he has become something of a poster child for poets who lack citizenship. Since then, his career has blossomed. After he snagged those awards, publishers got into a bidding war over his memoir. HarperCollins, one of the “Big Five,” won the battle this spring.

But Castillo’s rising stardom has come at a personal cost. The young poet has struggled with his immigration status throughout his schooling, and his ascendant career occasionally whisks him away from his family. On the other hand, he’s also been forced to take breaks from his work to fight bureaucratic or political skirmishes on behalf of his relatives. In the midst of all of this, he questions whether he should relish any of his fortune while his family fights to live here. He’s so preoccupied, he says, he frets about being truly present for his loved ones. Sometimes, he even doubts whether he enjoys the act of writing.

On that evening in New York, none of the pomp and prestige mattered to Castillo because he had just spoken on the phone with his mother. She had returned to Mexico to retire and reunite with his father. Castillo says this was a kind of death. No longer could he lean on his mother’s shoulder or comb her hair. She didn’t have U.S. citizenship, so her move to Mexico was final, and he remembers that she sounded so distant on the phone.

He later beseeched a mentor who had delighted in the festivities on Park Avenue. “How can you enjoy this?” Castillo asked the poet, who had also come from humble beginnings. “How do you live with yourself knowing that you’re out here, posh in this Park Avenue building with attendants in the bathroom and attendants everywhere and the food was amazing—how do you live with yourself?”

As he recalls, his mentor responded bluntly: “’You’re an asshole if you think that your mom wouldn’t want you to be here. Do you think she wants you to be out on the street, or out working on the fields?’” And Castillo had to admit that he agreed: “Yeah, it’s right, she wants you to be here, exactly. That shook me to my core.”

Now, nearly a year-and-a-half later, Castillo still chafes at success like an ill-fitting suit. By the time his memoir will be released in 2019, he must learn to wear it.

Poetics of a dreamer

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo with his wife, Rubi, in Michigan.

Photo courtesy of marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Castillo's poems reveal his slippery sense of time. The stanzas come unglued from the left margin and their indentations drift around the page, sometimes beginning in the middle, sometimes inching toward the right edge. In his poem “Origin of Drowning or Crossing the Rio Bravo,” Castillo memorializes all who have crossed the border before and after him. Like a bittersweet dream, he imagines lovers settling down at the bottom of that river where so many have died by trying to live. This tragic couplet bubbles up in the center of the page: “Let's keep waking underwater / until one of us gets it right.”

He probes the subject of immigration for its universal resonance. In the same poem, he writes, “If they can kiss you, / they can kill you.” That’s as true of a nation as it is of a lover.

Joshua McKinney, poetry professor at Sacramento State and a mentor to Castillo, reveres this quality in his former student’s writing.

“I sometimes become annoyed at identity politics in literature,” McKinney says. “Marcelo taps into his cultural experience, and that’s an integral part of his work, but I never feel he foregrounds that in a way that is sensational. It’s just who he is. And he had interesting and difficult struggles as a result of his experience coming into the United States, and language is linked with that in an integral way. Language—English—became a kind of tool for protecting himself from questions that people might ask about his status.”

For someone who learned English as a second language, McKinney says, Castillo has a remarkable faculty for manipulating it to his will. The title of his upcoming collection is Cenzontle—“Mockingbird”—and his words flutter off the page: “Because the bird flew / before there was a word / for flight / years from now / there will be a name / for what you and I are doing.”

He writes about other winged things, including butterflies and bees, enviably free creatures unbound by the ground or their passports. He returns to honey, miel, with erotic sensuality, often contrasting that pleasure with pain.

In grade school, for example, a young boy called him “wetback.” He addresses that boy all these years later in a poem by shoving honey down his throat and gifting him with a morbid present: “I made him a necklace out of the bees that have died in my yard.” Mind you, Castillo’s allergic to bees. The poet flirts with the razor’s edge of danger in surreal scenarios where he’s safe—at last.

“There’s a dreamlike quality to the way he makes a scene or imagery,” says Eduardo Corral, another mentor and the first Latino writer to win the Yale Series of Younger Poets award. “It’s very intense and intimate and they’re calm, but they have such an emotional truth to them. They resonate. A lot of Marcelo’s work is the emotion of feeling broken and accepting brokenness of the human condition, and pleasure in being fragmented and pulled in different directions.”

Castillo has been torn between Mexico and the United States, between feeling welcome and unwanted. He began writing to suppress his alienation and discovered that poems were the perfect escape from reality. He writes, “Perhaps the butterflies are mute / because no one would believe their stories.” Poetry was the only place where he felt protected, where he didn’t need a Social Security number, as he wrote in a 2014 essay for BuzzFeed: “I made myself invisible in my poems.”

Pushing the limits

The poet was only 5 years old when he crossed the border on foot from Tijuana to California. Castillo remembers going momentarily blind with worry while waiting for the go-ahead from a coyote. His mother was five months pregnant with his brother. She led Castillo across the desert, and when he couldn't keep up, his older sibling hoisted him on his back.

The family’s reason for crossing the border was simple: “My mom, she knew hunger, and she didn’t like it.”

Before they moved to the states, his parents had worked here seasonally, picking strawberries in Washington, asparagus in Stockton. They decided to move to Yuba City because Castillo’s aunt had settled there, and she sheltered the family until they saved enough money to move out. Despite giving them a place to stay, his aunt—now deceased—sparks bitter memories. “She treated us like garbage,” he says. “She wrapped all of her furniture in plastic as soon as we came because we were dirty.” The six children hid in their room.

His mother worked at a prune factory off Highway 113, but Castillo says his father never worked a steady job. Then, in 2003, his dad was deported. “Little did I know how strongly that would affect me later on in life,” he says.

Castillo has been jumpy around authority since, afraid of getting deported over the smallest clerical errors. He says undocumented people are always living 10 seconds into the future. “We’re always mapping an escape route. We’re always living in that near distant future, which doesn’t give us the luxury to just chill.”

To contain his anxiety, he started writing poetry at Yuba City High School. Castillo read the early iambic pentameter to his future wife, Rubi. Sometimes, he would shove Spanish poems in her locker.

“That’s kind of when I knew he was serious about being a poet,” Rubi recalls. “He’s dedicated to it. He’s never been lazy about it or ever thought about giving up, even when it’s been hard.”

Rubi was and is the “Sagittarius queen” to Castillo’s “triple Aquarius,” he says—in other words, they both agree that she’s level-headed while he spins in circles with wild ambitions. When he speaks, words trip out of his mouth all at once like the Three Stooges stuck in a door. She pauses to consider the perfect thing to say. “I never walk on ground, I’m always in the air,” Castillo says. “She’s been like—cliché—but been like my rock.”

They studied together at Sacramento State. There, Castillo met professor McKinney and read many of the books he mentioned in class, even those in passing, McKinney says.

“I’ve taught now for 25 years at the university level; I think it’s fair to say that Marcelo has shown the most rapid progress,” the professor says. “When I first read his poetry he was solid, but it didn’t wow me, to be candid. But by the time he graduated, it was like talking to a colleague.”

McKinney encouraged Castillo to apply to MFA programs. Corral, too, says he reached out to advise Castillo: Let the poems speak for themselves.

“He wanted to write a book of poems and write a novel,” Corral remembers of their first conversation. “I remember thinking: This is a young, ambitious writer with some obstacles in front of him, but he’s finding ways to move beyond what’s in front of him. No matter if he had the right quote-unquote papers, he’s gonna write.”

Photo by Serene Lusano

Without that support, Castillo says, he doubts he would have taken the leap. Inside a Starbucks one day, he opened the email of acceptance from the University of Michigan, and he and Rubi began to scream and cry.

“I said, ’This is it! Our problems are over!’” Castillo recalls, unleashing a belly laugh as he plunks down his coffee mug. Anyone who’s considered an MFA might know to cue the laugh track at those words. For Castillo, the odds were even worse: He was an undocumented student about to enter a school that had no handbook to support him.

Growing pains

Castillo and his new wife moved not just from sunny California to frigid Michigan, but to Ann Arbor—"the whitest town,” he says. There was no precedent at the school for someone who was undocumented. Castillo had been accepted on the merit of his poems, and he told the faculty of his citizenship status only once he got in. “They didn't know what to do with me.” To enable him to get in without papers, they gave him a scholarship so he wouldn't have to teach, he says.

Although it was a financial relief, it introduced soul-crushing moments. “My [program] director said, ’You know, the only reason you got the first-year fellowship is because we couldn’t put you to work. We had to give it to you because it’s a private fellowship because you didn’t have a Social,’” he says. “I felt terrible. I was like, OK, you didn’t have to tell me that.

It was Castillo’s cohort of fellow writers who helped him grow, he says. His fondest school memory: On the lawn in the springtime, he and Rubi laid out on a blanket with his friends Brit Bennett—who’s since published the New York Times-bestselling novel The Mothers—and poet Derrick Austin—winner of the same poetry prize as Castillo, the year before him. Castillo guzzled most of a warm bottle of gin. He recalls traipsing down the hill with abandon and breaking his toe.

The tightknit group of writers traded books, and Castillo became exposed to “contemporary black, brown, Asian poets—because that was not my experience in college.” They also watched lots of RuPaul’s Drag Race; Castillo named his small white dog after one of his favorite drag queens on the show, Kim Chi. These friends finally gave him “permission to be glamorous,” so much so that he wore a tight purple dress one snowy Halloween.

“I feel like I’ve been denied glamor all my life, especially being a Latino man, and with my father’s very complicated ideas around masculinity. I always have to wear boots, jeans and a tucked-in shirt—that was his idea of masculinity.”

Castillo began to drape himself in elegant scarves. Then, within the comforting cocoon of his cohort, Castillo finally began to express his queerness on the page. Although he’s monogamous with his wife, Castillo explores his sexuality through the sensuality of words: “I close my eyes and lick your beard / and the salt of your cheek / tastes like batteries and liver. / You are the first man I have ever kissed.”

After his first-year fellowship ran out, Castillo was worried about being able to pay for school. He legally couldn’t teach. Then, former President Obama passed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program just in time for Castillo to stay in school and start lecturing at Michigan.

A year later, Castillo was granted a special visa to visit Mexico for the first time since he was 5. He says he was looking for “the zero,” as poet Galway Kinnell calls it—his point of origin. When Castillo found the horseshoe-shaped edifice in Tepechitlan, Zacatecas, that had been his childhood home, he says he wanted to tear off his clothes and rub his naked body against the walls and the dirt. But his father was watching, so he simply touched everything in the dilapidated shack.

Still, he couldn’t access a feeling of comfort. To this day, neither Mexico nor the states feel quite like home, he says. All the same, Castillo applied for U.S. permanent residence. His interviewer inspired one of the more absurd poems in Castillo’s book, “Immigration Interview with Jay Leno.”

“What is your objective?” a talk-show-host-turned-immigration-official asks. “To return all the children / hidden behind the street lamps,” answers an immigrant. “How long do you plan on staying here? I don’t understand / the question.”

Castillo plans on staying in the states indefinitely—he got his green card in 2014. When an immigration official granted his permanent residency, she said, “Welcome to the United States!”And Castillo thought, “I didn’t just get here. I’ve been here for 21 years.” He also dwelled on his less fortunate relatives. “There are so many people that need this more than me,” he says. “I felt kind of empty when I got it.”

Bittersweet fruit

Last year, just a month after the poet's mother retired to Mexico, he says, his dad was kidnapped and held for a ransom. His family did everything they could think of to rescue his father. Castillo put his work on the back burner to prioritize his loved ones. Then, after 45 days, he says, his father returned to safety, and the U.S. government allowed his parents to move to the states and apply for asylum. They've since returned to Yuba City, minutes away from their son.

In Castillo’s home office in Marysville, a photo is pinned to his bulletin board showing the relieved poet with his arms engulfing his mother, his head leaned against her shoulder. His eyes are shut in quiet bliss. Rubi admires the image and says, “He was so happy to see her.”

Under President Trump, it might not have been possible—new policies have made it harder to apply for asylum. A February 2017 memo from the Department of Homeland Security states that asylum seekers should be moved into the country “sparingly.” Castillo says he’s nervous about losing his parents again. “I’m trying to stay positive about it, but I know how difficult it’s going to be.”

The poet and his father in Mexico in 2015.

Photo courtesy of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Earlier this month, New York Times reporter Alexandra S. Levine asked Castillo to respond to Emma Lazarus’ sonnet on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”). In a briefing on immigration reform a few days earlier, the White House downplayed the poem’s significance to the statue’s construction. In response, Castillo told Levine, “When I came undocumented into this country, I wanted to learn English so that I could be considered ’enough.’ But after this terrible year, it’s been solidified in me that maybe, that’ll never be reached.”

Recently, Castillo pulled his car into a farm field off Highway 113, the same road where his mother packed prunes. He called up his poet friend Austin to tearfully confess that he doesn’t find pleasure in writing.

“I get joy in the moments before, like when you get that little pain,” he told his friend, “and the moments afterward when you’re finished. But the grind? When you’re in the grind, I don’t enjoy that.”

Castillo says he felt alienated from his poems, which he had written throughout the past seven years. He’s afraid he wrote them for the wrong reasons: to suppress his dread, to keep “the mad dogs on the leash,” to please his professors and readers, but never himself. “Actively looking for joy in your poems, it doesn’t come for free,” he says. “I feel like you have to give something up.”

The poet knows what he has given up so far. His wife often tells him that he cares more about work than spending time with her, Castillo says. If inspiration strikes, he’ll wake up at 2 a.m. to rush to his office. Rubi doesn’t admit to feeling neglected, but says pausing her undergraduate studies to move to Michigan was lonely, at times.

Now that Rubi is six months pregnant with a boy—due around the same time that his chapbook of poems is set to be published—Castillo feels the pressure to be more attentive. So that he’ll be more mindful for the birth of his son, he’s scrawled a reminder across a whiteboard in his home office: Slow down. “One of my biggest fears is that I’m never present; I’m always absent-minded even when I’m talking amongst friends or we’re grilling with my family,” he says. “I’m always somewhere else. So I don’t really feel like I’m going to be there for him.”

Though he keeps telling himself to chill out, he says he has no real intention of doing so in the scheme of his life plans. He’s applying for tenure-track jobs around the country. Already, he’s dreaming up a second book of poems, and this summer, he taught five literature classes at UC Davis for Upward Bound, a program for low-income high schoolers.

In front of a dozen students, it becomes apparent where Castillo feels at home. He sits atop a desk and dangles his white Converse. When students contribute insights, he excitedly paces around the room and exclaims “Yes!” with big eyes. He looks and acts like these teens, with his references to emojis and Orange Is the New Black. One student mentions some “bros or friends” who’ve drifted apart, down a bad path, and Castillo grants him poetic license: “You can write about that, too!”

After reading poems like “Pluto Shits on the Universe” by Fatimah Asghar and “The Double Blind,” a lyrical treatise on sexual assault by Tafisha A. Edwards, his students have learned to open up about the details of their lives. Diana Morales, 18, says she wants to start writing poetry again after Castillo’s class.

“He’s passionate about everything he teaches, and then it’s contagious,” Morales says. “Whenever I thought about poetry, I thought ’old white people,’ for some reason. Now I’m thinking literally anyone can be a poet. It can be young and an immigrant, or an old white dude, too. He gives me confidence.”

In class, one student shares a poem about her father who left the family. “Dad? No, more like coward,” she writes. After she finishes reading it, another student asks: Why did she include the internet slang “LOL” in the poem? The teen poet answers, “It’s kinda like a laugh to keep from crying.”

What Castillo says next might as well be the tagline of his life.

“A lot of the most successful poems exist in that space between laughing and crying.”

In poetry, Castillo has found the language to articulate his sanity and the world’s madness, allowing both to coexist in the white space between the lines. On the page, it’s possible to desire and reject your fortune at the same time.

“If they can kiss you, / they can kill you.”

Later that day, Castillo returns to Marysville, surrounded by poetry. He surveys the hundreds of years of effort on his bookshelf, the many voices from Frank O’Hara to Audre Lorde to C.D. Wright to his own friend, Austin.

He pulls out a manuscript and tosses it in the air. “This is seven years of work, right? What does it weigh?”