Creating Memory: An Interview with Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

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Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is a poet, essayist, translator, and immigration advocate. He is the author of Cenzontle, which was chosen by Brenda Shaughnessy as the winner of the 2017 A. Poulin, Jr. Prize published by BOA editions in 2018. Cenzontle was listed among one of NPR’s and the New York Public Library top picks of 2018. His first chapbook, DULCE, won the Drinking Gourd Poetry Prize published by Northwestern University press. His memoir, Children of the Land, was published from Harper Collins in 2020.

He was born in Zacatecas, Mexico and immigrated to the California central valley. As an AB540 student, he earned his 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. He is a founding member of the Undocupoets campaign which successfully eliminated citizenship requirements from all major first poetry book prizes in the country and was recognized with the Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers award. He helped to establish The Undocupoet Fellowship which provides funding to help curb the cost of submissions to journals and contests for undocumented writers.

His work has been adopted to opera through collaboration with the composer Reinaldo Moya and has appeared or been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Academy of American Poets, PBS Newshour, Fusion TV, Buzzfeed, Gulf Coast, New England Review, People Magazine, and Indiana Review, among others. 

Suzi F. Garcia (SFG): Thank you for being with us today, Marcelo! I want to start at the beginning, so to speak.  You started writing to impress a girl named Rubi. Can you talk a little bit about how your sense of romance works in your current writing?

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo (MHC): So that is the origin of when I really started writing, I don’t know if I’ve told you this or not, but there’s one incident before that, actually, kind of got me interested in thinking through writing. I was listening to a radio interview with our friend Nate [Marshall] the other day, and he was saying that he thinks about things through writing, just how an artist thinks about something through their art. So, I guess the first time that I remember wanting to think through writing was out of spite.

Both laugh 

It was seventh grade, and our teacher asked us to write an essay about something; I can’t remember what the topic was. We all turned it in, and when he returned them, the teacher stood up in front of everyone and said, alright, everybody did a great job, but there was one essay that stood out among the rest. This student went above and beyond, and I was impressed. And as he was saying that, I was literally almost about to start getting up out of my seat. And then, as I’m almost out of my seat, he says my friend’s name.

And I’m like, Oh shit. 

Both laugh

And, were it not for him reading that piece, I think my life would have been different. When he read it, I was like, oh shit, that was good. That was so much better than mine. I wanted to do what my friend did. I wanted to cause the reactions he caused, and I wanted to do what he did with his essay. 

So how will it lead to poetry later? It was just a high school teacher who read us poetry, and that’s what you were talking about when I met Rubi, and I was, like, I can write poetry. Which is a kind of cringey when I think back on it.

SFG: Well, I guess, then the question evolves, right? So how has spitefulness continued to influence your writing?

MHC: I guess I’m stubborn.

SFG: You like to do what people say you can’t do.

MHC: Yeah, I think that’s what it is. I think that’s why, after finishing Cenzontle, I set out to write the memoir because that’s something that I hadn’t done before. I like to do things that are difficult for me as a form of self-sabotaging, kind of secretly hoping I’m going to prove to myself that I can’t do it. Which is why now I’m putting together the first thoughts for a novel. For some reason, I find it difficult to do something twice, but I know I have another book of poems in me.

I remember a time when Nate [Marshall], who seems to be a reoccurring motif here, but anyway. I remember once he was, like yeah, I usually work on three projects at once. And that was three projects of poetry, but they were still very unique and very different. I couldn’t fathom. But right now, I know that there’s something that I’m thinking about regarding my son, my baby Julian, that has to exist in poetry. And so, yes, I have these ideas for a novel, but at the same time, for the first time in my life, I am thinking about two projects at once. But they could never be two projects in the same genre. I could never do to two books of poems at the same time; they would all just mold into one. So, separate genres prevent that, and that’s going way off-topic. There’s a lot of spite.

SFG: Well, switching gears a little bit: you write very eloquently about rituals, both in your family and in your own life. Why do you think rituals have so much power?

MHC: Because I never got to experience the tangible in my life. I have this part of my book about my mother, why she left Catholicism, and her ideas of God needing to be an immaterial one, something that you can’t see, something that you can’t understand. Like if you were ever to witness an actual angel, your eyes would melt off because of their brightness or that you could never comprehend God’s name. So that unknowingness is what I grew up with, even in an evangelical, Anglican, non-denominational Christian church. God could exist everywhere, which led me to need something to mediate or mark milestones and cement my faith in things—just to allow me to believe that things will be okay. So that’s what I was leaning towards, and I started going to an Episcopalian church. 

With rituals, I needed to mark something physical that I had always lacked. I don’t trust my mind to capture the moment mentally. For example, we recently talked about what is the most Aquarius thing an Aquarius can do to get rid of their journals? For me, getting rid of my journals was very ritualistic because I don’t have enough confidence in my head to do all that work for me. I need a ritual to maybe stand-in for the memory of the process of the event. It will change in my head, for example, if I were going back to that ritual of destroying documents with water and chlorine and all that and making papier-mache out of them, versus if I would have just left them alone, and maybe forgotten about them— the process would have still been the same of me having all those same ideas. But the ritual is what made it almost a living metaphor.

I’ve been talking a lot about metonymy this week, so like olfactory memory, standing for everything that is happening around that moment, so I don’t forget it. It all has to do with memory because I have a terrible, terrible memory. My wife Rubi is the one who reconstructed my life for me and helped me with the memoir. So, I think, for me, doing a ritual is, yes, it’s about heightening a moment and extending the moment beyond. Beyond its moment in time, but it’s also about being able to recreate that moment by accessing everything that the ritual embodied, like in that papier-mache filling your fingers, and it becomes more present in my memory.

SFG: I’m thinking about preventive rituals too, like when you talk about your family and rituals such as wearing red. How do you think that connects with the spirituality that we just discussed?

MHC: I don’t know where those rituals came from; I just know that my mother, my grandmother, and everybody who, I know, really has always heard of those. I mean, how I understand it is in part by trying to bring an analytic lens to it, not discrediting it, but trying to explain it in ways that I think I could understand from the present tense. Childbirth was life and death—and it still is, but not as prevalent. Giving birth up in a ranch with no electricity or running water and having to walk a couple of miles to call the midwife in the middle of the night meant a lot of women died in childbirth, a lot of kids died, which is why you know our grandparents and great grandparents have so many kids because so many would die. And I think those rituals were a way of coping, if you think about it. In modern terms, I feel that they were a way of coping with grief, a form of explaining. It was a way of explaining a reason behind a tragedy and finding someplace to place the guilt and, unfortunately, a lot of the guilt fell on women. Like, Oh well, she probably didn’t wear red during a full moon, which is probably why the baby died, instead of acknowledging that the baby died because there wasn’t adequate care or just the fact that so many things can go wrong in childbirth. So, I mean, I guess that’s explaining it from the present tense. 

If it weren’t for me seeking out those stories in the memoir, they would have been forgotten, but those preventative rituals are things that get passed on regardless of whether or not you seek them out. So, you don’t need someone like myself who is interested in our past to be the recorders of the family, the documentarians of the family, to preserve that. There will be other things that will slip away and will never be recorded and will be forgotten, but it is those preventative rituals that get passed on regardless, because they are lore, because they come up again and again, because childbirth will continue. Those are the kinds of common familial knowledge. You don’t know why you share it, but you do. I know I will share that with [my son] Julian. Those are things that get passed down, whether or not you intend them to.

SFG: It’s interesting that you’re discussing your rituals as something that cements your experiences. Is part of passing that down kind of giving options to the future? Whether or not they want them, we can’t know. Will Julian want to cement his experiences or kind of reach back and try to look for preventative rituals?

MHC: I think it’s just my version of them because we create new rituals and traditions as we go along, so they are quick at adapting to the circumstances of the times. For example, right now, my sister is a photographer. She does many photoshoots with families where there’s a lot of identifiable tropes that she employs that people want because they’re spread throughout social media as a way of saying, this is how we record our family, this is how we want our family to be presented. It’s an adaptation of what we already had before, which was the very formal solemn portraits.

For example, in the picture that I have of half of my great grandparents, they had to borrow those clothes, and it was just denim overalls. But denim was something that people didn’t have; denim was a modern invention. Their work clothes were made out of canvas. So that ritual of having your picture taken as a very solemn event has morphed. And the next generations will find a way to adapt those same rituals to meet their needs or meet the customs of whatever they’re going through. Maybe we won’t have social media in 2030; who knows. So, I can’t imagine what Julian will take, whether he will look to his past to reinvent or try to use his present to kind of solidify or to mark. Those are natural to us is to provide little flags because I think we’re just terrified of forgetting or being forgotten. That’s why we will always bury our dead with markers. And why it means so much, and it’s such a tragedy when we see any kind of burial without a marker because we know that something terrible must have happened to go against all of our human instincts to mark something.

SFG: And you know that, personally, because of your grandfather. His whereabouts are unknown.

MHC: I think that always haunts me, because we can’t right it. We can’t go and physically mark where he’s at. But we can mark the child my mother lost before I was born because he is five miles from where I’m at right now. And we do know where he’s at because I looked for him. I went back, and they could only give me so much information because I was not next of kin— that was my father and my mother, being the parents. But they were able to dig up some old hand-drawn maps of the cemetery and other plots and the numbers and then the corresponding key of what number was what name, and they said okay well, this must be it. But they never said, this is it, they said, this must be it. And when we looked, like they said, well, this must be it, but there was always some uncertainty in terms of how large it was versus the other spaces. There was some kind of inconsistency.

So, I mean, yes, we can mark his grave. And we’ve never been able to say that because of the shame associated with the fact that we never did it back then: that my mother never, that my father never did. I end that part of the memoir by saying, you know, we couldn’t do that then, so we’re not going to do that now. But I’m still conflicted about it because I know my mother still wants to, and I know it would only be somewhere around $300 to buy the most simple of markers. Yet, for some reason, we don’t, and that goes against so much of what we would just naturally do. Even other animals are known to mark the graves, to have some kind of very, very basic ritual. That whale that carried her dead baby on her back for a long time…

SFG: I think months.

MHC: Yeah. Until she finally let it go. So it goes against all of our instincts of marking. I know just because the book is done, and I’m finished reading with it, that doesn’t mean that everything has been answered and that I can move forward now. I still have to have that conversation with both of my parents.

SFG: Well, speaking of the book, one of the themes in both your books is your need for visibility and how you both enact it and understand it. How does writing play a role in those ideas?

MHC: I no longer want to experience the world as I experienced it when describing it, and I want to be seen. I wanna be in theater, and I think that’s why I’m so vocal on social media and so out there. Sometimes [my wife] Rubi finds out things about me from social media before anything else. She’s like, why didn’t you tell me this, in terms of how I’m feeling. And so, for me, there’s a thirst for visibility that was probably always there but was stunted or inhibited, and that was mediated through fear. It manifested itself and enacted itself in my writing, so my writing is a timestamp of that because, as my security in the country steadily— you know you’re never one hundred percent secure as an immigrant. Because even though I’m a resident, that can be stripped at any moment. But as the degree to which I felt secure enough to write increased, that eagerness to present myself grew too. In the book of poems, there’s a line that I’m remembering that has nothing to do with visibility in terms of telling people who you are and being vulnerable and all that it just means being visible. I have a line of just running naked through the streets, and I think with that sentence, I was trying to be literally visible. I think that’s why I use social media as a way, and I can’t get that from journaling. I need somebody else to see that. It’s so difficult to resist tweeting about something. 

But going back to what I was saying, I have that thirst, but suddenly when I’m actually in a place of visibility, when I’m actually in a social environment (when we had social environments) and social gatherings, all of that falls out, and I just recede into who I was. There’s a contradiction there. In my head, I want to be visible, I want the world to know, and I want to wear my heart on my sleeve. But when it comes down to it, it hasn’t transferred over into action outside of social media or putting it on a book or journaling about it. I think that’s also why there’s that obsession with confession in the book. Because I didn’t grow up Catholic, I had nothing to confess. I guess I could talk to God, but I never felt like I could confess to God. I felt I either always have to ask for things or be grateful for something but not confess. 

SFG: When you talk about visibility in social engagements, I have to bring this up. When we were both in grad school, we went to a Halloween party together. For that party, you dressed as the Absence of Marcelo. You wore an all-black bodysuit that covered you from literally the top of your head to your toes, and you wore a blank mask. And your wife Rubi dressed as you and came as the Presence of Marcelo.

MCH: Laughs. Yeah

SFG: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to physically manifest that absence?

MCH: Oh, my God. My first thought was it was so exhilarating and so much fun, especially because I didn’t talk. At all. Not once did I remove that mask. And I found it actually in storage the other day, and I showed it to Rubi. I was like, should I put it on again, but she was like, no, don’t ever do that again; it was so creepy. Rubi was the one who kind of facilitated my communication. It felt so exhilarating to be able to do both of the things at once: to not be seen, so people knew who I was— actually, they didn’t always.

SFG: If they saw you next to Rubi, they figured it out. 

MHC: Yes, but there was a large portion of the party where I would be standing next to somebody, and they were like, who’s that? But I wouldn’t speak. I can’t express the level of joy that I had because I was so visibly out there. And yet, at the same time, it could have been like I was in regular clothes at a party in the corner petting the dog, drinking my drink. Nobody had to pay attention to me. Even when drinking, I would go into the bathroom to take a drink, so I didn’t have to take my mask off in front of people. I stuck through it, and I didn’t talk the entire party. The only other time that I felt that way was when I was a pickle. I don’t know if I ever told you about that.

SFG: Yeah. Laughs. I don’t know about you being a pickle.

MHC: My cousin used to own a restaurant called Mr. Pickles. And the mascot was a giant pickle, and I didn’t have work, and she kind of felt bad for me, so she was like, hey do you want to do the sign-waving for a weekend or two? I was like, yeah, sure, I can do that. No problem, just put on my headphones, just dance around, point to the restaurant. But I didn’t know she had an actual pickle costume. So, I show up, and she was like, alright, put this on, and I was like, what? But I put it on, and it was hot, and the pickle was heavy and smelled from other people who had worn it, so it was kind of gross. I started dancing and getting into it, and time vanished. I was in the middle of a busy intersection, and I don’t think I’ve danced that hard in my life. I could almost hear people going, damn, this pickle is into it.

I think it was also for the same at that Halloween party because I was achieving both things at once: invisibility and hypervisibility. I’ve never done anything like that again, but every time Halloween comes, I do something similar. It’s one of my favorite times of the year for so many reasons, but one of those reasons is achieving both visibility and hypervisibility at once.

SFG: That connects to my next question, which is about imagination. Many of your poems are about imagining. You imagine a musical, you imagine interviews, you imagine professionals: what about this type of imagining pushes you?

MHC: I used the speculative to substitute for the lack of assurance that I had as to how memory worked. So, a lot of it was projecting the what-ifs. Although I do remember a lot about the actual crossing that we did in ’93, I wasn’t confident enough to treat it as an autobiographical account of: first, this happened, and that happened, then that happened. So, I treated that as a ballroom dance, as there being music, as an imaginative space. Because the only things that I was able to cement or the images that I remember were like being shoved underneath a tractor on a farm and watching the big brown boots circle the tractor. I remember a field of cucumbers and jumping on my dad’s back because I couldn’t keep up, and it was at night. So how do I build a story around that? How do you write a memoir when you only have pieces of the puzzle? So rather than risk saying things that weren’t true to fill in the gaps, how could I fill in the gaps? I filled in the gaps through that lyric imagination. So now it existed how it existed in my head. 

And I think that gave me the ability to be able to talk about the event by imagining it and imbuing that with my present ideas of lyric imagination and surrealism. I didn’t know what surrealism was when I was five, but I have the material to imagine it as surreal now. It’s not a memoir that was written from the point of view of a five-year-old, it’s a memoir written from the point of view of thirtysomething with all the knowledge and experience of a thirty-year-old looking back on that, and I think that’s the difference between a lot of memoirs. That’s why YA is very, very difficult to do. Because you’re writing not with the consciousness of your adult self but trying to find a way to accomplish the consciousness of the enormity of the events happening, while you’re a kid or a teen. Shout out to all the YA writers cuz that’s very hard to do, to accomplish the thought patterns and takes or conclusions or awareness of somebody much older, but still capture the experiences of a child. I can never do that.

SFG: I know you’ve spoken a bit about how much your editor means to you, and you and I have talked about your poetry publisher as a dream as well. Can you talk a little about what you were looking for in an editor?

MHC: At the start of the memoir, I just wanted an editor. I just wanted it to get picked up. And with  Cenzontle, I’m just so grateful that I ended up with BOA. It’s different with poetry. Because it was a book contest, the book is pretty much done. For the contest, it’s a little different than a solicitation or open reading submission because they already expect that the book is more so finished, so there was very, very little revision. With prose, on the other hand, editing was on a weekly basis. It was like a tree; it could have branched out this way or that way, depending on maybe one phrase said one week. A single phrase could have been the guiding force for the writing that I was going to do the next week, and then I would check back again with [my editor] Sofia. I would write during the week and then on Fridays would hop on a call, and I honestly had no idea if it was good, if it was worthy of being maintained, if it was even something.  I honestly could have imagined them saying, you know, this isn’t what we’re looking for; this isn’t meant for prose, or even, this isn’t good writing.

For me, that’s how uncertain I was, and that’s how much I was just wading through the waters and diving into the blue. So, at the beginning of it, Sofia asked, What do you want to do? Do you want to work on it for six months, and then hand me a big project that way I will be less a part of it? And I said no, no, no, no, no; I need around the clock guidance. That’s what was invaluable. It could have been such a different book if it had ended up anywhere else or if it had been edited by anyone else at the press.

And I was so fortunate that Sofia continued working on the project even after leaving Harper Collins to pursue her MFA here at Michigan. She asked, would you want me to continue? Or would you want to go with somebody else since I’m no longer technically part of Harper Collins? I was fortunate that I got to continue working with Sophia and then also the new editor kind of at the end, at the same time. I wouldn’t say I took my editors for granted ever, but now I don’t take them for granted. They’re so underappreciated, and you’re an editor to yourself. There’s so much work that editors do to help bring a project together. And not even editors but even mentors, mentors who maybe can see farther into the project than my close reading of it because I’m so close to it that it’s difficult to see what it could be. So I was, really, really happy with the fact that it was an organic process of seeing what worked, what didn’t and allowing it to be its own thing. I think that’s why it ended up being what it ended up being. And I always think back to what would have been if it would have ended up with somebody else, what kind of project that would have been.