In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Children of the Land by poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, out now from Harper.
Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, called the book an “impressionistic memoir of growing up as an undocumented immigrant,” adding that “Castillo writes with disturbing candor, depicting the all-too-common plight of undocumented immigrants to the U.S.”
[Fourth Movement as Language]
I got used to the roaches, I got used to the milk crates we used as chairs as we ate a pot of boiled beans and washed them down with black coffee for dinner. I was five, and we had just moved into our first apartment in the U.S., and though it was small, it still felt larger than our house back in Mexico. It certainly felt larger than the room we all crammed into at our uncle’s house when we first arrived, care- ful not to be too much of a burden, though it was hard not to be when a family of seven suddenly moves in. Amá’s belly was large, and she was due to give birth any day. Although our new apartment wasn’t much to look at, we could scream, we could jump, and no one could say anything to us because it was ours.
We had one spoon. Or maybe it was one spoon for each person, so it still felt like one spoon. Amá rubbed her large belly and spread her legs as she crouched down to eat off an old bedside table. Everyone argued over what the new baby would be named. “It’s my baby, I’m going to name him whatever I want,” said Amá. Apá had named ev- ery child up until then, but Amá knew this would be her last, and she was determined to name him herself. When she gave birth, she kept the onesie the hospital put on the baby even though she was supposed to give it back because she didn’t have a lot of clothes for him yet. She had a joke that the baby was made in Mexico but shipped, assembled, and delivered in the U.S. She came home with her baby in her arms and told us his name was Gilberto.
Every night was the same. I didn’t like the taste of coffee, but Amá held the cup to my mouth and said to drink, that it would help. Help with what? We each cleaned our respective bowl, cup, and spoon. I took the drying cloth and made small circles with my hand until my bowl was dry and shiny. We were poor, but we were clean. The dishes were placed upside down over a towel so “nothing” would touch them at night.
“Beans again?” I said to Amá as we gathered around our bed- side table, sitting on our milk crates in the middle of our small living room.
“Yes, now, don’t complain,” she said. She wasn’t speaking in En- glish, and although I didn’t know English at the time, my memories of those days are peppered in English now. My mother handed me a taza, not a cup; she poured café, not “coffee.” Amá’s loud call to come in from playing outside was Ya vente, not “Come in now.” But in my head, I see a “cup,” I see her handing me a “cup,” and the “cup” is now in English even though no one is speaking.
I have to work to put the Spanish words inside my memories— I have to think hard about each syllable inside them. To this day my mother still does not know English, though she is trying to learn it. Apá understands a little but can’t speak it.
It was around this time, in kindergarten, when I first became aware of another language, a language I didn’t know. There was something twisting in someone’s mouth, not the kinds of words I was familiar with. A distance started to grow between me and the world, and I gladly walked toward the torpid shores of its strangeness. As we sat crisscross apple sauce, the music teacher at my first American school sat on a chair in front of us, rattling a steady rhythm with two spoons between his fingers. I understood the music because I clapped, we were all clapping along to his beat, some of us singing, others not.
The spoons vibrated like a rattlesnake’s tail in front of me. I knew what music was and I liked it, bobbing the small frame of my body from side to side. But the strangest and most arresting sound of all was coming out of his mouth, which was nothing that I had ever heard before. I knew the sounds, I knew the rhythms, and even the gestures on his face that accompanied them as he nodded his head up and down. I could tell all of those things together were meant to produce some kind of happiness. I could make those sounds, but not in that order. I thought he sounded funny, so I let out a small giggle in the middle of his song, which prompted a stern look from the teacher keeping watch over us on the side. She must have thought I was mocking the song or the teacher, but I loved them both be- cause despite not understanding them, I understood them differently. I liked the way that rattler kept shaking right above me, saying what most rattlers say with their thrashing tails, “Don’t come near me, I am dangerous, I will bite you.”
Maybe one day English would be dangerous for me, but not in that moment, tapping my small palms on my lap, looking at the song behind the children’s song, the flurry of sounds looming above the spoons saying something that must have been happy, given the ex- pressions on the teacher’s face, a kind of joy that felt like home to me, a kind of joy that made sense, that reminded me of home.
I ran home elated, carrying that small pocket of joy like a wild mongoose whose belly was full of snake, whose teeth were smeared with blood.
“Amá, I want to be a musician when I grow up,” I said. “That’s wonderful, mijo, now go take off your shirt so I can cut your hair,” she said. I wondered if she had heard me. She cut our hair often because she said her children would not go around looking ragged.
“Amá, I said I want to be a musician when I grow up.” I said again, that time louder. Still, she didn’t seem to pay much attention. Maybe I shouldn’t have stressed the music but what carried the music— I should have said I wanted to build violins.
I stood on a chair near the window, watching the neighborhood kids playing outside without me as Amá moved the clipper up and down my head. I started rambling to them through the open window in what I thought was my newly acquired English. I wanted to repeat what I had just heard in music class, but I wanted to do it without the music— without the spoons. It wasn’t really anything coherent, but Amá says it had the effect of being discursive, as if I was standing at a podium addressing a throng of people below me. I waved my hands in the air, gesticulating, giving them instructions in this new language that I was certain they could understand but that they most certainly couldn’t.
They laughed and I laughed with them because we were children and because that was what children did. We took refuge in our mis- understanding. I rambled on, trying to make any kind of sound that wasn’t a word that I recognized because anything that wasn’t Span- ish automatically meant that it was English. English was the “other.” Amá finished cutting my hair, not without protest that I was moving too much for her to steady her hand, and I finished my long speech, even though my friends had long since stopped paying attention. I felt like I had done something good.
I bowed politely in my chair and went out to the yard again.
In my head, I knew what I was saying, there was meaning be- hind my squawk. It was in that very short window of time, when I could speak in that primal language between languages, that I could understand things better— clearer. Perhaps I never really left and was always moving back and forth between languages, reaching for something I would never fully attain.
The afternoon was warm, and the sun wouldn’t start making its eventual retreat over the mountains for another few hours. Amá went to the kitchen to put another pot of beans on to boil. Beans were still beans, there was nothing new about that, there was nothing that needed translation, I could move back and forth with relative ease.
With time, that innocent wonder at my nonlanguage would slowly start to fade and be replaced by English, which would soon mostly replace Spanish. In no time I would find myself sitting crisscross apple sauce just like the other children, bored at yet another music lesson, sedated, singing along to words that were reduced to one thing and one thing only. Music would again just be music and words just words. I would never again reach that wandering calamity of sound, that cacophonous revelry. I’m sure that wasn’t the first time I ever heard English being spoken, but it was the first time I remember being aware of it in any meaningful way.
I loved being bilingual, but there was something special in that moment of utter confusion. The short journey from Spanish to English was a revelry, a reverie that deflated like balloons shortly after the party has ended. It was a path on which I moved, another migration. My body had already reached the U.S., but my tongue was a bit slower getting there, taking its time, hopping from rock to rock like a small mountain cat. I stuck out my skinny tongue and hissed at everyone around me.
The path to learning English wasn’t like a pig being taken to slaughter. Pigs know what’s at the other end of that long walk to the slaughterhouse, and they fight tooth and nail to escape. Their long and deep howls seem to come from somewhere beyond their body, from the very earth itself— almost demonic. I didn’t fight; I didn’t know what was at the other end, but I ran toward it with open arms nonetheless.
Amá stirred the pot of beans one more time and announced that they were ready. We grabbed our spoon, and our bowl, and our coffee. How unbearably boring the world would soon be. In that moment, though, I was an oracle, I was enchanted, I was enchanting. The bean broth was hot as it slowly went down my throat, as it touched that part of me that had no name yet.
From Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Used with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.