On September 5, the Trump administration announced it is ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an immigration policy that enables immigrants who arrived here as children to be deferred from deportation and apply for a work permit. With Trump’s announcement, the future of about 800,000 young people has suddenly become much more uncertain. During these troubling times, the minnesota review is seeking to bring the voices of undocumented writers into the literary conversation. This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, an award-winning poet, activist, and former DACA-recipient about his experience with the program and the intersection of art and activism.
There is so much misinformation and vitriol in our current political dialogue that it can be difficult to determine fact from fiction. What are some misconceptions (or lies) about DACA that you would like to correct?
Thank you for making the space for these questions. This is a difficult question to answer because it is one which necessitates an assumption on my part as to who the audience here is. Those who never supported DACA will continue to believe and seek out these misconceptions. But I don’t want to talk about them. The misconceptions are a glaring marker of what people choose to believe. The rhetorical undercurrent of Jeff Sessions’ announcement on September 5 was to demonize, spread xenophobia to make sure DACA-mented individuals understand that they will not belong. The idea, this fiction of an American will always be out of reach. The most obvious misconceptions are the same ones that have been repeated for decades. And I’m shocked at how many of these are still, if even tangentially or obliquely, considered true.
Some people believe that DACA is stealing jobs away from the “American people,” that there’s some magical line you can just get in or that somehow it’s a path to citizenship. The idea of this “line” is especially troubling because it presupposes that this is somehow a choice, which then trivializes and diminishes our struggle. Beneath these misconceptions, which were spewed by Jeff Sessions in his speech, is the idea that DACA is an infestation, a parasite, something inherently counter to American progress and American well being.
But there are more subtle misconceptions that even liberal-minded allies tend to overlook in their (sometimes) self-righteous attempts at solidarity. Some of them include this idea that our worth is measured by our success. The endless praise about the DACA student who went to Harvard, or created their own tech startup, or is working for a Fortune 500 company makes the assertion that only then will people have sympathy, rather than for the simple fact that we are people. It erases many of those who chose other paths in life and sets a hierarchy of deserved-ness based on what kind of capital you contributed to society. This also repeats the pattern of stigmatization around manual labor. That somehow you are seen as less than if you work with your hands. I read this on Twitter from someone named @aguachiles who said ““I am more than the labor that I produce. I am more than just a surplus for the economy.” And I couldn’t get it out of my head. How true, I thought.
You are the first undocumented student to earn an MFA from the University of Michigan. You’ve written about how DACA enabled you to do this because it allowed you to get a work permit. Could you elaborate on the ways DACA changed your life, and how rescinding it will therefore affect you?
I received DACA in the spring of 2013 during my second semester at Michigan. The work permit allowed me to continue into my second year as a graduate student instructor. Without it, I would have had to defer my position until I could come back with a valid social. I was also granted advanced parole which allowed me to return to Mexico for the first time since we immigrated in 1993. Because I married a naturalized citizen, my wife Rubi, I was able to apply for permanent residency status and finally received my green card in the summer of 2014. So, having my “papers” means that I’m now documented. It’s strange because everything happened so fast and now it’s been taken away as soon as it came. I am aware of the tremendous privilege that was granted me from one day to the next and I plan to use that privilege to fight in ways that I couldn’t before due to fear.
the minnesota review is edited by Virginia Tech students in the MFA in creative writing program. In what ways do MFA programs (and higher ed in general) systematically privilege people with U.S. citizenship? Do you have any proposed reforms for these programs so they can become accessible to a more diverse range of students?
To be a citizen of the country in which you live (and for many, were raised in) is an incredible privilege. I can’t get into all of the ways that privilege works in regards to citizenship, migration, etc., here, but I will say that not having to think about this shows a complacency in academia rarely talked about. Many programs don’t have procedures in place, actual written protocol and systems of reference or resources for prospective and current students. They don’t have to worry about those students because they don’t know or believe they are there. But our Undocupoets campaign and now our fellowship proves that indeed they are. I think about how many students felt discouraged from applying simply because there wasn’t something as easy as a FAQ section on the program’s website for undocumented folks. I’m not saying programs need an entire overhaul (well, that’s for another discussion actually) but something as simple as stating in their mission statement at the top of their website that they support the rights of prospective students with or without DACA (because some students still don’t have or don’t qualify for DACA). That’s it! That’s all I would have needed to hear to reassure me that I would be in good hands when I was applying. They don’t understand how much those words mean to someone like 23-year-old me looking obsessively through all of the programs’ websites for even just a hint that they would be supportive, any small clue.
I know some programs have already done this. Notre Dame for example has a clear statement on their website. Whether other programs follow through with their support is another matter, but at least it allows people who might be interested in applying and who are undocumented to know that they are welcome.
What advice or insights do you have for students who are facing the threat of their DACA status being revoked?
I would say to be hungry for more. It’s hard to be simultaneously the ones most affected by this policy and be at the front lines of the struggle. It’s hard. Sometimes I turn off social media for long periods of time. Sometimes I just want to be silent and not be the one who is most mad, or the loudest in my rage, or even (especially) the one having to educate folks. And I feel bad about this. It makes me feel like I’m not doing enough for my community, or worse, that deep down I don’t care. But I’m slowly starting to understand that it’s not like that. Other people pick up the mic when you are too tired to speak. All the burden of keeping this struggle alive doesn’t just fall on one person. And sometimes it feels like that, especially on social media. Sometimes I feel guilty if I’m not present, you know? So, I want to say that it’s just as important to nurture those moments of silence when we are gathering ourselves as much as those moments when we have a machete in our hands. I think solitude has a bad rap. Although I may be contradicting myself, I also say to be hungry. By this I mean to say that we should demand more. DACA was an incredible step forward but it shouldn’t be seen as the final solution. There’s a debate going on right now within the DACA-mented community about some individuals who protested Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer for using DACA as a pawn in order to increase military spending. Some people say, essentially, we shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds us, and others don’t want the success of DACA to come at the cost of militarization which creates much more harm than anything. So, again, I say, be hungry for more. It’s so little what we ask for: a work permit. I think we should be asking for much more.
You are one of the founders of the Undocupoets campaign, which seeks to remove publication obstacles for undocumented poets and writers. Why do you think it is so important for undocumented artists to have their voices heard?
It’s important that we are the ones who get to tell these stories for many reasons. First, it’s doubtful that they would be told in the first place if we don’t and, secondly, we need to show the complicated, multi-faceted/dimensional nature of immigration, documentation, borders, and migration. It’s not just one story. Not everyone is from Mexico, not everyone crossed the border through the desert.We need to complicate and expand the narrative so that people can see the
nuance, and the multiple forms of both pain and beauty that arise from immigrating, from living your life in hiding, and our specific form of survival. Our stories are not just ones of struggle but also of love and beauty. And we want to show that. Without undocumented artists at the forefront of this narrative, I doubt it would be as robust as it has been in multiple mediums throughout the years. What Loma, Javier, and Janine Joseph did was simply tell people that—yes—we are here, we exist. It was shocking to see how little some institutions have had to think about this.
What poets or poems do you turn to for solace during challenging or uncertain times?
To be honest, I’m not quite sure that I first turn to poets or poems in times of great uncertainty or tribulation. But this, of course, is only when the waters are the roughest, when my only objective is to be sure to keep breathing. Other things must happen first. Part of me is interested in what necessitates me to go to poetry and what doesn’t. I trust my body more than anything. I have large windows in my study and I like to open them in the morning and lay down on the floor. I burn palo santo. I run in the evenings. I say certain words to my plants. I feel like I can’t just go to poetry when I’m exposed, when I’m naked. I feel like I need to recover first. And when I do, I’ve been reading C.D. Wright lately. Larry Levis is permanently scattered on my desk and Octavio Paz’s El Laberinto de la Soledad. I’m trying to read it without the English translations but it’s a very difficult book. Yiyun Li’s latest book Dear Friend, from My Life I write to You in Your Life is a devastating book.
Do you have any advice for allies who want to see the passage of immigration reform that would protect DACA recipients?
Allies who are citizens cannot be deported. There’s been so many times when I’ve wanted to do more but was afraid. Even now, with my green card in hand, it can easily be taken away so sometimes I hold back. I just read a print by the artist and advocate, Julio Salgado, which read, “No longer interested in convincing you of my humanity” and it rang a very large bell deep within me. I feel like this is what I’ve been doing for a very long time. Trying to convince other people of our humanity. So, to DACA allies, I say you should be the ones convincing other people of our humanity because for some reason the country and especially this administration doesn’t believe us.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is a poet, essayist, and translator. He is the author of Cenzontle (BOA Editions 2018), DULCE (Northwestern University press 2017), and Children of the Land: a Hybrid Memoir (Harper Collins Publishers in 2020). A Canto Mundo graduate, his work appears in The New York Times, PBS Newshour, Fusion TV, New England Review, Gulf Coast, Buzzfeed, Indiana Review, and Southern Humanities Review, among others. You can visit his website here.
Sarah Hansen is a first year poet at Virginia Tech and reader for the minnesota review.