Marcelo Hernandez Castillo:
A Journey to the Home of My Ancestors
"If I could, I would have left a part of my body behind."
Amá used to say that a pregnant woman should never plant anything in the soil because she would turn the soil barren.
When Amá was pregnant with me, she lived on the ranch of La Loma. She said she would deliberately go into the cornfield and sow a small seed in the earth. Apá, as usual, was gone often in those days, and as usual, she took up the heavy tasks he was supposed to do—fetching firewood, herding the cows down the mountain. She talked to her animals a lot. She said she worried often that I would die as her last child, Manuel, had died. But that baby was three thousand miles away, in the ground, separated by a border. Perhaps the distance alone would make for a different outcome. Shortly before my birth, her mother, my Amá Julia, died of cancer in the stomach, suddenly and without much notice. Amá was lying in bed with her to keep her warm the night she died. Amá said her mother stretched her thin legs outward toward the end of the bed and let out a small breath before she stiffened.
A year after that, Amá was pregnant with me.
If, when she was pregnant with me, she buried the seed and the field became fallow, then maybe that would be an indication that the child in her womb wouldn’t die like the last one. It would mean there was actually something there inside her, and not just a stone, that it would live longer than the last one. She didn’t want to begin to grow attached until she was sure. It was my gravity—me at the center; she, orbiting around me like a moon. Or she at an even deeper center, and me in her womb, orbiting around her, pulled by the first green sprout in an otherwise dying field of corn.
I imagine her digging in the dirt, glancing around, making sure no one was looking, and dropping a small bean into a hole. Men might spend months toiling over something that would never grow while she held me inside her, growing, completely her own, something divorced from the world, if even only for nine months. She knew what she was capable of. And I grew and grew.
Perhaps it wasn’t only seeds she planted but objects—a small doll, hoping for another daughter, the wingless bodies of bees she found in the courtyard, all of her children’s baby teeth she kept in a small cloth, hoping for—I don’t know what.I talked to them. I didn’t know all of their names, but I didn’t need to. They knew all about me.
During each of the six times she was pregnant, Apá never laid a hand on her.
Amá, tú eres bella y peligrosa.
As we drove up to my mother’s ranch of La Loma, I realized how little I actually knew about the land and its specific characteristics. In his white Jeep, Rubi, Apá, and I ascended from the valley below. Apá drove slowly, pointing at small ridges along the road that told him exactly where it had rained and how much. He was precise, he was raised to learn the patterns of rain, how it left its subtle footprint even in the way the leaves hung off the trees. Apá took his time on the bumpy road, and even stopped completely, pointing to lines I could not see in the landscape that marked property boundaries of those old infamous families, five or six generations removed, whose heirs would come to kill each other over that land. He knew the names of the shrubs, and the trees, and birds. He could tell from a distance who had sewn their crop too early, who had done so too late, and who was wise enough to time it just right. His knowledge of the landscape seemed vast and effortless, and I was shocked that it had always been there just beneath the surface, ready to be called on at any minute.
From afar, Apá pointed to a compound on top of a hill. “That’s it,” he said.As I walked through the rooms, parting the tall brush ahead with my hands, the house felt like a puzzle that had finally revealed itself after years when I was given nothing but fragments.
Water was hard to come by in those areas, but La Loma was prized in its heyday because it had not only one but two streams which were now dry. The smaller stream, el arroyo chico, crossed right through the middle of the property, and the bigger creek was about one hundred meters down below. The truck stopped, and we were all silent for a moment. I asked both Rubi and Apá if I could go inside alone.
The thick adobe walls, which had withstood at least two centuries of rain, were evidence that my ancestors had no intention of leaving. They built the house once and never had to build it again because they built it out of the materials that were already there around them. Maybe that was why Apá built his house the way he did. Unlike us, he was thinking three, four, or five generations ahead. He wanted something to last as long as the pyramids of Egypt, of Teotihuacan, of Chichén Itzá. It was an internal clock that looked far into the past and as much into the future. I didn’t possess that clock inside me yet.
I opened the thick wooden door to the courtyard and took in a grim scene. The roof had collapsed years before, and shrubs taller than me grew in each room, making it difficult to walk through. I could tell that there was life there once, that people were happy. I could also tell that grief abounded, not because of its state of decay, but because there was no one left who would take over its care. Later, I would show the video footage to my mother, and she would stare at the screen for a long time before telling me to turn it off.
I walked into the room where my great-grandfather León, Amá Julia’s father, worked as a weaver. He made wool blankets using a small wooden loom and sold them down in the market in town. He was limited to the color of the year’s offspring. He sheared the wool from his herd and spun it into yarn. Sometimes he would get almost a golden hue in the yarn, or a crimson brown. But mostly it was a dirty white, black, and light brown. Nonetheless he designed birds, and deer, and different shapes of his own making.
As I walked through the rooms, parting the tall brush ahead with my hands, the house felt like a puzzle that had finally revealed itself after years when I was given nothing but fragments. I only remembered small details of the house from stories my family would tell, and now I was able to fill in the rest. I walked through each room, touching the walls with my hands.
Who would have thought that almost no one would be left on the entire mountain? So many homes built to last, only to be abandoned. There were holes in the ground throughout the house. Over the years people had broken in and dug, looking for some lost fortune, believing my great-grandfather buried some gold, but they always came up empty-handed, as far as we know.
Everything seemed familiar because I had imagined it endless times growing up. During Christmas, during a birthday party, or even just on a Sunday afternoon, anytime the adults would gather, the only topic of conversation was always Mexico and the ranch. I found the pig corral where my mother fell in as a child and was nearly eaten by a sow exactly where I had envisioned it. The three large avocado trees that my mother dreamed about looked nearly petrified, and probably didn’t bear fruit anymore, but nonetheless they were there, just as I imagined.
It was quiet; not even the insects announced themselves. I walked to the back of the house, which was surrounded by a stone wall. I picked up rock after rock and put it back down. I turned rocks around to see what was underneath them. My blood was in that earth; it was in those trees, and even in the walls themselves.
I wanted to change something about the scene, even if it was only moving a single rock around. I wanted it to be different because of my arrival, different at my departure. I wanted my ancestors to see that someone was still there, tending to their eternal home. I made a little clearing. Removed all the rocks I could pick up and placed them on top of the wall. I wanted them to know that a part of them, which was inside a part of me, was still breaking a sweat in the crisp morning air on that mountain.
I talked to them. I didn’t know all of their names, but I didn’t need to. They knew all about me. I knew they could hear me and knew why I had come, more so than I did. I said I was sorry. I said I would make things better. I knew a lot of things weren’t my fault, in fact most weren’t: why the ranch was abandoned, why my father drove us into debt, why he was deported, why the family couldn’t just stay a little longer in the U.S. after baby Manuel’s death to get their green card under Reagan’s famous amnesty order. How different our lives would have been if only they had waited. But although none of this was my fault, I wanted to take the blame, to let it all fall on me. If all it took to reverse any of this was for me to be punished, I would have gladly taken the beating.
I closed my eyes and saw the ranch in its glory days. I could see my mother as a child running through those meadows, laughing and swimming in the arroyo. I held my mother’s small hand as she guided me through the house. We played games, we made clay pots at the river bed and pretended to drink tea. She knew who I was, she knew what the future held for her.
There was a sapote tree with its large fruit hanging from its branches that looked new, as though it came only after everyone left, as if it was waiting for everyone to leave.
I wept quietly at the center of my blood.
My mother’s small hands led me to the courtyard, and there she was with all of her sisters, none of whom had been married yet. I could see them all sitting in the sun, sewing together, making dresses to wear into town, laughing at riddles they would tell each other to pass the time.
There was the room in which my great-great-grandmother Josefina died. She died on a cot near a wall. As she was dying, it was said that she kept digging her nails into a small crevice in the adobe wall. They said she was hiding jewelry in that hole, or that she was signaling to those standing around her that something was there. She died with her hand in that hole.
When I entered that room, I looked for the small crevice, and sure enough found it, right where my mother said it would be. It was just large enough for my palm. Nothing was inside. I took out a pen from my pocket and buried it in the wall.
I sat in a clearing in the courtyard. At my feet and around me were stalks of corn that sprouted haphazardly here and there. Gone from my vision was Amá and my tías in their youth, sitting in a circle, replaced by tall stalks of corn that came from those loose kernels dropped on the floor. For two hundred years my family had sat in that very courtyard repeating the same steps of desgranando mazorca to make nixtamal for tortillas.
I felt a sense of largeness come over me. I wanted to take my clothes off and touch every single adobe brick with every part of my body. I wanted to dance in the middle of the clearing and let all of the snakes hiding in the weeds come join me. I felt a sharp pain, like a wire wrapped around my throat and getting tighter, like something sectioning me in pieces. If the moon came out I would bow in reverence, I would unravel before it and speak softly into the dirt.
I envied the rhizomes sprawling beneath the earth, their secret language. I, too, wanted to touch that many things at once, to stretch for miles, connected by a single fungus, and to pulse through the roots of countless trees.
If I could, I would have left a part of my body behind. I rubbed my skin with a rock until it turned red. I knew the landscape would outlast me, that the border would still be up long after I died, that the trees would continue to be just that—nothing but trees. Apá’s house would still be there, as would the walls of La Loma. I wanted so much more, but I still felt that I was missing something. I still felt like I was opening a small box with another box inside it, and it would go on forever. Maybe the point was the box, not what was inside it; the point was those walls that no amount of rain or hail could crumble. The point was that they came from the earth and were in no hurry to return. It’s common to carry a small piece of dirt from your homeland when you leave. Knowing they will never return, some people eat it. I wouldn’t know where to begin collecting dirt.
We left the ranch and began our descent into town. Apá seemed annoyed that I had taken so long. Perhaps he was upset that I didn’t want him with me, that I wanted that moment to myself. In my hand I held a small rock I was hoping I could sneak past customs. They don’t allow dirt of any kind to be brought into the States. I put it in my pocket and rubbed it gently with my fingers.
The next day was Christmas Eve. We sat in the patio of Apá’s house with a large fire in an oil barrel between us. We were quiet, listening to the frogs and crickets in the darkness. At exactly midnight, and unannounced, Apá opened the main door to the courtyard, walked out to the street, and fired six rounds from his .357 Magnum revolver, which I had no idea was tucked beneath his jacket and which he had been carrying all day. I jumped at the sound of the shots. He came back in, locked the door, and sat down without a word, a slight smile across his face. It was his way of celebrating Christmas. No presents, just six hollow-point rounds into the air. In the distance I could hear others doing the same. He laughed a little and tucked the gun into his jacket. He said every man should know how to hold and fire a gun and that he would teach me in the morning.
From Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Used with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.