When the infant died after only four hours, the family didn’t have money for the headstone. Instead, the mother memorized the place where the infant was buried. By pacing over and over the small graveyard, counting the steps between trees and other objects, she committed to memory the exact location the small boy would lay in rest.
He was the only member of the family that would have a home. The rest continued to live in a kind of purgatory.
Purgatory, Pope John Paull II explained, does not indicate “a place, but a condition of existence.” Imperfect and temporary, it is a state for those who died somewhat but not completely in sin. Not deserving of an eternity of damnation, some may have taken advantage of salvation, but all who find themselves in this condition require some form of expiation. Some were deathbed converts or children who died before baptism, who were banished to the in-between for an original sin that is theirs by the faults of their forbears. They wait in a condition of existence for eventual entrance or acceptance.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir, Children of the Land, is a rumination on purgatory, but in Castillo’s case heresy is traded for illegality, purgatory for liminality, a limbo that is not only legal but existential. He describes how his status as an undocumented migrant in the U.S. is a state that leaves its mark on flesh and spirit. His four-hour-old brother, Manuel, who is buried in a small town in central California, is the only member to acquire a condition of permanent residence. The rest of the family must continue to move, make themselves invisible, and pray one day that their purgatorial existence and temporary identities will come to an end. Feeling like he belongs nowhere, to no place, he longs to be buried but not left for dead, not resurrected but connected.
Was it sin or crime that followed the family? Were their lives in the U.S. their punishment or their penance? Never quite certain, the family tries migration after migration as a form of atonement. Castillo writes, “Did we, after nearly a century of my family’s border crossings, come close to the repetition? Were we close to perfecting something that we knew we would never finish?”
Castillo’s purgatory ends in the most hellish, absurdist manner that one would expect entrance and exit from purgatory to occur: in a bureaucratic interview that would decide his fate. In a bland, government building, he must prove that love is real, that his marriage is not a fiction. A bureaucrat tries to decipher love by asking questions about where they met, their feeling about their respective in-laws, what side of the bed the other slept on.
“She trafficked in the images of legitimacy, trained in spotting the subtleties of body language in order to detect a sham green card wedding and tell it from the real thing,” Castillo writes. And his answers were “speaking beyond the office and to the entire country itself.”
After the end of the interview, the bureaucrat congratulates Castillo with a “Welcome to America.” Castillo wonders where he’s been for the last for 22 years.
Castillo is not the first author to use religious language to access a grammar of gravitas. Mexican American writers have reached for the vocabulary of salvation, damnation, grace, and faith to describe their experience.
The Chicano activist theater troupe the Teatro Campesino in their 1974 acto “El Corrido de Jesus Pelado Rasquachi” had their protagonist, a poor Mexican migrant, carried north on a train comprised of the devil on one side and death on the other. Promising his life as collateral to the devil, the devil and death lead him to his destination, creating the onomatopoeia of the train with chants of “chingate, chingate, chingate,” over and over. Eventually the worker loses everything, including his life in the U.S.
Luis Alberto Urrea has written about the stretch of the Sonoran Desert that carried most migrants into the U.S. during the height of migration in the early 2000s. In that stretch of desert, that came to be called the Devil’s Highway, at least one migrant died daily. Urrea describes the travails of 26 migrants who were lost, 14 of whom died, in his book The Devil’s Highway. Out there and lost, they knew they were left for dead. After days in the desert, stuck in an international system that allows money and goods to move freely but damns people, they knew that they “were walking now for water, not salvation.”
José Olivarez wrote about a “Mexican Heaven” that existed only because Mexicans were able to sneak into it. They navigated their entrance into heaven without authorization at a moment when the proper surveillance mechanisms failed. But even then, “they dream of another heaven, / one they might be allowed in / if they work hard enough.”
The words of Mexican American writers point to various communities struggling to find words that will render their world — unrecognized and illegible — visible and legitimate.
Their words show them seeking. Their despair, of the state, of American Christianity, of our common humanity, seeks understanding. Yet, they are not without hope. When they reach for words to describe their condition of existence, whether heaven, hell, or somewhere in between, they show a hint that the vocabulary of faith is still necessary to properly describe injustice.