Looking Inward and Outward: Lenora Castillo’s poems “La Nebraska” and “The Migrant Workers Are Back”
by Maria Nazos
The Nebraska landscape is often present throughout Lenora Castillo’s poems. In the poems “La Nebraska” and “The Migrant Workers Are Back,” the speaker engages the Great Plains through the lens of a Latina who has observed her recent ancestors come to Nebraska, in addition to recalling her own journey across the border, as she approaches a place of promise and unfamiliarity where:
tornadoes… fall out of the sky like thin black snakes from a torn gunny sack.
We promised to carry on the traditions: family gatherings, bodas,
quinceañeras and christenings. No they said.
There are no barrios here, no corner drug stores. (Castillo 2)
Castillo portrays an experience that is truthful, because it is conflicted. On one hand, as a Mexican-born woman, the speaker is expressing longing for a culture that is being drastically integrated, changed, and oppressed. But as with any change, along with the open plains of Nebraska, there is also a sense of newness and transformation. When removed from her geographical place of comfort, as the poet expresses, a sense of loss occurs; however, there is also a feeling of opportunity as Castillo describes the process of entering Nebraska:
Children laughed and played,
making friendships that could last days
if they were lucky, hours if they weren’t.(Castillo 3)
The depiction of crossing the border is both heartbreaking and optimistic. Then again, this sentiment could be applied to immigration in general, where there is a sense of hope and despair. Castillo engages the Nebraska landscape and the migrant population in a bittersweet manner that renders both of these feelings.
Nebraska’s own immigrational patterns are complex; as of November 2014-2015 there are 167,405 Latino/a people in Nebraska (“Current Hispanic or Latino Population”). 34.9% are first generation, 35% are second generation, and 30.1% are third (or higher) generation like Castillo’s speaker (Gouveia and Powell). Nebraska’s Latino population increased by 77 percent over the past decade to reach 167,405, or roughly 10% of the state’s population (Benjamin-Alvarado).
However “…the state appears to lack some of the elements conducive to positive adaptation for large numbers of labor immigrants and their children: the state has little recent experience with immigration; it lacks jobs at the top of the employment scale; it is predominantly white..” (Gouveia and Powell). Although Castillo’s speaker is young, she seems to already be aware of both the hopefulness and despair expressed by the Chicano/a immigrants who are currently and still making their home in this state, despite the setbacks and because of their ambition and resiliency.
The poem takes a darker and beautiful turn at the end when the speaker describes her relatives back home fearing Nebraska:
No hay gente.
There is nothing but the wind that moans like the Llorona
looking for her children.(Castillo 2)
Llorona is a ghost from Mexican folklore who was punished for murdering her children. She is said to haunt canals and bridges, who howls and weeps in the night, looking for her lost children (Anzaldua 52, 55). With this image, there is a sense of foreboding for the central characters; they are moving into an area of the unknown; what may be considered the rural, kind, Midwestern landscape for some lifelong inhabitants, for the immigrants in the poem, it is a place of dreams for the future and terror of the unknown.
Castillo’s poem “The Migrant Workers Are Back” expresses a similar sentiment in celebrating and lamenting a marginalized group of people whose hardships and achievements alike deserve more attention. There is a sense of joy in certain scenes:
Mahogany-colored children laugh and play,
their skinny legs, covered in gray dirt,
that will be dutifully washed by a mother
wearing an apron with big pockets
and a house dress in multi-colored flowers. (Castillo 3)
These moments demonstrate the speaker’s relief to see some diversity thriving the flat landscape, but there is also a sense of sadness, both for the speaker and workers alike, because there is a sense of severing the culture that has meant so much, and should still mean so much. Castillo is equally luminous in depicting both the Chicano/a struggles and triumphs to the reader.
In this regard Castillo’s work is truly remarkable; she does not speak of the Chicano/a people as either an outsider or insider. Instead she integrates detachment and sentiment that serve as a conduit for empathy and truth for those whose roots extend beyond the U.S. terrain into what Gloria Anzaldua called “the borderlands” which is indeed a place of beauty and conflict.
Although this poem was written over a decade ago, the speaker’s observations of the children demonstrates her wisdom and questioning: what will posterity be like for the children of Mexican-American immigrants? Castillo’s subtle question mirrors “several current scholarly debates concerning the future of the second generation of Mexican-American immigrants… whether the children of these newest arrivals will follow the straight-line assimilation path associated with Europeans arriving in the first half of the 20th century, or a segmented path where upward and downward assimilation are equally plausible…” (Gouveia and Powell).
Castillo’s speaker in these poems is an omniscient one, filled with observation and empathy who allows her people to exist in their struggles and glory, to move through life as they would ordinarily, which provides an enriched Nebraskan landscape that is sometimes overlooked, which infuses each delicate life with a sense of life and truth. On one hand, the speaker observes the workers:
All summer long they work, rarely looking up,
Jalando, jalando, their long-sleeved, white shirts
like pin-points of light in the emerald
sugar beet fields.
so whereas there is a sense of hopelessness amid the everyday work, there is also illumination shining upon the work itself, which is not unlike the process of writing an actual poem. Castillo’s sense of hope is demonstrative of the immigrational struggles and hopes that are still coming into play.
Whereas Nebraska does present some issues of difficulty for Chicano and Latino immigration, “labor competition among immigrants is not as intense as in California or New York; there are plenty of jobs at the bottom of the scale where immigrant labor is most wanted; and, in addition, a growing immigrant presence is creating mid-tier jobs that, until now, were nonexistent in the state” (Gouveia and Powell). Castillo’s poetry walks this fine line between dark and light.
Alvarado, Jonathan Benjamin. “Redistricting and the Latino Boom in Nebraska.” Latino Decisions: Everything Latino Politics. Blogger, 6 June 2011.Web. 19 April 2015.
Castillo, Lenora. “Tide-water Baptism.” MA thesis. Iowa State U, 1998. Digital Repository at Iowa State University. Web. April 2015.
“Current Hispanic or Latino Population in Nebraska 2014, 2015 with Demographics and Stats by Age.” Suburban Stats, n.d. Web. 20 April 2015.
Gouveia, Lourdes and Elizabeth Powell. “Second-Generation Latinos in Nebraska: A First Look.” Migration Policy Institute. 1st January (2007): n page. Web. 20 April 2015.