Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Children of the Land. Harper, 2020.
Martin Doblmeier, Director. Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story. Journey Films, 2020.
John Loughery and Blythe Randolph. Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century. Simon & Schuster, 2020.
IN HER 1952 AUTOBIOGRAPHY, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day reflects on society’s prevailing views about the poor: “From my earliest remembrance the destitute were always looked upon as the shiftless, the worthless, those without talent of any kind, let alone the ability to make a living for themselves. They were that way because of their own fault. They chose their lot.” Day, of course, famously rejected this view, lived by a vow of voluntary poverty, founded The Catholic Worker, a newspaper dedicated to social justice and pacifism, championed the causes of immigrants and migrant workers, and established Catholic Worker houses to feed and shelter the destitute.
The radiantly talented Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s new memoir, Children of the Land, about growing up as a low-income, undocumented immigrant in California, demonstrates that little has changed in America’s popular conception of people like him. When a drunk driver badly injured his mother, she cooperated with the police to convict him, an act of bravery which should have qualified her for a special visa. But the authorities, as if on a whim, deny it. “To the government,” Castillo writes, “it was our fault. Always our fault.”
Stories like Castillo’s illustrate how radical and vital Dorothy Day’s beliefs and work remain today. In 2000, Pope John Paul II named her a “Servant of God,” taking one step in the formal process of considering her canonization. In 2015, Pope Francis addressed congress during a visit to Washington, DC, praising four “great Americans” who “shaped fundamental values which endure forever in the spirit of the American people… Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.”
In citing Day’s “passion for justice,” Pope Francis may have stoked new interest in a woman who long advocated for reforms similar to those that have moved many people in recent years. It’s easy to imagine Day marching alongside those now promoting racial equality, the dignified treatment of immigrants, workers’ rights, pacifism, and income equity. Day flirted with socialism in her youth, writing for socialist newspapers (though she never joined the Socialist or Communist Party and disavowed the association after she converted to Catholicism). According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 49 percent of young adults view socialism favorably (and 51 percent view capitalism favorably). Especially relevant today is Day’s personalist philosophy, which emphasized the dignity and value of each human and asserted that the only proper attitude toward every person is one of respect and love; you can hear echoes of personalism in the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2018 protests against the migrant family separation policy.
This year saw the release of two works examining Dorothy Day’s life: the documentary Revolution of the Heart, written, directed, and narrated by Martin Doblmeier, and a biography, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph. While both offer nuanced considerations of Day’s life, the documentary seems to aim to bolster the case for her canonization, while the biography focuses on her bohemian early life, when she longed to become a novelist equal to her famous literary friends.
Day makes a striking subject for a film, and Revolution of the Heart shows her in all her iconic glory—statuesque and crowned with a coiled white braid, or, as Garry Wills once wrote in Esquire, “an awesome woman, tall, lantern-jawed, with Modigliani eyes.” Of course she’d have hated any attention paid to her looks, just as she scoffed when anyone suggested she could become a saint (“Bullshit!”). Despite all her renunciations, she would, however, embrace the title “anarchist.” As the documentary details, this “grandmother and anarchist” landed on the FBI watchlist of subversives to be rounded up in the event of a national emergency, because of ideas she espoused, company she kept, and her participation in demonstrations—including those for women’s suffrage and against the Vietnam War—that landed her in jail eight times.
Through interviews with Day’s grandchildren and others who knew her, clergy, and writers and thinkers including Paul Elie, Cornel West, and Jim Wallis, as well as actor Martin Sheen (who visited Catholic Worker houses for meals in his youth), the film details how Day converted to Catholicism, prayed for a vocation, began a newspaper with itinerant French theologian Peter Maurin on a shoestring budget, opened the first Worker house with little plan or money, and became a devout, uncompromising figure immersed in social justice movements throughout the world. Loughery and Randolph’s lucid biography provides greater detail about the welter of controlled chaos in which Day lived. Everything she attempted was so improbable that if she had considered practicality, she may never have begun.
In the documentary, Robert Ellsberg, who left college to become managing editor of The Catholic Worker in the late seventies, recalls once asking Day, “‘How do you reconcile Catholicism and anarchism?’ She looked at me with a bemused expression and said, ‘It’s never been a problem for me.’” She didn’t ask permission; she took it. One of the few institutions she showed reverence for was the Catholic Church, whose rules she strove to follow almost to the letter—although she challenged her fellow Catholics to take Jesus’s strenuous demands in the Sermon on the Mount more seriously. The only point on which she differed with the church significantly was its doctrine of “just war.” Day believed nonviolence was always essential, and while she earned praise for her breadlines during the Great Depression, when she opposed America’s involvement in World War II, many turned against her, canceling their Catholic Worker subscriptions.
Whether people approved of her or not, Day kept up her work. In one archival interview, she recounts that the Brooklyn police once brought her a woman who was filthy and covered with lice from sleeping outside in deplorable conditions. In New York, one of the richest cities in the world, Catholic Worker houses were often a last resort for those who had slipped through holes in the social safety net. Day accepted nearly anyone who showed up at the door. She didn’t believe in overreliance on government services to take care of the poor; she believed each of us should contribute to taking care of each other, for the good of our own souls. Her vow of poverty was an extension of this: she believed that if we remove ourselves from the suffering of our fellow humans by putting too many layers of wealth and comfort between us and them, we can never live as Christ wanted us to. And, as Ellsberg puts it, “The goal of the Worker was not to fix all these people. It was not a social agency… You just accepted people as they were and made room for them, as long as there was a modicum of peace.”
Often the houses were chaotic and even dangerous, given the mental illness, lack of hygiene, addictions, and rough habits of many she welcomed. The way Day ran her Worker houses embodied Presbyterian pastor and writer Eugene Peterson’s belief that “People are not problems to be solved. They are mysteries to be explored.”
Jim Wallis notes that Day was not a religious leftist. She was conservative in her Catholicism, holding to its traditional practices from the time of her conversion in her twenties. “She was radical in her social, economic, and political views because of the conservatism of her faith.” Her belief in voluntary poverty grew out of this. As Benedictine nun and author Joan Chittister observes, “She was witnessing to the church itself. You taught us this; we’re doing it. Now don’t tell us we’re not Catholic.”
So far, so saintly, right? But some contend that Day will never become a saint because of the sins of her early years. Both the book and movie sketch the personal unhappiness of her youth—one lover forced her to have an abortion, after which she attempted suicide twice. The atheist father of Day’s daughter Tamar refused to marry her, and so Day, newly Catholic, painfully broke off their relationship when Tamar was a toddler. During this dark time, Day lit a candle at church and prayed to discover her vocation. A few days later, Peter Maurin turned up on her doorstep with a plan to publish a newspaper that would advocate for social change.
The book and movie differ in their portrayals of Day as a mother. The biography depicts her as being so busy with travel and running her newspaper andWorker houses that Tamar didn’t always receive the attention she needed and subsequently ended up adrift, with nine children and in a bad marriage to an alcoholic older man. But in the documentary Kate Hennessy disavows this take: “My grandmother has been accused of being an indifferent and neglectful mother, and that is just not what my mother experienced… Dorothy was heroic in terms of her family obligations.” Martha Hennessy admits that her mother Tamar experienced sacrifices growing up in the turmoil of Worker houses but asserts that Tamar was as committed to Dorothy’s work as her mother was.
Day didn’t like to discuss her hedonistic early years. She spurned writers who wrote profiles mentioning her frequent visits in her twenties to the Greenwich Village bar called the Golden Swan, known affectionately in the bohemian demimonde as “the Hell Hole.” According to Loughery and Randolph, she could “drink most of the other patrons under the table” and “hold her liquor better than [Eugene] O’Neill.” When she was in her seventies, she burned a number of papers—personal correspondence and writing. Perhaps she was trying to conceal her past, as Loughery and Randolph speculate: “It was not how she wanted Peter Maurin to view her or how she wanted the young people to think of her.” But another way of looking at Day’s tendency to bristle over references to her youthful carousing is that she fervently believed in the forgiveness and absolution provided by confession. After receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, perhaps she felt she was a new person, and so she should be judged by the way she lived her final fifty-three years, not her first thirty.
But her first thirty years do make for interesting reading. As the biography delves into Day’s fascinating, chaotic early life, it’s a treat to learn that she hobnobbed with Eugene O’Neill, Katherine Anne Porter, W.H. Auden, and other literary greats. She wrote novels for years, and even a play, without much success; Loughery and Randolph emphasize that fiction and drama were not her forte. Those of us who write fiction will feel a pang as her efforts come to nothing and her literary friends try not to offend her with honest reactions to her bad writing. But after all, if Day had been as good a novelist or playwright as the company she kept, she may never have discovered her unique calling.
Day may have failed as a literary writer, but she was a prolific journalist and memoirist whose words stirred millions. She loved and supported literature, theater, art, and classical music her whole life, and took solace in the arts. Loughery and Randolph write, “As she aged, Dorothy’s aesthetic sense didn’t lessen; it deepened. She was willing to allow herself more time for the pleasures of art.” If Dorothy Day does become a saint, she could make a splendid patron for artists, people in poverty, pacifists, single mothers, prisoners, social justice activists, and failed—but persistent—writers.
Are there flaws to the documentary and biography? Perhaps in the interest of time—and bolstering the case for canonization—the fifty-seven-minute documentary downplays the darkness of Day’s early years, the craziness and filth of the Worker houses, and her genuine weaknesses; while the biography, which creates an admirably balanced portrait, delves at times too far into minutiae and drops an overabundance of names—though for the most part the names are fascinating ones. Both works provide a welcome introduction to Day or a further education on her life.
Near the end of her life, Dorothy Day took an interest in the work of Cesar Chavez among migrant farmworkers in California. “One of the best things that has been happening in the United States is the strike of the United Farm Workers, headed by Cesar Chavez,” Day says in the documentary. She traveled to California in 1973 when she was seventy-six to support a Chavez-led grape picker strike, where she was arrested for the eighth and last time. “I first became a Catholic because I felt that the Catholic Church was the church of the poor,” Day says in one interview, “and I still think it’s the church of the poor. I think it’s the church of all the immigrant populations that came over or were brought over.”
Though neither book nor documentary speculates about how Day would react to current events, it’s certain that were she alive today, Day would have a thing or two to say about the perpetually unpassed DREAM Act, which could provide citizenship to people brought to the United States as children, and about the continued mistreatment of undocumented immigrants and farm workers.
In Children of the Land, a melancholy jewel of a memoir replete with lush sensory detail and arresting images, prizewinning poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo delves into his painful and disorienting experiences growing up in California as an undocumented immigrant. Castillo’s move toward activism is in some ways a mirror image of Dorothy Day’s. While Day grew up in relative privilege and eventually became so engrossed in helping the poor that she and her own family joined their ranks, Castillo grew up with financial instability, always fearing deportation, and eventually realized that his talent for writing could help his family and others like them. In 2015, Castillo, along with Christopher Soto and Javier Zamora, founded the Undocupoets campaign, with the goal of pressuring ten prominent first poetry book competitions to eliminate a citizenship requirement for entrants. They succeeded.
Born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and brought to California when he was five, Castillo lived in fear that he or his family members would be deported, especially after ICE raided his house on a Sunday afternoon when he was a senior in high school. They were looking for his father, who had already been deported three years earlier. “I would never again be able to unwind at home, to take my shoes off and completely let my body go,” Castillo writes. “Home was suddenly something to add to the list of dangers.”
Eventually, thanks to the DACA program and his marriage to his wife, Rubi, who had legal resident status, Castillo was able to obtain an interview for a green card. “In the years before my interview, to pacify my anger, I tried to convince myself that having papers didn’t matter because legal documentation was a social construct,” he writes. “And as a child, before I had that language, I said I was a perfect boy without them.” Dorothy Day, that fervent personalist, surely would have agreed. He was indeed a perfect boy.
Castillo’s family had migrated back and forth across the border for generations to work on California’s farms. His paternal grandfather crossed legally in the 1950s through the bracero program. In the seventies and eighties, his father traveled back and forth across the border to pick strawberries and other produce while his mother stayed in Mexico. “Immigration raids were more common then,” he writes. “They would come to a screeching halt and agents would surround a field like cowboys herding cattle… Sometimes if the bosses didn’t want to pay their workers, they would call immigration themselves.”
Still, Castillo writes, “Working in the fields was hard, but there was pride in it. The dirt felt good in your hands, and you were making your own living wage, much more than you would ever make back home growing corn.”
His parents were not in the right place at the right time to qualify for Reagan’s 1986 amnesty, so they spent their lives in America in the shadows, always waiting for a knock at the door. Castillo engaged in a tense line-toeing so as not to arouse suspicions. When driving, he writes, “sometimes I would spend more time obsessing over how fast I was going than paying attention to the road ahead. On a few occasions I almost crashed while going exactly somewhere between sixty-five and sixty-nine miles per hour on the freeway… I liked that range because it didn’t look suspicious.” When he had a green card, after spending so long in silence, it took him a while to realize that he could speak up and advocate for himself and his family. Still, he wonders, “Would the fear nestled in every joint of my body finally be massaged away, so I could let go of the tension that I had been holding for so many years?”
In the face of her depersonalization by American society, Castillo’s mother loses her Catholic faith. A religion whose churches feature so many depictions of the divine—in paintings, statuary, and other artwork—no longer speaks to her. “She left the Catholic Church because her prayers could no longer be to a saint incarnate—to the statue of that saint, its physicality,” Castillo writes.
The divine needed to be more than something standing before her, something she couldn’t see, something she couldn’t have the language for, something she couldn’t even imagine or have a name for. Some people want physical proof of God; they want to see him just like they see their neighbor, in order to believe. But not my mother. She wanted a God who, like her, could hide in plain sight.
Castillo constructs Children of the Land skillfully, with a clear, suspenseful narrative through-line that follows his efforts to gain a green card, and after he acquires it, his attempt to help his father, who has been told he can reapply for a visa after he remains in Mexico for ten years. This turns out to be a cruel lie; after his immigration interview, it’s clear he never had a chance to legally reenter the United States. But the authorities kept Castillo’s family in limbo for a decade, with his mother and siblings staying in California, thinking it might be possible to one day reunite their family. After Castillo’s father learns he cannot come back to California, his mother decides to return to Mexico, which causes a heart-wrenching separation from her children, as she will never be able to return. In Mexico, however, her life is immediately in danger, and Castillo dashes with her back toward the US border and pleads for asylum.
As he tells this story, he departs from strict chronology, artfully weaving in vignettes from other moments of his life and thoughts about how his undocumented status has shaped his psychology and philosophy. He succeeds in academics and becomes the first undocumented student to enroll in the graduate writing program at the University of Michigan, even though writing and teaching poetry are things his father can’t understand as work. Still, the border never lets him go. “I ventured to believe that the function of the border wasn’t only to keep people out,” he writes. “Its other purpose was to be visible, to be seen, to be carried in the imaginations of migrants deep into the interior of the country, in the interior of their minds.”
With Children of the Land, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo has borne witness to particular experiences that are representative of those of the ten to twelve million undocumented people living in the United States, who cannot tell their own stories for fear of repercussions. Meanwhile, through his Undocupoets campaign, he has sought to eliminate barriers to other undocumented writers telling their stories, thus allowing them to assert their individuality in the face of language and policies that continually try to dehumanize them. “Where were the saints to try to change the social order,” Dorothy Day wondered, “not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” Through Castillo’s probing questioning of the entire concept of borders and the laws governing them, he is pursuing this sort of work—a work saints and sinners alike can engage in.
Jenny Shank’s novel The Ringer (Permanent) won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Prairie Schooner, and McSweeney’s. She teaches in the Mile High MFA and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.