As the daughter of a Mexican father and an American mother, Melissa Castillo Planas, GSAS ’11, said she never quite fit in, either in her hometown of Ithaca, New York, or in Mexico, where she spent summers. “In my poetry I call myself a half-breed sometimes,” she says, “not to be derogatory, because I’m proud of my identity, but I feel out of place like that.” Now, as an assistant professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx and as the author of several books, including A Mexican State of Mind: New York City and the New Borderlands of Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2020), Castillo Planas is attempting to create spaces for those who, like her, don’t always see their complex identities reflected in the mainstream.

A Mexican State of Mind showcases the creative endeavors of Mexicans in New York City, many of whom are undocumented. How did you start working on this project?
I actually started it [as a graduate student]at Fordham. Even though I was studying English, [the program]gave me so much space to explore other interests, [so]I took a course on sociology and minorities, and for my final project I did an ethnography about Mexican hip-hop. After Fordham, I reworked it and presented it at a conference, and there was a lot of interest. And then I worked on it more, looking at graffiti and other art forms, while I was also working in restaurants amongst some of these same people, [the artists featured in my research]. And then I kept working on it for my Ph.D. at Yale. I just felt their stories needed to be told, and I was in a unique position to tell them.

So how did your identity as a Mexican-American poet play into that unique perspective?
I think I saw, as an artist and restaurant worker, how I was treated differently than undocumented people or people perceived as undocumented because of their skin color. But to me what was most amazing was, despite these hardships and marginalizations, they were fighting for creative lives. I think that’s what’s most important. There’s such a focus on what undocumented people lack—rights, health care, education, employment stability. But what do they bring to the world? Obviously they bring their labor, but beyond that—we need to think of them as three-dimensional human beings with creative lives and interests. They’re forming collectives, they’re forming sometimes transnational and multinational networks. They’re shaping and creating culture.

Two concepts you touch on in the book are how we view migrants versus immigrants, and the idea of a mobile borderlands. What do you mean by each of those?
I like to think about my subjects—many of whom are my friends now, I have tattoos done by them on my body—as migrants instead of immigrants. That’s because I want to emphasize two-way mobility, and movement as a human right. It also shifts the idea of immigrants as “invaders” just coming into a country. We’re all potential migrants. And for the borderlands piece, I wanted to take Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept of the U.S.-Mexico border as a wound that causes both pain and creativity out of the traditional Southwest borderlands where it originated and think of it in a New York context, where Mexicans are coming up against not just white people but some of the most diverse populations in the world. How does that multinational world change their creativity? I think it affects the type of culture they produce. They embrace, for example, the history of hip-hop in New York City as well as international sounds and people. It changes their interactions, their experience, and their creative work.

How did your subjects feel about being featured in the book?
They were all down for it. One of the things I always remember that one of them said was, “Dejamos una huella que estuvimos aquí,” or “We are leaving a mark that we were here.” And I think they saw I could help them leave that mark—because these are vulnerable populations; many of them could be deported at any time. And they care that there’s something to show for their time in New York. I did get some feedback on the book—I asked them how they felt about how I was representing them—and it was always positive. But they would say you could highlight this more, or this. It’s the most complicated thing I’ve ever written, with new ways to think about diaspora, transnationalism, Mexican studies … but I didn’t want it to be too academic-y. They helped me bring out some on-the-ground theory. I can’t wait to give them copies.

How do you create the same space for new voices in your classroom?
I think it’s really important for students to see themselves in the authors they’re reading. If students can see themselves in the curriculum, I hope they feel empowered by it. So I bring in a number of Latino or African American authors, many of them living authors, often from the Bronx. You have to widen the canon. But there’s also the canon within the canon. The Latino canon is marginalized within the American literature canon, but the Afro-Latino canon is marginalized within that. Many of these students experience racism within their own communities. There is colorism, or people think they’re not Latino because of the color of their skin. I want them to know there’s a body of literature that talks about these issues. And we’re not just talking about issues of race but also issues of sexuality. I want them to think on their own, to challenge ideas, to think of themselves as scholars who can have a voice about what the future of the canon is going to be.

How does your poetry address some of these same issues?
A lot of my poetry explores where I fit in. I don’t identify as fully white or fully Mexican, because each negates the other half. I will never give an identity to anybody else. I think we need to stop labeling people, and start letting people identify how they want to identify and let those identities evolve. Identity is transformable; it changes across generations and lifetimes. I’ve watched students who are half white like me read Latino literature in my own classroom and have that part of their identity become something very powerful for them. I want to create that space for people like that, and I hope my poetry does that as well. People feel out of place for different reasons, so I hope that can resonate for whoever feels like that.

What are you working on next?
I have a draft of my next poetry book, called Chingona Rules, that I’m editing. I’m working on a book about Afro-Latino literary history from the 1930s and 1940s, which also came out of my studies at Fordham. And then I’m working on a book with my husband, Tony Planas, about the psychological repercussions of long-term detention on children. He’s a reporter, so he will take the lead on interviews and I will take the lead on research. He’s also a photographer, and he’s taken pictures that I’ve written poems for. It’s cool, because this is a new way to collaborate for us. And to bring more voices to the forefront.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Alexandra Loizzo-Desai.


Alexandra Loizzo-Desai can be reached at [email protected] or 212-636-6536.