While I was Gone a War Began
While I Was Gone a War Began
On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda operatives under the direction of Osama Bin Laden bombed two United States embassies in Africa. The truck bombing in Nairobi, Kenya, killed 213 people, injured approximately 4,000, and severely damaged the embassy. The other bombing, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, killed twelve people and injured eighty-five others. Upon hearing about these bombings, Ana Castillo wrote the poem "While I Was Gone a War Began," and she notes in I Ask the Impossible (2001), the collection in which the poem appears, that the poem was originally written in 1998 in Chicago. The poem is thus a reaction to a specific (albeit unnamed within the poem) incident, but it addresses the violent state of the world in general.
Although Al Qaeda terrorist attacks against the United States have been numerous, the embassy bombings were the most notable until the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. The title of Castillo's poem, therefore, seems prophetic. The war against America had indeed begun, but the majority of the public did not realize it until the New York City and Washington, DC attacks on that date.
"While I Was Gone a War Began" is set in a vineyard and in Rome, Italy. The message of the poem seems to be that everyone is affected by world events, and everyone must do his part to improve the world in whatever way his talents enable him. The poem also questions the effectiveness of literature in combating social injustice and expresses frustration with the public's acceptance of violence as a norm in everyday life.
Born to Raymond and Raquel Rocha Castillo on June 15, 1953, Ana Castillo grew up speaking Spanish in a working-class Italian neighborhood in Chicago, where she first encountered the prejudice that led her to become active in the Chicano and feminist movements. She feels, however, that the urban environment was beneficial in that it exposed her to a range of cultures, beliefs, and customs. Her parents were great storytellers, but they took the practical road of sending their daughter to a secretarial high school. However, Castillo's lack of interest and poor typing skills led her to pursue higher education at Chicago City College and then Northern Illinois University. At first she studied art but was so discouraged by teachers who failed to understand her cultural and feminine perspective that she turned to writing for personal expression and finished with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts in 1975. Supporting herself by serving as a college lecturer and a writer-in-residence for the Illinois Arts Council, Castillo then worked toward her master's degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies at the University of Chicago and graduated in 1979. The years that followed were filled with a variety of short-term college teaching positions. In 1991, Castillo was granted a doctorate in American studies from the University of Bremen in Germany.
Castillo has said she never thought of writing as a way to make a living. Her topics have been such that she also did not expect to be noticed by the mainstream. Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s Castillo had won several prestigious awards and was able to become a full-time writer. Although Castillo started out as a poet, she has also written novels and short stories with themes that mirror her poetry: social consciousness, feminism, and life as a Chicana. Among her awards are two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships (1990 and 1995), and the Carl Sandburg Literary Award in 1993 for her novel So Far from God (1993). Other acclaimed works are The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986); Peel My Love like an Onion (1999); My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems 1973–1988 (1995; originally published as My Father Was a Toltec: Poems in 1988); Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (1994), a collection of essays; and
Loverboys (1996), a collection of stories. In addition, Castillo's work appears in numerous anthologies, and she has published various articles. In April 2000, Castillo and other notable Chicagoans were depicted on a historical mural on the sky deck of the Sears Tower.
In 2001, Castillo published her fifth volume of poetry, I Ask the Impossible, which contains work written over the previous eleven years. Intended to express topics relevant to women, particularly poor or minority women, the poems are about death, social protest, love, and family relationships. Among the poems is "While I Was Gone a War Began," as well as several poems that focus on the childhood of Castillo's son, Marcel Ramon Herrera. The public can read about her activities at her Website: http://www.anacastillo.com.
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In the first line, the narrator states that while she "was gone a war began," but she does not divulge in this first stanza where she has been or where the war is. She notes that she is in Rome and that she has been seeking translations of daily news reports from her friends. The narrator feels as if she has heard the story before, perhaps in a movie or an advertisement. The scenes of war on television must appear like movies or commercials; they have been seen before so many times, but this time they are for real and the speaker is in disbelief.
The narrator questions whether she has seen these images before in an underground cartoon, or perhaps in an old John Wayne film. John Wayne stands for the ideal American defender. Castillo may have chosen the phrase "sinister sheikh" because it is a stereotypical image that Americans have of Arab terrorists. Consequently, the "sinister sheikh versus John Wayne" is the classic bad guy versus good guy.
Turning then to a biblical reference, the narrator brings to mind the disasters recorded in the Book of Revelation. Comparing herself to a nonbeliever remembering Sunday school as just a bunch of stories and not true recordings or predictions, she wonders why people bother with such fiction when real life is much scarier. The fiction seems scarier than anything we can imagine from our comfortable little worlds, but it is not. For centuries, the apocalyptic events in Revelation have been considered the worst possible disasters. The narrator lists a number of such catastrophes that have already happened around the world, repeatedly and at the same time, and is at a loss to explain the continued existence of fiction. Reality is enough.
In this stanza, the narrator discusses conflicts that have erupted around the world. The narrator mentions the Congo, Ireland, and Mexico, because in 1998 rebel forces took over large sections of the Congo from its relatively new ruler; the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland that was expected to bring long-sought peace to the country was met with continued violence by the IRA; and in the impoverished state of Chiapas, Mexico, Zapatista rebels and the Mexican Army continued to clash. The narrator suggests that the rate of conflict is such that in these parts of the world and presumably elsewhere humans may soon destroy everything and everyone. The line "It's only a speculation, of course" is a sarcastic touch added, possibly, for all the people who respond cynically to such a prediction.
This long stanza is a conversation between the narrator and a person she calls "an Italian dissident." The dissident angrily asks her what good the great writers have done in terms of saving lives and feeding the hungry. He mocks her by asking what protection an American passport gives her "when your American plane blows up?" in a possible reference to the bombing of Pan Am flight 203 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. He asks these questions, says the narrator, "as if / this new war were my personal charge." Considering Castillo's message in this poem that each person has to make a contribution to the world, perhaps she uses the word "personal" intentionally to indicate that the war is indeed her personal charge because every individual must take responsibility for what goes on in the world.
The dissident mentions that African refugees in Italy now selling trinkets would not hesitate to kill their enemy again if given the chance. The dissident asks if the African is the bad guy or the ones who drives him out of his country. He questions "Who is the last racist?" in a chain of racists, if the white colonialists killed blacks, but blacks now kill each other. And who exhibits the worst colonial behavior, the Mexican authority brutalizing the indigents or the white rancher taking advantage of the Mexican illegal immigrants?
The stanza concludes with the dissident saying he hopes that for both their sakes the narrator's pen will be mightier than the sword in its effectiveness at combating the world's problems. He says that he is not a writer or a father, but he still gives his life for a good cause until he no longer has the energy or will to care anymore. The description of the dissident as a smoker with yellowed teeth makes him more real in the reader's mind.
The dissident's angry comments leave the narrator speechless at the realization of the possible futility of her words. She also may feel chastised for using words when he had just told her they do no good. The narrator and the dissident drink wine in silence and trap "a rat getting into the vat." She reveals that she and the dissident are at the vineyard that belonged to the dissident's late father. They watch the sun set together. These common actions are placed in the poem to indicate that life goes on. We have to keep living, so we eat and drink. We act as if there will be a future by preserving a vat from getting contaminated. Castillo's use of the word "another" in describing the red sunset reminds the reader that there have been many sunsets before and, most likely, there will be many more to come. At the end of the poem, the narrator returns to the world where the press is more concerned with "sordid scandal" than with reporting on the world's anguish, when in fact "surprise bombing over any city at night" is the worst scandal of all. "Any" and every bombing should be considered a violent assault on us all because, ultimately, we are all affected in some way or another. Such incidents are not someone else's problem, but a horror that should disturb us into action to preserve the "sanctity of the night."
The theme of war is obvious in this poem since the word "war" is in its title. First the narrator hears the news of the war, and then she describes her reaction. She names countries where violence is threatening to destroy the people entirely, and she gives examples of the universality of hatred and power struggles. After speculating about the value of literature in a war-torn world, she also points out how people have become so used to wars that they have perhaps accepted the violence as normal and turned their attention to more trivial matters.
Role of Literature
The Italian dissident in the poem asks, "What good have all the great writers done? … What good your poems, / your good intentions, / your thoughts and words." These questions have probably been asked for centuries, yet we know that every great civilization has had a body of literature and that poets, dramatists, and other storytellers have existed for thousands of years. The Greek tragedies show us that literature has more purpose than a pleasant way to pass the time; literature can be used as a vehicle for change. It can have the impact of Thomas Paine's essays that helped start a revolution. Literature can teach, advise, console, enlighten, and incite. Literature can help us to reflect upon the past and to envision the future. Literature can have a message of such impact that "poems become missiles," as the dissident hopes in "While I Was Gone a War Began." Consequently, writers keep writing with the mission of proving that the pen is mightier than the sword and that the role of literature is vitally important to the question of whether civilization thrives or fails.
Fiction versus Reality
Perhaps it is a human defense mechanism to confuse fiction and reality. When the narrator of this poem hears the news about a war starting, she is not sure that the story she is hearing is real. "It seems I saw this story / in a Hollywood movie, / or on a Taco Bell commercial." The narrator is trying to point out that life in the modern world of television, movies, and other media has blurred the lines between reality and fiction and has deadened the reaction to real disaster by making people feel as if it is not real people who are suffering and dying.
The narrator in the poem goes on to question why people even bother with fiction when reality is always so much more amazing, "after flood and rains, / drought and despair, / abrupt invasions, / disease and famine everywhere." She mentions Revelation, which lists multiple catastrophes that will befall the earth just before the end of the world. The narrator is questioning why the gospel writer describes such terrors as a one-time event when such tribulations happen every day. How will people recognize Armageddon when such calamity is nothing new? The inference is that the horrors of reality can never be matched, and certainly not surpassed, by the inadequate imaginations of writers.
Topics For Further Study
- One of Ana Castillo's influences has been Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982. Research the life and works of Garcia Marquez and comment on the impact he has had on Latin American and world literature.
- Another influence on Castillo is the "magical realism" movement made famous by a number of prominent Latin American writers. Describe magical realism and name some of the members of the movement from South America.
- Castillo is considered one of the best writers in Chicana literature. What is Chicana literature? What are its distinguishing features? In what time period has this literature been written?
- "While I Was Gone a War Began" is a poem about the violence in our world. Elsewhere in I Ask the Impossible, Castillo makes mention of Sister Dianna Ortiz, Anna Mae Aquash, and Comandante Ramona. Who are these women and what is their connection to violence in world affairs?
- It is often mentioned that Castillo participated in the Chicano Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. What was this movement and how did it differ from that of African Americans?
The Italian dissident in the poem declares "and now, I don't care." After a lifetime of fighting for his cause, he probably still cares or else he would not complain to the narrator, but he probably feels as though he has given all he can and nothing has changed. In contrast, the people who are not "scandalized by surprise bombings" may not ever have cared. They may not want to put any effort into making the world a better place as long as their own little patch of the earth is reasonably comfortable. Why care about who is bombing whom on the other side of the world? But Castillo says a bombing over any city should be considered scandalous because it violates the "sanctity of night"—that is, the sanctity of peace and peace of mind. It is an old message: we are all members of the human family and what happens to one of us happens to all of us. However, not all people believe or understand this concept and that causes the narrator's sorrow at the end of "While I Was Gone a War Began."
Free verse is the most popular poetic form used by twentieth and early twenty-first century poets, and it is the form Castillo uses in writing "While I Was Gone a War Began." Walt Whitman was perhaps the first poet to use this form, and it was quite a shock to readers in 1855 who were used to poems with strict metrical and rhyme patterns (for example, sonnets). Free verse avoids patterns and fixed line lengths. In fact, free verse varies line length to aid in achieving a desired impact. Rhythm and sound patterns are created by the use of assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, and the like. Rhythm is also created within lines by designing phrases of about equal length and by repeating phrases that have the same syntactical structure. The result is a cadence similar to the balance of phrases in a musical composition. Castillo uses this cadence device in "While I Was Gone a War Began" when she makes her lists of places where she may have seen "this story" before (a Hollywood movie, a Taco Bell commercial, etc.) and of catastrophes (flood, drought, disease, etc.). The repetition of the "what" and the "who" questions in the fourth stanza also establish a connection and a cadence that unites the poem. The same effect is achieved in the last stanza with the repetition of "we" at the beginning of sentences. With the successful use of these free verse techniques, Castillo shows herself to be a skilled poet.
Narrative or Lyric Poetry
Lyric or narrative poems have characters, plot, setting, and a point of view similar to prose. They are not quite stories chopped into shorter lines, but they do have a story of sorts, a setting of time and place, a specific point of view, and characters dramatizing the message. Such is the case with Castillo's "While I Was Gone a War Began." The main character is the speaker in the poem, just as Castillo's narrator is the "I" in "While I Was Gone a War Began." The speaker may be the poet or a fictional character and may be speaking to another character, perhaps in a dialogue. Castillo has a second character in this poem, the Italian dissident. Their exchange about the value of literature expresses the frustration of the writer. Often, however, the speaker in a narrative poem is a lone character speaking about a personal concern.
Imagery refers not only to the descriptive passages of a poem, but also to an appeal to the senses. The dominant sense in "While I Was Gone a War Began" is the visual sense, as seen through the mind's eye. Multiple "pictures" fill the poem: Hollywood, Taco Bell, sunglasses, summer wear, a sheikh, John Wayne, Sunday school, a flood, rains, a drought, a blue passport, a plane, a poor African selling trinkets, a Mexican official, a Mexican Indian, a white rancher, a Mexican worker, a vineyard, a vat, a rat, a red sunset over fields, and a city being bombed. Most of these are used for the purpose of comparison, but also to set the scene and to bring to mind instances of injustice that the reader knows.
In I Ask the Impossible, each of the poems is followed by a date and place indicating when the poem was written and in which city. Consequently, the reader immediately knows that "While I Was Gone a War Began" was written in 1998 in Chicago. The year 1998 was full of many noteworthy events. Castillo has revealed that she wrote this poem specifically in reaction to the August 7 bombings by Al Qaeda terrorists at two U.S. embassies in Africa. It was these bombings that first brought international notoriety to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In response, the FBI put Bin Laden on its most-wanted list, and President Clinton, on August 20, ordered cruise missile strikes on a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, which was suspected of producing materials for chemical weapons. He also ordered an attack on an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.
Although the specific event that inspired Castillo to write "While I Was Gone a War Began" is not mentioned in the poem, she does refer to three other hot spots in the world: the Congo, Ireland, and Mexico. In May 1997 the long-time and highly corrupt Congo ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, was overthrown. His replacement, Laurent Kabila, soon proved to be not much better, so in August 1998 rebel forces began attacking Kabila's army and managed to take control of large portions of the country. Since this situation occurred in the same month as the embassy bombings, it was natural for Castillo to list the Congo when she declared in the poem that "continents exploded" during the time that she was gone.
Castillo also names Ireland as an explosive place. This may seem a strange choice since it was in April 1998 that the Good Friday Agreement was reached whereby the Protestants of Northern Ireland agreed to share power with the Catholics, and they
gave the Republic of Ireland a voice in Northern Ireland affairs. However, it took a few years for the parties involved to follow through on the agreement and, in the meantime, the IRA, the radical opposition in Northern Ireland held responsible for multiple terrorist activities, refused to disarm. Thus, the violence continued even after the agreement was signed, and that is probably the reason Castillo mentions Ireland.
In Mexico, the third of Castillo's referenced countries, the conflict between the Mexican army and the Zapatistas escalated in June 1998. The Zapatistas are a group of mostly indigenous Mayan rebels who organized in 1994 in opposition to the Mexican government's treatment of indigenous people in the state of Chiapas. Although an agreement in 1995 gave the Mayans the right to govern themselves in autonomous communities within Mexico, the agreement was never really honored. Instead, the government built up military installations in Chiapas. In 1997, army raids into Zapatista communities resulted in multiple deaths and imprisonments. Then, in June 1998 two more massacres occurred. It is probably this terrible incident to which Castillo refers in the poem. After 1998, international support and massive demonstrations forced the Mexican government to meet some of the demands of the Zapatistas, but the situation was still not totally resolved and unrest continued.
Ana Castillo enjoys a favorable reputation among critics writing for a number of prestigious publications. In an article for MELUS, Elsa Saeta depicts Castillo as "One of the most articulate, powerful voices in contemporary Chicana literature … whose work has long questioned, subverted, and challenged the status quo." Janet Jones Hampton writes in an article for Americas, "Her poems, like her prose, recount the struggles and survival skills of marginalized peoples and sing of their dreams and hopes." Marjorie Agosin in MultiCultural Review praises Castillo as "lyrical and passionate" and "one of the country's most provocative and original writers."
In a critique specific to I Ask the Impossible, Donna Seaman in Booklist says Castillo's poems are "alight with stubborn love, crackling wit, and towering anger." A Publishers Weekly critic says of I Ask the Impossible that the point of Castillo's poetry is the "immediacy and the message" and that readers can bask in her "experiences and longings or get angry and motivated by her cries for justice." A review of I Ask the Impossible appearing in Library Journal, written by Lawrence Olszewski, calls Castillo "one of the most outstanding Chicanas writing today"; however, Olszewski feels the social-protest poems in this collection, which would include "While I Was Gone a War Began," are "the weakest and most routine of the lot."
Critic Norma Alarcon, in a chapter on Castillo for a collection of criticism called Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, remarks on Castillo's expert use of irony as a trademark element in her poetry. Irony is also mentioned in a Publishers Weekly interview Samuel Baker conducted with Castillo. Baker describes Castillo as "one of the most prominent Latina writers in the U.S.," adding that "she couches passion for life and work in gentle ironies." There is little doubt that Castillo is considered an important and influential American writer of feminist, Chicana, and protest literature.
Kerschen is a freelance writer and part-time English instructor. In this essay, Kerschen explores the life experiences and political activism that led Castillo to writing and that are the background to "While I Was Gone a War Began."
"While I Was Gone a War Began" is a narrative or lyric poem, a type of poem that is noted for having a lone character speaking about a personal concern. This definition truly fits Ana Castillo's poem about war and other violence because she wrote the poem as a social activist in reaction to disturbing world events. Poetry is considered an ideal medium for protest because the structure of a poem requires that strong emotions be stripped to their barest expression. In "While I Was Gone a War Began" Castillo certainly achieves the expression of strong emotions and manages to tie together a number of issues in a short amount of space, including the relevance of her life as a writer.
It was almost inevitable that Ana Castillo would grow up to put a Chicana imprint on feminist and political causes. She was born in 1953, right at the beginning of a time in America when people began to rise up to claim their civil rights and question many social institutions. The Korean War was just ending, but social problems in the United States were stirring up the winds of dissent. During the summer of Castillo's birth in Chicago, there was a huge race riot in protest of integrated housing there. That same year, President Eisenhower authorized "Operation Wetback," which directed the Immigration Service to arrest and deport over 3.8 million Chicanos over the next five years. The use of the derisive term "wetback" in the name of the project indicates the extent of prejudice and discrimination directed at Mexican Americans at the time. This oppression is still evidenced in the relationship of the "gringo ranchero over the Mexican illegal" that Castillo mentions in the poem. As a Chicana activist, Castillo is very aware of the way that border ranchers take advantage of illegal immigrants from Mexico, using their status as a threat to enforce subjugation and exploitation.
When Castillo was a child, hers was the only Mexican family in an Italian neighborhood. Their Italian landlord would not allow them to use the front door and insisted that Castillo's mother scrub the front-entry stairs on her knees every Saturday morning as a condition of their lease. As Castillo later wrote in "A Chicana from Chicago" in Essence, she grew up with a "strange sense of ongoing vigilance and repression." Those circumstances made an indelible impression. From then on, being a member of a minority of color, being a member of a Hispanic culture, and being female defined her life and determined her mission in life as a writer.
As Castillo entered her teenage years, the situation for Chicanos was such that life was a struggle and social opportunities were limited. She remembers being subjected to police harassment because of being a Chicana. Considering the conditions Castillo experienced in Chicago, it is no wonder that the Mexican American communities in the Midwest agitated for change and joined the Chicano Civil Rights movement, even though their issues were different from those in the Southwest, where the movement was made famous. At the same time, the civil rights demonstrations by African Americans were grabbing the headlines. In her article for Essence, Castillo comments:
I am very familiar with police-state mentality. I was a minor when I witnessed the riots after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination  and saw the city go up in flames from my back porch. I remember the national guard marching into my neighborhood shopping center.
Castillo's memories of harassment, racial hatred, and a police state bring to mind the third stanza of "While I Was Gone a War Began," where the question is asked "Who is the last racist?" and references are made to the tyranny of colonial rule. The latter is illustrated in the poem by "the Mexican official over the Indian," a reference to the Mexican government treatment of the indigenous people in the state of Chiapas that has led to the Zapatista rebellion.
At the opening of "While I Was Gone a War Began," the narrator says, "Every day I asked friends in Rome / to translate the news." Even while away, apparently on a vacation, the narrator must know the news, indicating an intense interest in world affairs. This interest has resulted in an extensive knowledge about the world's hot spots as indicted in the poem's references to the troubles in the Congo, Ireland, and Mexico. These references are expanded by the detail given to the "poor African selling trinkets in Italy." This African could be a refugee from the civil strife in the Congo or any of a number of conflicts that have driven Africans from their homelands, yet holding onto the tribal hatreds that cause them to "not hesitate to kill other blacks." For an activist such as Castillo, news is the daily motivation to keep working to solve the world's problems.
News is also an avenue for discovering others with whom one can identify. Just after high school, when Castillo was particularly searching for sisters in the cause, she read As Tres Marias, a book by three Portuguese women who broached issues affecting Latina women and for doing so were being censored and were in prison. As Castillo told Janet Jones Hampton in an interview for Americas, "That was a fundamental book for me that initiated my writing because it brought it all together for me." Castillo decided right then that she could also "bring all of that together in writing."
What Do I Read Next?
- Women Are Not Roses (1984) is Castillo's third book of poetry. In it she explores the idea of women who feel disenfranchised in male-dominated cultures.
- The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), Castillo's first novel, earned her an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. As the title indicates, the novel is composed of a series of letters, written in the 1970s and 1980s, between Teresa, a California poet, and Alicia, her college friend who has become an artist in New York City. The correspondence reveals how the roles these women have assumed differ from the traditional roles of Latina women and how the men in Teresa's and Alicia's lives—both Anglo and Chicano—resent this difference.
- In 1993 Castillo published So Far from God, a novel that garnered more public interest than any of her previous works. Written in the genre of magical realism, the story follows the life of a Latina woman and her four vastly different daughters. This book received the Carl Sandburg Literary Award.
- Castillo's first short-story collection was published as Loverboys (1996). Quirky characters, strong-willed women, and multiple variations of love and friendship fill these stories and reveal Castillo's talent for inventiveness, humor, and eroticism.
- Peel My Love like an Onion (1999) is a novel about a flamenco dancer who overcomes many challenges but is unlucky in love and life. This book exhibits Castillo's feminism at a new depth.
- Gabriel García Márquez is one of the Latin American authors who has influenced Ana Castillo. His book One Hundred Years of Solitude is world renowned and is considered one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century. It was republished in 2003.
- MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (1997), edited by Ishmael Reed, is an anthology that includes essays by Castillo, Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Frank Chin, Bharati Mukherhjee, Barbara Smith, and Miguel Algarin, among others.
In college, Castillo (quoted in "Ana Castillo Painter of Palabras") says, the "negative social attitudes toward people of humble origins, as well as the institutional racism and sexism of the university discouraged me." This increasing awareness of the oppression subjugating her as a woman and a Mexican American led her to writing as a means of expressing her outrage. Her voracious reading of Latin American authors led her naturally to become a Chicana protest poet advocating that the image of American society should be multicultural and not just Anglo-American and decrying the economic inequality of Chicanos. In the process, Castillo has introduced "Xicanisma," a specifically Mexican American brand of feminism. In an interview with Elsa Saeta in MELUS, Castillo said that, in the literature of women, we have had a void in the representation of women "who look and think and feel like me and who have had similar experiences in society. I wanted to fill that void."
As part of the protest movement in the mid-1970s, Castillo learned that working toward social change meant making your own individual contribution of talent. For Castillo, that meant taking up the pen. In "While I Was Gone a War Began," she says "I had nothing to give but a few words." Samuel Baker reports in Publishers Weekly that Castillo has said, "I was a Chicana protest poet, a complete renegade—and I continue to write that way." She has remarked that she wants her writing to engage the reader in a discussion of issues. A collection of Castillo's poetry written from 1973 to 1988 called My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems, 1973–1988 demonstrates, sometimes in matter-of-fact statements, a political vision that has broadened and become more complicated as her career has progressed. Although Castillo is very much concerned with expressing herself as a feminist and Chicana, she seems to have come back in recent works to political subjects as well. I Ask the Impossible is proof of that. Once again with this poem, she is pointing out the struggles of victimized people. As previously mentioned, the third stanza gives examples of this struggle in the descriptions of the "poor African selling trinkets in Italy," "the Mexican official over the Indian," and "the gringo ranchero over the Mexican illegal." The Italian dissident with whom she has the conversation in the poem is also an example of one who struggles against injustice in that he is described as a dissident and says "I gave my life" for whatever was his cause.
In the same moment, the dissident says, "and now, I don't care." In the Saeta interview, Castillo emphasizes, "Refusing to participate is a political act" too, because not participating means that you have joined the mainstream or status quo. Thus, in this poem, Castillo presents both the act of involvement in the person of the narrator poet whose poems may have "become missiles" and the act of non-involvement as represented by the Italian dissident who no longer cares. However, it is also in this poem that she questions the value of a writer in solving these problems and expresses the frustration in trying:
What good have all the great writers done? …
What good your poems,
your good intentions,
your thoughts and words
all for the common good?
What lives have they saved?
What mouths do they feed?
As a young woman, Castillo had trouble finding books by U.S. Latinas because Latina writers could not get published. Now, writers of all cultures and colors are being published. Some of the credit for this change can be given to Castillo who not only has written what needed to be said, but also has fought for the right to be heard. Her writings are a voice arising from her Chicana experience, but poems such as "While I Was Gone a War Began" have a universal message as well. Castillo's commitment to universal peace and justice can also be seen outside her literary works. She has written commentary in a number of articles, and she has served on the American Booksellers Association panel for Social Responsibility. As of 2004, the front page of her Website was focused on links to activist sites, to calls for action in some protest or political movement.
In the introduction to her collection of poetry I Ask the Impossible, Castillo says, "When I started taking writing in verse seriously nearly three decades ago, I wrote as a witness to my generation …. I hope that my poems still serve as testi mony to the times." "While I Was Gone a War Began" is definitely a testimony to the early twenty-first century in its reaction to a violent deed, in its listing of hot spots in the world, in its questioning of the racism and oppression that continue around the globe. It also expresses a frustration with the seeming futility of efforts to better the human condition. In the opening of the fourth stanza of the poem, the narrator decides to keep her words to herself because of "their apparent uselessness." However, the despair expressed in this poem is atypical of Castillo's attitude. It is perhaps more of a barb at the apathy of others. The fact that the poem exists and was published is evidence that Castillo's political and social conscience continued its commitment to stay in the fray and fight the good fight, one poem at a time.
Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on "While I Was Gone a War Began," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Ana Castillo and Samuel Baker
In the following interview, Castillo discusses her formative years, inspirations for her writing, and her upcoming projects.
The road from the nearest el stop to Ana Castillo's North Side Chicago home curves for several blocks alongside the solemn, deserted expanse of historic Graceland Cemetery and then enters an offbeat shopping district that features a fortune-teller's storefront, a shuttered nightclub and a Mexican restaurant incongruously named Lolita's. Far from seeming out of place, these picturesque locations mesh perfectly with the bustling everyday Chicago life that surrounds them. Such harmonies between the romantic and the mundane, manifest in Castillo's neighborhood, also resonate in the adventurous chords of her art—as heard most recently in the story collection Loverboys, out this month from Norton.
Castillo lives halfway down a side-street full of lush lawns and profuse sprinklers, in the ground-floor apartment of a tidy brick two-flat. Her son, Marcel, just out of seventh grade, ushers PW into a modest combination livingroom and study. Decorated in a subtle Southwestern style, the room is dominated by a series of striking paintings of Castillo—selfportraits, it turns out. Literary quarterlies share space on the coffee table with an issue of USA Weekend that features a Castillo story, "Juan in a Million."
The day has been a scorcher. When Castillo herself enters the room, however, her bold features set off by her long black hair and simple white sun dress, she appears totally imbued with cool. As she begins to hold forth, a wry sense of humor catalyzes energy together with reserve; she couches passion for life and work in gentle ironies. One of the most prominent Latina writers in the U.S., Castillo is already the author of three novels, several volumes of poetry and an essay collection. Today, however, our conversation starts with the latest events in her fast-moving career: the publication of her story in USA Weekend, with its circulation of nearly 40 million, and her appearances at the just-concluded 1996 Chicago ABA, where she did an autograph session and served on the Booksellers for Social Responsibility panel.
Talk of the ABA sparks an account of Castillo's interest in the independent bookstore scene. In the title story in Loverboys, Castillo draws on her experience with, and affinity for, booksellers to create a narrator who "runs the only bookstore in town that deals with the question of the soul." This protagonist handsells a volume of Camus to a philosophically inclined customer, who subsequently emerges as the main "loverboy" of the piece.
No particular store served as her model, but Castillo has long depended on independent bookstores to nurture her public. When she wrote "Loverboys" she was living in Albuquerque, writing her novel So Far from God and organizing occasional events at the Salt of the Earth bookstore. Castillo extols Salt of the Earth for its support of the writers' community in Albuquerque and across the country and laments its demise this past year. Owner John Randall originally coordinated the Booksellers for Social Responsibility panels at the ABA.
"As a writer whose books were published with small presses," Castillo says, "it was a natural for me to talk about the importance of bookstores." She speaks in rapid cadences of full sentences, given a musical lilt by her warm voice. "The kind of literature I write is not directed for the mainstream, although So Far from God did very well, and I'm hoping that we're entering a new era now where it will be more and more the case that writers from the fringes occupy the mainstream."
If Loverboys bids to occupy the mainstream of contemporary fiction, it nonetheless retains strong connections to Castillo's tremendously varied, and often quite radical, previous body of work. Born and raised in Chicago, Castillo began publishing poetry in the mid-1970s, when she was a college student. Norton's recent edition of her poetry, My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems, 1973–1988 (1995), collects work from the period when writing was her calling, but not yet a career. It includes selections from two self-published chap-books, Otro Canto (1977) and The Invitation (1979), together with many poems from Women Are Not Roses (Arte Publico, 1984) and all of My Father Was a Toltec (West End Press, 1988). Castillo's verse moves freely between English and Spanish, interlacing unvarnished accounts of her life, her family and her friends with boldly erotic passages and matter-of-fact political statements.
Castillo links her impulse to write to idealism. "In the mid-'70s, the idea was to work towards social change. The call of the day for young people everywhere of all colors and backgrounds was to contribute in some way to a more just society. Being of Mexican background, being Indian-looking, being a female, coming from a working-class background, and then becoming politicized in high school, that was my direction. I was going to be an artist, a poet. Never once did I think of it as a career. I certainly never thought I could possibly earn a dime writing protest poetry. So all those years I went around like a lot of young poets—and a lot of old poets—going anywhere I could find an audience, getting on a soapbox and reading. I was a Chicana protest poet, a complete renegade—and I continue to write that way."
Even as Castillo continues to write as a renegade, however, her work—in particular, her fiction—has found a home with the reading public. Her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, was published by Bilingual Review Press in 1986. It brought Castillo critical acclaim, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and steady sales. Without consulting Castillo, Bilingual Review sold the rights to that novel and to Castillo's subsequent effort, Sapogonia, to Doubleday/Anchor, which brought them out in paperback in 1992 and 1994, respectively. This annoyed Castillo, who would have liked to have had more involvement in the publication (she eventually was able to make some revisions to Sapogonia). Her chief comment on the matter now is to urge young writers to have their contracts vetted, no matter how small and friendly the press.
Prospering at Norton
In the wake of the success of her first fiction efforts, Castillo signed up with agent Susan Bergholz, of whom she speaks warmly. Bergholz, Castillo says, played a key role in the genesis of what would become Castillo's debut publication with Norton, the novel So Far from God. In an emotionally bleak period during her sojourn in New Mexico, Castillo had happened upon an edition of The Lives of the Saints. Reading its spiritual biographies inspired her to write a story about a modern-day miracle that happens to a little girl known as La Loca. After dying, La Loca does not only rise from the dead: she ascends to the roof of the church that had been about to house her funeral and reproves the Padre for attributing her resurrection to the devil. Upon reading this story, Bergholz suggested that Castillo develop it into a novel.
"So I wrote two more chapters," she recalls; she sent it out and eventually Gerald Howard took it at Norton. The story grew to encompass the lives of four sisters, martyrs in different ways to the modern Southwest, and of their mother, Sofia, who turns her bereavements to positive account by organizing the community politically and by working to reconfigure the Catholic religion. Castillo speaks very highly of Howard's editing.
"When So Far from God came out," Castillo declares, "I started looking at writing as a career, because indeed, after 22 years, I began to earn my living from it." Having settled back into the very same apartment where, more than a decade ago, she wrote The Mixquiahuala Letters, she now plans to write full-time in Chicago, forgoing the itinerant writer-in-residence life that took her in recent years to colleges from Chico State in California to Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts.
Castillo has made forays into writing cultural criticism, collected in Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma, which earned her a Ph.D. from the University of Bremen. While she speaks positively of the resident-writer experience, she is disdainful of fiction-writing workshops. This sentiment has its roots in her own formation. "By no means had I, as many young writers do these days, gone for an M.F.A. and said 'well, I want to be a writer,'" Castillo says. "I had wanted to be a painter, but I was discouraged in college. And so I thought, I'm not going to go through that with my writing." For Castillo, a more idiosyncratic, personal path is best.
Castillo does have a strong investment in pedagogy, however, a commitment currently finding its most direct expression in a children's book project, My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove. This manuscript consists of two long poems based on Aztec and Nahuatal instructions to youths facing rites of passage. "These poems are teachings from my ancestry," she says, "hundreds of years old, from the time of the conquest of the Americas, and yet applicable today—we're going to package them with contemporary illustrations."
Also underway is a new novel, Peel My Love like an Onion. In this project, Castillo focuses on the Chicago gypsy community, for which a good friend serves her as native informant. Uncomfortable with the idea of fully assuming gypsy character in narrating this work, Castillo currently has the novel narrated by a Chicana woman who speaks with a gypsy.
Clearly, Castillo's social conscience continues to inform the choice and development of her projects. Forthcoming in October from Riverhead is Goddess of the Americas, an essay collection which she has edited on the Virgin of Guadalupe, beloved patron of the oppressed peoples of Latin America. Castillo's good friend Sandra Cisneros is one contributor; others include Elena Poniatowska and Luis Rodríguez. The idea for the book originated with its editor at Riverhead, Julie Grau. When Grau "asked if I was interested," says Castillo, "I couldn't say no to the Virgin of Guadalupe—I saw that as a discreet message to me." While Castillo herself is not a practicing Catholic, she feels that celebrating the Virgin can help redress the sad fact that "what we could call the feminine principle is too absent from—is too denigrated by—Western society.
"I don't particularly care if people want to worship the Virgin of Guadaloupe," she continues, "if they get the message that we need to respect the things that we call female, which we don't. You know, we put so much pressure on mothering, and as a single mother I understand that, but how much support and respect do we really give mothers in our society?" Castillo is not afraid to provoke controversy. "One of my goals in life is to get an encyclical from the church—if not from the pope, then from the bishops—to ban the book. I think that would be the best advertisement for the book, if a cardinal or someone would say that it definitely should not be read by any good Catholic in the world."
It might seem that Castillo's new offerings, Loverboys and Goddess of the Americas separate sexuality and spirituality into distinct packages. But this is not the case. For Castillo, "spirituality is a manifestation of one's energy, and that energy includes who you are as a total being"—including your sexuality. She sees the propinquity of the two publications as a clear message that "these are not two separate issues for me, but one issue for us to consider."
The spiritual epiphanies that sexual desires and experiences bring in Loverboys occur not as religious visions but rather as aesthetic fulfillment. Sometimes characters recognize such fulfillment themselves. More often, they remain confused, even lost, even while Castillo's rendering of their lives into stories touches them with grace. This grace works whether the story be a tragic one or more essentially comic. This graceful touch of Castillo's is a powerful and unique gift—as many readers of hers already know, and as many more readers will soon discover.
Source: Samuel Baker, "Ana Castillo: The Protest Poet Goes Mainstream," in Publishers Weekly, August 12, 1996, pp. 59–60.
Ana Castillo and Simon Romero
In the following interview, Castillo discusses how she came to New Mexico, the unique New Mexican Spanish spoke there, and the state of Chicana literature.
[S.R.:]I understand you're originally from Chicago. How did you end up in Albuquerque? Why here?
[A.C.:]People usually think I came here to teach at the University, but I didn't. I had visited here and been invited to talk here a few times …
… over at the university …
… yeah, so I'd met a few people like Rudy Anaya—he was instrumental in inviting me—but it was after a sweat that it came to me to come here, so I did. I got my adobe and I've lived here for three years and this is home.
Where else had you lived before coming to Albuquerque?
Five years in California, including three years in the Bay Area. I also taught up in Chico and then I was a fellow at UCSD for a year. Before that I lived nearly all my life in Chicago, aside from travelling extensively here and there.
You mentioned previously that you'd be interested in collaborating with someone on a film. How would you describe the current state of Chicano film-making?
We could say, finally, that in 1993 there is Chicano filmmaking. So I think the possibilities are endless in terms of what the genre would be like. However, in terms of looking for sources of money, I think we have to be very careful not to fall into Hollywood's commodification of Chicano culture. We could look at the example of Piri Thomas, a successful Puerto Rican writer now living in the Bay Area, who has received repeated offers from Hollywood … and he said he's not going to write about his people doing drugs and going to jail. He mentioned that every time they wanted him to write something, they wanted him to do that, to portray the Puerto Ricans and the Latinos in a negative way.
What kind of film would you make?
A.C.: Well of course, if you think about the kind of books I've written, it would be different, coming from a woman's perspective, something like, say, Maria Novaro's "Danzon." I think it would be similar to a Maria Novaro film, with a Chicana protagonist, with Brown women, with the specificity of our culture. But, you know, I think the issues I have always dealt with are very contemporary and very "universal."
There's a certain trace of Baccaccio or Cervantes in So Far from God. For example, you begin each chapter with a humourous summary. How important would you say humor is in your novels?
It seems to be coming out more and more. When I devoted myself to poetry—and poetry is a very serious medium—I don't think the people that knew me as an individual with that tongue-in-cheek kind of humor … well, it didn't always lend itself to my poetry. When you're writing poetry, it's like working with gold, you can't waste anything. You have to be very economical with each word you're going to select. But when you're writing fiction, you can just go on and on; you can be more playful. My editor's main task is to cut back, not ask for more.
Not only do you use New Mexican Spanish in So Far from God, but also the unique English that's spoken here, the long descriptive sentences. It appears that the syntax is Spanish, but the vocabulary is essentially English. How would you say that New Mexico's vernacular differs from Chicago's or California's?
Well, I'm glad you observed that. Are you a native New Mexican?
Good, then maybe I can get an endorsement from you since the language here is very different. At first when you hear the speech here, you don't really know what to do with it, but then I just went with it, because as a writer as well as a translator I do believe that translated words are not different names for the same thing. They're different names for different things. If my novel was instead written in White standard English, I'm doing nothing more than writing a White standard novel with an ethnic motif. Here I started to listen very carefully, and the double negatives in fact drove some of the New York copyeditors crazy, they had to cut back. But it was fun for me. I tried to stay as true as I could, so I used Ruben Cobos' dictionary of Southwestern Spanish, and when I went into Spanish I never assumed the word I would use would be the word a nuevomexicano would use. Chicago Spanish, for example would be more reminiscent of Central Mexican Spanish. And the californios go back several generations, and many don't have Spanish. And if we're talking about L.A., there's been a huge migration of Mexicanos and Central Americans. So it was very important to me to feel the aspirations of the northern New Mexicans and represent them correctly.
How would you describe the future of Chicano speech? Do you see language as something in a permanent state of change, as something maleable? What language will the next generation of Chicanos be writing in?
I definitely do see language serving its users, and when it no longer serves them we need to look for new words. I was a principal translator of This Bridge Called My Back, which is a groundbreaking feminist anthology of writing by women of color. The original title was Este Puente, Mi Espalda, and near the end of the project I decided on Esta Puente, Mi Espalda, so we had a debate and decided to put a note in the book, and what happened was that because we are Chicanas it was assumed that we don't know our English nor our Spanish. People would actually question us publicly if we knew that puente was a masculine noun. We felt like the White feminists who used herstory instead of history. We were doing the same thing. We will never have "a" Chicano English or Spanish because of regional differences. But I think that because of our bilingual history, we'll always be speaking a special kind of English and Spanish. What we do have to do is fight for the right to use those two languages in the way that it serves us. Nuevo-mexicanos have done it very well for hundreds of years, inventing words where they don't have them. I think the future of our language is where we claim our bilingualism for its utility.
How would you characterize the reception of Chicano literature abroad? There seems to be an interest in Germany and England …
Many European countries are fascinated with minorities from the United States. They still see this country as a world power and they covet that power …. I was approached by a professor once at the Sorbonne in Paris and asked about racism in this country, and when I reflected on racism on the streets of Paris—you know, I'd be considered an Arab there—well, she didn't want to address that …. It just goes to show it was easier for Europeans to study racism in the United States than it is from within the belly of the beast.
You mentioned that you have a young son, Marcel. How would you describe the schools here in Albuquerque?
I have him in San Felipe and I had him as a non-Catholic child, so I pay more. He was baptized by the Chicano/Native American community and not by the church. Anyway, when I first came I tried very hard to get him into Longfellow, a school with good programs, but it was very hard, I even offered to teach for free …. I had serious reservations about putting him in the public schools in my area. I think that the problems here in Albuquerque, especially in regards to the Chicano community, are as serious as those in any large city in this country …. The gang problem does not seem like it should be that serious, but it is for a Latino. I have a tremendous amount of fear for the future of my boy. He's nine-and-a-half and dark-skinned. By the time he's 12 or 13, who knows who he's going to be identifying with in these days when you get shot down for wearing expensive Nikes to school …. I've heard that if a Latino makes it to 19 years of age, he has a good chance of surviving into adulthood. Up until then, you don't know.
What significance does modern Latin American writing have for you and your work?
I've been writing and publishing now for almost 20 years, so when I began examining my reality, the closest examples I could find were the Latin Americans, especially the women. And I was especially influenced by a book called As Tres Marias written by three Portuguese women. That book came out when I was just coming out of high school. These women were in prison, they were being censored, and later I saw this story in New York as an experimental play. They were talking about all the issues that affect Latina women, from Catholicism to incest to patriarchy. At that time, we didn't have many books by U.S. Latinas; they were writing but not getting published. Anyone that came close to my experience was someone that I would read.
How would you describe the current state of American fiction? Is there a glut of themes? Is it getting repetitive now?
Well, you know, as time has gone on and we're at the end of the 20th century and major publishing is a big business, yes, of course we're going to get a lot of plain, mediocre trash. There are a lot of writers who get huge advances for books that don't go anywhere and they have to burn them somewhere or throw them away. I always think about all the poor trees that have been sacrificed. All it is is a mass-consumption for a brain-dead readership. The writers who have been serious about recreating American literature have always been far and few between. What we do have at the end of the 20th century that we didn't have at the beginning, at that time of the Lost Generation of rich white boys, is a mixture. We're now getting gay writers of color, let's say, and women of color being published. This is unprecedented.
How do you view the reception of your work in Mexico?
Among feminists, there's been an ongoing dialogue. For example, Elena Poniatowska has become a friend of mine and she's acknowledging Chicana literature. And in a month, I'll be attending a conference on Chicana writers at UNAM (Universidad Autonoma de Mexico). This exchange has been taking place for about 10 years. The Mixquihuala Letters should be translated into Spanish, I understand that my poetry has been studied, and Esta Puente, Mi Espalda has also been used in Mexico now for several years. I think, again, that it's the women who are taking the lead in establishing this communication …. As far as our language goes, I'm not exactly sure that the bilingualism that we use—though we have a stronger hold on it—isn't understood by Mexicanos once it crosses the border. You hear it a lot in the slang picked up by the Pop Culture. People like to think of themselves as purists, but there is no such thing as purity, when there exists so much contact.
Source: Simon Romero, "An Interview with Ana Castillo," in NuCity, June 18–July 1, 1993.
In the following essay, Gómez-Vega discusses Castillo's struggle to realize and cultivate her talents as a poet and novelist, and the work she has done to combat racism and sexism.
Ana Castillo is one of a few Mexican American writers who have attracted the attention of the mainstream reading public. From her earliest writing she has tried to unite those segments of the American population often separated by class, economics, gender, and sexual orientation. Her success is a tribute to her self-discipline, her courage, and her considerable literary ability.
Castillo was born in Chicago on 15 June 1953 to Raymond Castillo and Raquel Rocha Castillo, struggling working-class people. In a 1997 interview Castillo told Elsa Saeta that she attended a "secretarial high school," studying to become a file clerk, which her parents considered a good job. Castillo, however, had other ideas. She said that she was "a lousy typist" and had an "aversion to authority," so she abandoned secretarial training. After attending Chicago City College for two years, she transferred to Northeastern Illinois University, where she majored in secondary education, planning to teach art. She received her B.A. in 1975.
Castillo's experience as a student at Northeastern Illinois was largely negative, she explained in the interview, because "the extent of the racism and the sexism of the university in a city like Chicago discouraged" her from becoming an art teacher. She went on: "by the time I was finishing my B.A.—and it took a lot of work to get scholarships and grants to get through the university system—I was really convinced that I had no talent. I couldn't draw and I had no right to be painting." As a result of these experiences, Castillo stopped painting. During her third year of college, however, she resumed writing poetry.
These first poems were a response to her grandmother's death. In the introduction to My Father Was a Toltec (1988) she claims to have been "possessed suddenly to compose from a place so deep within it felt like the voice of an ancestor embedded in a recessive gene." Appropriately written on the "ugly" yellow pages of a utilitarian notepad picked up at the factory where her mother worked, the poems, she says, "were short, roughly whittled saetas [couplets from a poem or song] of sorrow spun out of the biting late winter of Chicago" that allowed the child poet to work through her pain. "If it hadn't been that my mother got it for me, and at no cost, at the factory," she says, "I wouldn't have had a pad on which to give birth to my first poems." Her family's working-class status set the stage for a developing writer who throughout her literary career has examined pervasive social and economic inequities that affect women and Latinos in the United States.
Castillo's literary career began before she finished college. At twenty she gave her first poetry reading at Northeastern Illinois University, and in 1975 Revista Chicano-Riqueña published two of her poems, "The Vigil (and the Vow)" and "Untitled." That same year another poem, "Mi Maestro," was included in the anthology Zero Makes Me Hungry. The following year the Revista Chicano-Riqueña published a second group of her poems about racial injustice, particularly the fate of indigenous peoples in America. Mindful of her previous experience as a painter, Castillo told Saeta, she promised herself never to take writing courses "with anybody or any university … because I was so afraid that I would be discouraged and told that I had no right to be writing poetry, that I didn't write English well enough, that I didn't write Spanish well enough." Like many other Latino poets of her generation, Castillo felt that she had "no models that spoke to my experience and in my languages," and she admits in the introduction to My Father Was a Toltec that she felt compelled to "carve out for myself the definition of 'good.'" She wanted to be a good poet, but a poet on her own terms, with a political conscience and fluency in the two languages that she used to navigate through a predominantly Anglo world.
Despite her uncertainty about the value of her poems, Castillo continued to write and develop her poetic voice. Caught up in the political fervor of the 1970s and concerned by the plight of Latinos in the United States, she told Saeta in 1997 that she thought of herself as "a political poet, or what is sometimes called a protest poet talking about the economic inequality of Latino people in this country." One of her early poems, "Invierno salvaje" (Savage Winter), written in 1975 and published in the anthology Canto al Pueblo (1980), addresses the difficult lives of Latinos during a hard winter. When the worker-poet asks the harsh winter, "¿Intentas matarnos?" (Do you intend to kill us?), the answer is that winter, harsh as it may be, "No tendrás / el honor" (will not have the honor) because "Las fábricas / nos esperan / y la voz / del mayor-domo / es aún más fuerte / que la tuya" (The factories / await us / and the voice / of the foreman / is more powerful / than yours). "The New Declaration of Independence," published in Revista Chicano-Riqueña in 1976, celebrates the political awareness of "an entire people / who are coming together as ONE! / At last … At last!" Castillo's work should be read with an awareness of what Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano describes in "Chicana Literature from a Chicana Feminist Perspective" (1988) as "the most important principle of Chicana feminist criticism … the realization that the Chicana's experience as a woman is inextricable from her experience as a member of an oppressed working-class racial minority and a culture which is not the dominant culture."
In 1975 Castillo moved to Sonoma County, California, where she taught ethnic studies for a year at Santa Rosa Junior College. Returning to Chicago in 1976, she pursued a master's degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies in 1978 and 1979. In 1977 she published a chapbook, Otro Canto (Other Song), in which she collected her earlier political poems, including "Napa, California," dedicated to migrant-labor activist César Chávez, and "1975," a poem about "talking proletariat talks." From 1977 to 1979 she was writer in residence for the Illinois Arts Council. In 1979 she published her second chapbook, The Invitation, a collection that exhibits for the first time Castillo's interest in sexuality and the oppression of women, especially Latinas. She also received her M.A. degree in 1979 from the University of Chicago and between 1980 and 1981 was poet in residence of the Urban Gateways of Chicago. A son, Marcel Ramón Herrera, was born on 21 September 1983.
In 1984 Arte Público Press published Women Are Not Roses, a collection of poems that includes some poems from her chapbooks. In 1986 her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, which she had begun writing in 1979, was published by the Bilingual Press; it received the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in 1987. Written as a series of letters from Teresa, a Latina, to her Anglo-Spanish friend Alicia, the novel reveals Teresa's complicated feelings for Alicia during their ten-year friendship. Castillo provides three tables of contents or reading strategies, labeled "For the Conformist," "For the Cynic," and "For the Quixotic."
Regardless of which reading strategy the reader chooses, The Mixquiahuala Letters begins with Teresa's description of three trips to Mexico taken by Teresa and Alicia, together or separately, and follows a narrative through which Teresa not only reminds her friend what happened during their time together but also admits her own feelings of love and hate. Anne Bower claims that The Mixquiahuala Letters "is very much a quest novel … with form and explanation taking us into the women's emotional and artistic searches," while Erlinda Gonzales-Berry argues that in Castillo's "letter writing project, the letter simultaneously functions as a bridge and as a boundary between subject and object." Gonzales-Berry believes that the letter "verbally links the receiver, (Other), to the sender, (Self), but it also posits the other as the impenetrable mirror that reflects the specular image of the speaking-writing subject." She argues that this binary opposition is necessary so that Teresa can exorcise "her rage … through the act of writing" because "in the act of sharing [her letters with Alicia], Teresa discovers her love for Alicia."
Castillo pointed out in a 1991 interview with Marta A. Navarro that Teresa compares and contrasts herself with Alicia throughout the novel because she is dealing with "a very real, painful reality for Mexicanas, brown women who don't fit into the aesthetic" of what is considered beautiful in North America. According to Castillo, Teresa's letters address "the fact that in patriarchy, all women are possessions, but the highest possession, … is the white woman." Thus, although in one letter Teresa admits to driving "sixteen and a half hours just to ask you to dance with me," in another she tries to explain "why I hated white women and sometimes didn't like you." Teresa's ambivalent feelings for Alicia gradually evolve into a homoerotic subtext that recurs throughout Castillo's work, although Castillo told Navarro that her female characters cannot identify themselves as lesbians because they are not "willing to give up that hope for identity through the male" that is so important to them.
By 1985 Castillo was once again in California teaching at San Francisco State University, becoming more and more involved as an editor for Third Woman Press and receiving early praise for The Mixquiahuala Letters. After the novel received the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in 1987, Castillo was further honored by the Women's Foundation of San Francisco in 1988 with the Women of Words Award for "pioneering excellence in literature." Still needing money and finding it difficult to raise her son alone, she taught Chicano humanities and literature at Sonoma State University in 1988, creative writing and fiction writing at California State University at Chico as a visiting professor in 1988–1989, and Chicana feminist literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara as a dissertation fellow/lecturer for the Chicano Studies Department during the same school year. In 1989 she received a California Arts Council Fellowship for Fiction and in 1990 a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.
Castillo's second novel, Sapogonia: An Anti-Romance in 3/8 Meter (1990), was written in Chicago in 1984 and 1985 while she was teaching English as a second language and taking care of her new baby. The novel springs from her passion for flamenco music, which had earlier led her to the Al-Andalus flamenco performance group, with which she performed in 1981 and 1982; Máximo Madrigal is the main male character in the novel and a second-generation flamenco artist. Although Castillo denies that the novel is autobiographical, several aspects of the female protagonist, Pastora Velásquez Aké, are reminiscent of the author's life. Pastora sings her own poems, becomes involved in liberation politics, and questions her Catholic faith. Toward the end of Sapogonia, she "rejoices over the child that was sprouting from her very soul," happy even though she has neither married Eduardo, the child's probable father, nor told him that she is with child. She plans to give birth to the child and "teach it to fly," expecting to rear him or her alone, an act of defiance even for a lapsed Catholic.
On the back page of the original Bilingual Press edition of 1990, Rudolfo A. Anaya called Sapogonia "a literary triumph." The novel is a complicated narrative about the love/hate relationship between Pastora and Máximo. Yarbro-Bejarano argues in "The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo" (1992) that Sapogonia "explores male fantasy, its potential for violence against women and the female subject's struggle to interpret herself both within and outside of this discourse on femininity," a discourse that, in Sapogonia, evolves through Pastora's web of connections with both men and women as well as through her commitment to Latino politics.
By the early 1990s Castillo was a fellow at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she gave a seminar and researched her dissertation. She received her Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Bremen in 1991 with a dissertation on Xicanisma, or Chicana feminism, subsequently published as Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (1994). Patricia Dubrava describes the book as "a collection of essays on the experience of the 'Mexic Amerindian' (Castillo's term) women living in the United States and a meditation on the recent history of Mexic activism." In this book Castillo advocates "our own mythmaking from which to establish role models to guide us out of historical convolution and de-evolution," and she believes these myths should address "our spiritual, political, and erotic needs as a people." According to Rosaura Sánchez, Castillo is a "cultural feminist" whose book "for the most part focuses on cultural differences," but Sánchez sees "a running thread of biologism in the text that would be difficult to construe as other than deterministic and essentialist."
In August 1990, before completing her Ph.D., Castillo moved to New Mexico, where she began to write her third novel. According to Bill Varble, she "had been mourning the death of her father, and recently read a book on saints to research another novel" when she sat down to write "the first chapter of So Far from God one afternoon in September of 1990."
By far her best novel, So Far from God (1993) distinguishes itself through Castillo's use of the New Mexicans' English sprinkled with Spanish, a language whose rhythm often makes the characters' English sound like Spanish. In a 1993 interview with Robert Birnbaum, Castillo describes "listening very carefully [to the New Mexicans' speech patterns] because the way you use language is the way you're experiencing life." The characters in this novel use double negatives and "code switch" (alternate) between Spanish and English as they communicate. Reading So Far from God prompted Sandra Cisneros to exult on the jacket of Castillo's book,
This Ana Castillo has gone and done what I always wanted to do—written a Chicana telenovela—a novel roaring down Interstate 25 at one hundred and fifteen miles an hour with an almanac of Chicanismo—saints, martyrs, t.v. mystics, home remedies, little miracles, dichos, myths, gossip, recipes—fluttering from the fender like a flag. Wacky, wild, y bien funny. ¡Dale gas, girl!
Other Latino critics also praised the Spanish feeling of the novel, and Jaime Armín Mejía called the novel a "contagiously fast-moving, silly, irreverent, yet wise series of tales from Nuevo Méjico." Mejía also praised the voice of the female narrator, who calls herself a "metiche mitotera," the equivalent of a busybody, who "is privy to all that transpires to everyone and everything … [and] intrudes into the novela's postmodern narrative to fill it with chisme (gossip), remedios (remedies), and recetas (recipes)." This narrator's Latin voice provides "readers a not always reliable but certainly a culturally rich understanding of the nueva mexicana community" where the novel is set.
So Far from God, Castillo's best-known novel, focuses on the lives of a New Mexican mother, Sofia, and her four daughters, who seem doomed to live chaotic lives from page one when la Loca levitates during her own funeral and ascends to the roof of the church. What follows is an intricately developed story through which the four daughters—Fé (Faith), Esperanza (Hope), Caridad (Charity), and la Loca—live their lives and die young. Fé dies from exposure to chemicals at a job that promised to help her achieve the "American Dream" to which she aspired. Esperanza, the only one of the four sisters who leaves her hometown in Tome and, thereby, the safety offered by the family, disappears during Desert Storm as she covers the war for a news station. Caridad is first attacked and left disfigured by "la malogra," the evil that lurks out in the night, and then is miraculously healed during one of la Loca's seizures. Caridad not only becomes herself again but also becomes a healer; shortly after falling in love with a woman, she takes the woman's hand and plunges off a mountain to become, perhaps, a mythological character. La Loca, a character who never leaves home, contracts AIDS from no apparent source and dies, leaving Sofia, alone and angry, to become a radical political organizer.
So Far from God is simultaneously funny and sad, as Castillo examines several different issues at once. Fé's story illustrates what can happen to Latinas who turn their backs on their culture to pursue material possessions. Sofia's story is probably the most poignant; even before she loses all four daughters, she becomes a community activist, hoping to improve the lives of the people of Tome. Because spirituality also plays a significant role in this novel, many critics consider it Castillo's homegrown version of Mexican American magic realism, but So Far from God is actually a work in which the lives of five women are realistically defined not by their imaginations but by their connections to each other and the world around them. In 1993 the novel won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award in Fiction and the National Association of Chicano Studies Certificate of Distinguished Recognition for "Outstanding Contributions to the Arts, Academia, and to Our Community." The following year, So Far From God won the Mountains and Plains Bookseller Award, and Castillo also received a second National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction.
In 1996 Castillo published Lover Boys, an uneven but interesting collection of short stories. Brian Evenson, writing for the Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring 1997), claims that "as intriguing as the book's cultural depictions is the complex way in which gender and desire are figured and refigured from story to story." Evenson recognizes in the stories a theme that runs through much of Castillo's work, "desire of all types, heterosexual and homosexual, from women who flirt with other women despite feeling themselves largely heterosexual, to the lesbian in the title story who finds herself drawn irresistibly to a young man." Reviewing the book in Library Journal (July 1996), Barbara Hoffert called the stories "terse, fragmentary pieces" but added that Castillo's "strength would seem to be in capturing character through a well-sketched situation." Likewise, Catherine Bush in The New York Times Book Review (8 September 1996) complained that Castillo has "grown a little too enamored of the sound of her own voice," which Bush described as a "discursive, conversational style," but she added that "this voice has a vibrancy that compels attention, jamming ribald humor up against pathos and melancholy desire." Donna Seaman in Booklist (August 1996) found Castillo's work "defiant, satirically hilarious, sexy, and wise," as well as "tirelessly inventive." Seaman also noted that "Castillo's strong women tend to be creative …, well traveled, independent, resourceful, sensual, given to drink and laughter and solitude, and wildly skeptical about the possibilities of finding happiness anywhere other than deep within their own vibrant souls."
In Peel My Love Like an Onion (1999), Castillo returns to one of her favorite themes: flamenco dancing and music. Castillo creates Carmen, "La Coja" ("the cripple"), whom she invests with an obsession to become a flamenco dancer although she is not a gypsy and one of her legs is afflicted by polio. As she laments at the beginning of the novel,
Nothing sadder than a washed-up dancer. I was beyond sad. One day you turn thirty-six years old. The sum of your education is a high school diploma. No other skills but to dance as a gimp flamenco dancer, and your polio-inflicted condition is suddenly worsening. Nowhere to go but down.
The trip down, however, is filled with convoluted love stories about Carmen and Manolo and Carmen and Agustín, both dancers and gypsies as well. These two men dance in and out of Carmen's life without ever committing to much more than a good time. Máximo Madrigal, the main character from Sapogonia, makes an appearance as a flamenco musician who becomes Carmen La Coja's gallant, but temporary, lover. Peel My Love Like an Onion is the first of Castillo's novels to be deeply concerned with the erotic lives of its main characters.
Carmen is in many ways defined by her nonsupportive, selfish family. They recognize her passion for dancing only when she becomes a singer earning good money. That she could become a flamenco dancer in spite of her "condition" escapes them, and they are not capable of giving her more than occasional reassurance, a lack of support that might explain why Carmen expects nothing of the men in her life. Her one purpose and joy in life is to be onstage dancing to flamenco music.
Castillo's novels, short stories, and poetry all emerge from a working-class, Latina sensibility; yet, her work has crossed social and ethnic lines to examine issues common to all people regardless of their cultural backgrounds or ethnicity. Her detailed descriptions of a specifically Latino culture are the backdrop for a body of literature that speaks to people of all cultures.
Source: Ibis Gómez-Vega, "Ana Castillo," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 227, American Novelists Since World War II, Sixth Series, edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles, Gale, 2000, pp. 83-89.
Patricia De La Fuente
In the following essay, De La Fuente discusses Castillo's roles as a teacher, novelist, and poet, and her involvements in the Chicano and feminist movement.
Ana Castillo is a prominent and prolific Chicana poet, novelist, editor, and translator whose work has been widely anthologized in the United States, Mexico, and Europe. Beginning in 1977 with her first poetry chapbook, Otro Canto (Other Song), Castillo's literary credits include the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), a nomination for the 1986 Pushcart Prize, and a 1988 nomination for the Western States Book Award for the manuscript of her novel Sapogonia (published in 1990).
Born on 15 June 1953 and raised in Chicago, where she lived with her parents, Raymond and Raquel Rocha Castillo, Ana Castillo attended public schools there and became involved with the Chicano movement in high school when she was seventeen. She credits her Mexican heritage with providing a rich background of storytelling and remembers writing her first poems at the age of nine after the death of her grandmother. Castillo received a B.A. in liberal arts in 1975 from Northern Illinois University and an M.A. in Latin-American and Caribbean studies from the University of Chicago in 1979. In 1985 Castillo moved to California, then later relocated in Albuquerque in 1990 with her young son, Marcel Ramón Herrera, born on 21 September 1983.
In addition to creative writing, Castillo has taught a wide range of subjects—including U.S. and Mexican history, the history of pre-Columbian civilizations, Chicano literature, and women's studies—at various universities. She has been invited to lecture not only at U.S. universities but also at the Sorbonne in Paris and at schools in Germany, where she completed a university reading tour hosted by Germany's Association of Americanists in June 1987. In 1989 and 1990 Castillo was a dissertation fellow in the Department of Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for poetry (1990) and a California Arts Council Fellowship for fiction (1989), and she was an honoree of the Women's Foundation of San Francisco annual celebration of women in the arts for "pioneering excellence in literature" (1988). She is the first Hispanic to be honored with a collection, the Archives of Ana Castillo, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In Chicago she has served as writer in residence for the Illinois Arts Council and in San Francisco as a board member of Aztlán Cultural / Centro Chicano de Escritores.
Castillo's poetic voice speaks for all women who have at one time or another felt the unfairness of female existence in a world designed by men primarily for men. In Otro Canto this voice is raised in protest against "The heavy pressure of it all" in a poem that questions the way things are:
i see it all the way
god should and I'm
Her first collection of poems, Women Are Not Roses (1984), includes selections from Otro Canto and her second chapbook, The Invitation (1979), along with sixteen new poems in which Castillo continues to examine the themes of sadness and loneliness in the female experience.
The Mixquiahuala Letters, an epistolary novel based on forty letters written by the character Teresa to her friend Alicia, is a provocative examination of the relationship between the sexes. A farranging social and cultural exposé, the novel examines Hispanic forms of love and gender conflict. The conclusion of the novel leaves the reader with the distinct impression that the narrator's crusade for sexual freedom and self-determination is far from an unqualified success. In her 1989 study "The Sardonic Powers of the Erotic in the Work of Ana Castillo," Norma Alarcón suggests an interesting connection between Castillo's earlier poetry (in Otro Canto and The Invitation) and her epistolary novel in that "both reveal the intimate events in the life of the speaker, combined with the speaker's emotional response to them, thus exploring the personal states of mind at the moment of the event or with respect to it." Alarcón sees the epistolary novel as "Castillo's experimentations with shifting pronouns and appropriative techniques for the purpose of exploring the romantic/erotic" and suggests that the female narrator "is betrayed by a cultural fabric that presses its images of her upon her, and her response is to give them back to us, albeit sardonically."
In Sapogonia, Castillo hits her full-fledged and sophisticated stride in an intricately woven tale of the destructive powers of male-female relationships. Told from the viewpoint of the male narrator, Máximo Madrigal, whom critic Rudolfo Anaya has described (on the book cover) as "an anti-hero who relishes his inheritance as Conquistador while he agonizes over his legacy as the Conquered," the novel traces the obsessive relationship between the narrator and the woman he is unable to conquer, Pastora Aké.
A make-believe country, Sapogonia is "a distinct place in the Americas where all mestizos reside, regardless of nationality, individual racial composition, or legal residential status—or, perhaps, because of all these." As such, it both attracts and repels Madrigal, who was raised by his Spanish father and a wise Indian grandmother, Mamá Grande, who told him, "not once but many times, the stories related to her people, their history, and her own ideas about their traditions." In this novel the survival of the native culture is entrusted to the women and is symbolically represented by the little clay statues Mamá Grande insists on placing "alongside and at the foot of the statue of the Virgin." These Indian statues reappear in Aké's Chicago room on her dresser, where she lights candles to them and calls them spirit guides. Their influence persists, as does that of Mamá Grande and Aké's own Yaqui grandmother, a reminder of a nurturing, mythological background in the turbulence of the meaningless present.
Critic Patricia Dubrava called Aké "a kind of Joan Baez, a singer and songwriter [while] Max is a kind of anti-Don Quixote on a quest for fortune and dominion" (Bloomsbury Review, March 1991). Aké's role of protest singer defines her as a woman of vision and courage, forging her personal place in a chaotic world but with her feet firmly grounded in the traditions of her heritage. Madrigal is caught between the vices of two cultures, and unlike Aké, who remains true to herself throughout, he is torn between his dual roles of conqueror and conquered. His obsession with her, the one woman in his life he cannot conquer, suggests a deeper psychological trauma that prevents him from finding satisfaction.
"The ways in which we perceive and misperceive each other is one of Castillo's most important themes," Alarcón has pointed out. This observation is particularly true of Sapogonia, which is a study of the infinite ways men and women have of misreading each other. This concern with relationships between the sexes is concisely and expertly treated in an earlier, anthologized short story about the same characters, "Antihero" (1986), in which Madrigal reviews his obsession with "her, that cancerous sore of [his] existence." This woman who provokes, in turn, the narrator's surprise, rage, murderous instincts, and obsessive desire, is never named in the story but is certainly the same enigmatic, emancipated Aké. "Why couldn't she be like Laura?" Madrigal asks himself. But that is exactly the point; Aké is not another Laura, a woman Madrigal has easily conquered and imprisoned in a marriage of convenience—for him. Aké is a woman a man may experience, "twisted like live wires in an explosion of passion," but whom he may never be sure of, never really possess, and never truly understand. Unable to conquer her and place her among his other "victims," Madrigal recognizes "her intensity, her power of destruction" and, in a sense, allows himself to be destroyed by his frustration that "such a woman exists." In Sapogonia, Castillo expands and elaborates this basic conflict, but the essence of the novel may be found in "Antihero."
Castillo has completed a manuscript on Chicana feminist theory, a series of essays titled "Massacre of the Dreamers: Reflections on Mestizas in the U.S. / 500 Years After the Conquest." She is working on a new collection of poems in English and Spanish from 1987 to the present, tentatively called "Guerillera Love Poems." Aside from this, she also has a new long work of fiction in progress, "Santos," and her novel The Mixquiahuala Letters was purchased by Doubleday for a 1992 reprint. Given the enthusiastic critical reception of her work to date, the addition of new contributions by Castillo to the increasingly prestigious canon of Chicana writers will be a welcome event indeed.
Source: Patricia De La Fuente, "Ana Castillo," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 122, Chicano Writers, Second Series, edited by Francisco A. Lomeli and Carl R. Shirley, Gale, 1992, pp. 62-65.
Agosin, Marjorie, Review of Massacre of the Dreamers, in MultiCultural Review, March 1995, p. 69.
Alarcon, Norma, "The Sardonic Powers of the Erotic in the Work of Ana Castillo," in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Baker, Samuel, "Ana Castillo: The Protest Poet Goes Mainstream," PW Interview, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 33, August 12, 1996, pp. 59–60.
Castillo, Ana, "A Chicana from Chicago," in Essence, Vol. 24, No. 2, June 1993, p. 42.
——, I Ask the Impossible, Anchor Books, 2001, pp. xvi-xvii.
——, "Introduction," in I Ask the Impossible, Anchor Books, 2001.
Hampton, Janet Jones, "Ana Castillo Painter of Palabras," in Americas, Vol. 52, January 2000, p. 48.
Olszewski, Lawrence, Review of I Ask the Impossible, in Library Journal, Vol. 126, No. 1, January 1, 2001, p. 111.
Review of I Ask the Impossible, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 248, No. 1, January 1, 2001, p. 88.
Saeta, Elsa, "A MELUS Interview: Ana Castillo," in MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall 1997, pp. 133–55.
Seaman, Donna, Review of I Ask the Impossible, in Booklist, Vol. 97, No. 3, March 1, 2001, p. 1219.
Anzaldúa, Gloria, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 2d ed., Aunt Lute, 1999.
First published in 1987, Borderlands has become a classic in Chicano border studies, feminist theory, gay and lesbian studies, and cultural studies.
Edgerton, Robert, The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo, St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Edgerton provides a thorough history of the Congo from the sixteenth century up through 2001, with a sensitive description of the land, its rich resources, and the many political struggles of its people.
Hayden, Tom, ed., The Zapatista Reader, Nation Books, 2001.
An anthology of essays, interviews, articles, and letters, this book contains some of the best writing about the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico.
McKittrick, David, and David McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland, New Amsterdam Books, 2002.
An overview of the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland since the 1960s, this book gives a balanced presentation of the people and the issues involved.
Moya, Paula, Learning from Experience: Minority Identitites, Multicultural Struggles, University of California Press, 2002.
This book discusses Chicana literature and literary criticism, examining ethnic, feminist, and contemporary literary studies.
Sandoval, Chela, and Angela Y. Davis, Methodology of the Oppressed, University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
This book describes the different forms of feminist practice employed to bring social justice out of cultural and identity struggles.