One of the most prominent and versatile Chicana writers in the United States, Ana Castillo (kahs-TEE-yoh) is the author of poetry, novels, critical essays, translations, and edited texts. The Chicago-born Castillo first became known as a poet. Her writing reflects her involvement in Chicano and Latino political and cultural movements, as well as her strong commitment to feminist and environmental concerns. Among the many grants and awards she has received are the Carl Sandburg Literary Award in Fiction in 1993 for So Far from God, a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 1987 for The Mixquiahuala Letters, and National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowships in 1990 and 1995. She has taught and lectured at several American and European universities.
Castillo began publishing poetry while she was still a student at Northeastern Illinois University, from which she graduated with a degree in liberal arts in 1975. She first published in journals such as Revista Chicano-Riqueño, and her first collection, Otro Canto, appeared in 1977. This was followed by The Invitation in 1979, the same year that she received an M.A. in Latin and Caribbean studies from the University of Chicago.
Castillo’s early poems reveal her involvement in the El Movimiento (the Chicano/Latino civil rights movement), as well as her developing feminism and her poetic use of eroticism. The theme of social protest in Otro Canto appears in poems such as “A Christmas Carol: c. 1976,” spoken in the voice of a Chicana facing divorce and poverty amid memories of her childhood dreams. Other frequently noted poems from the volume include “Napa, California” and “1975.” The Invitation displays Castillo’s disillusionment with the persistent sexism of the male-dominated civil rights movement. Castillo’s response in The Invitation is to appropriate the erotic, rejecting taboos and clichés through a female speaker who explores and defines her sexuality in her own terms.
In 1984, a year after the birth of her son, Marcel Ramón Herrera, selections from Otro Canto and The Invitation were reprinted, along with new pieces, in Women Are Not Roses. Castillo’s rejection of antifeminist stereotypes appears in the volume’s title poem, as well as in “The Antihero,” in which Castillo explores the male need to construct and objectify the feminine. My Father Was a Toltec is noted for its treatment of Chicana identity in poems such as “Ixtacihuatl Died in Vain” and the political resonance of the utopian “In My Country.”
Castillo began writing her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, at the age of twenty-three. Published ten years later, in 1986, The Mixquiahuala Letters is an epistolary novel that records the shifting relationship of two Latinas: Teresa, the author of the letters, and the artist Alicia. Their friendship becomes a record of betrayals through which Castillo explores internalized sexism and the negation of lesbian desire. Castillo’s main characters meet in Mexico; through their experiences in Mexico and the United States, Castillo probes race, class, and gender issues from a variety of perspectives. This strategy is enhanced by Castillo’s experimental provision of multiple sequences in which the letters can be read. Although the novel is dedicated to Julio Cortázar, Castillo’s strongest literary influence was the controversial Novas Cartas Portuguesas (1972) by the “three Marias” (Maria Barreno, Maria Horta, and Maria Costa), a work that inspired Castillo’s presentation of sexuality and her challenge of Catholicism.
In 1990, Castillo moved from California to Albuquerque, New Mexico. In that same year, she published Sapogonia , a novel set in the mythical country of Sapogonia, the home of all mestizos. The novel depicts the obsession of Máximo Madrigal with singer...
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and activist Pastora Aké. Máximo’s need to dominate Pastora is presented both as the legacy of the conquest, with the European-identified Máximo playing out the role of conquistador, and as a function of the cultural position of women who, like Pastora, participate in their own objectification.
The 1993 publication of Castillo’s novel So Far from God, along with the republication of Sapogonia, marked her crossover from small presses into the mainstream publishing market. Set in New Mexico, So Far from God illustrates the expansion of Castillo’s political vision to issues such as environmentalism and presents a new focus on Latino spirituality and popular culture. Castillo’s main characters, Sofia and her daughters Esperanza, Fe, Caridad, and La Loca, enact a late twentieth century version of the martyrdom of Saint Sophia. However, while Sofia’s daughters fall victim to war, toxic chemicals, and violence, Sofia becomes a paragon of strength and survival. Although tragic at times, So Far from God, like many of Castillo’s works, also reveals her ironic sense of humor.
Many of Castillo’s political concerns are presented in her book of essays Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. Castillo develops a Chicana feminism that addresses the history of the colonized woman, taking into account her sexuality and her spirituality, both of which must be freed from institutional oppression. In 1996, Castillo published the short-story collection Loverboys, which was centered on the theme of desire, both homosexual and heterosexual. The novel Peel My Love Like an Onion returned to the subject of flamenco dancing and music explored in Sapogonia and delved into the erotic lives of its main characters. Her varied works have firmly established Castillo as an influential Latina feminist writer and theorist.
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.