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 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,...
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