Introduction

Ana Castillo 1953-

(Full name Ana Hernandez Del Castillo) American novelist, poet, essayist, editor, playwright, short story writer, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Castillo's career through 2000.

Castillo is a highly respected contemporary Chicana writer. Her poetry sheds light on the struggles of victimized people, but at the same time highlights the simple joys and dreams of the downtrodden. Her novels and essays focus on the plight of Chicana women and challenge patriarchal societies that fail to recognize women's individuality. Castillo's strong beliefs in feminist and Chicana issues are reflected in her writings, which are noted as constituting socio-political demands for fairness and equality.

Biographical Information

Castillo was born on June 15, 1953 in Chicago, Illinois, to Raymond Castillo and Raquel Rocha Castillo. Her parents were struggling working-class Mexican Americans. Castillo began writing poems at the age of nine, following the death of her grandmother. She attended public schools and during her childhood was constantly aware of her ethnic roots, which stood in contrast to Chicago's caucasian mainstream society. In high school, Castillo became active in the Chicano movement, utilizing her writing skills to compose protest poetry. She attended a secretarial high school, but soon realized that a career as a secretary held no promise for her. After attending Chicago City College for two years, she transferred to Northeastern Illinois University, where she received a B.A. in liberal arts in 1975. Castillo then moved to California, where she taught ethnic studies for a year at Santa Rosa Junior College. In 1977, she returned to Chicago, where she served as writer-in-residence for the Illinois Arts Council. Castillo's first chapbook of poems, Otro Canto, was published in 1977. In 1979, Castillo earned an M.A. in Latin-American and Caribbean studies from the University of Chicago. From 1980 to 1981, she served as poet-in-residence for Urban Gateways of Chicago, and in 1985, Castillo returned to California to teach at San Francisco State University and to serve as an editor for Third Woman Press. Her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, was published in 1986 and received the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award. Castillo was honored by the Women's Foundation of San Francisco for “pioneering excellence in literature” in 1987. She taught Chicano humanities literature at Sonoma State University in 1988, creative writing and fiction at California State University from 1988 to 1989, and Chicana feminist literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara as a dissertation fellow/lecturer for the Chicano Studies Department. Castillo received a California Arts Fellowship for fiction in 1989 and a National Endowments for the Arts Fellowship in 1990. She received her Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Bremen in 1991, writing her dissertation on “Xicanisma,” a term she created to describe Chicana feminism. This dissertation was published as Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (1994) and received the Gustaves Myers Award. Castillo's third novel, So Far from God (1993), won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award in fiction in 1993 and the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award in 1994. Castillo subsequently received a second National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1995. In April 2000, a historical mural featuring Castillo and other notable Chicagoans was unveiled on the 103rd floor of the skydeck of the Sears Tower building in Chicago, Illinois.

Major Works

Castillo began her literary career as a poet. Her first three published collections, Otro Canto, The Invitation (1979), and Women Are Not Roses (1984), are filled with poems that focus on women's issues. She embraces a woman's desire for identity and sexuality, traits that the Mexican male-dominant society and the Catholic church fail to recognize. Castillo continued to explore these ideas in her first novel, the epistolary Mixquiahuala Letters. This work examines the relationship between two women, Teresa and Alicia, solely through correspondence. The letters are in no certain order, and Castillo invites the reader to read these letters in three different arrangements to gain different insights: Conformist, Cynic, and Quixotic. The insights into the protagonists' personalities and beliefs remain the same, but with each different reading, the outlook of the novel changes. Castillo's next novel, Sapogonia (1990), features a male protagonist, Máximo Madrigal. Máximo fits Castillo's definition of an anti-hero, a man who believes his actions are above reproach and is a hero in his own mind. His abuse of and control over women is self-justified, and at times, even beneath his notice. He becomes obsessed with Pastora Aké, who refuses to be controlled by him, a defiance that he cannot allow and subsequently leads him to murder her. In 1993, So Far from God was published and became Castillo's first widely read and reviewed work. The novel follows the life of a strong Chicana woman, Sofi, and her four daughters, Esperanza, Fe, Caridad, and La Loca. All of the women endure numerous trials and tribulations stemming from the male-dominated culture, the Catholic Church, and white American society. The four daughters each die unusual and untimely deaths, yet the novel emphasizes the importance of women taking control of their destinies. Castillo stresses the peace that may be realized by seizing control of one's life and underscores the underlying inherent magical properties of being a woman. In 1994, Castillo published her doctoral dissertation, Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. Xicanisma is a word that Castillo coined to encompass feminist and Chicana issues. In the essays, she attempts to uncover sexual and gender-based discrimination and describes how white feminism has had little effect on the liberation of the Chicana. Loverboys (1996) is a collection of short stories that explore the dynamics of heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Several stories return to themes of discrimination, including an examination of the biases against homosexuality and overt sexual behavior by women. In Peel My Love like an Onion (1999), Castillo returned to the novel format. The protagonist of the book, Carmen, is a woman who is obsessed with becoming a flamenco dancer even though one of her legs is afflicted by polio. Her selfish and insensitive family is unsupportive of her endeavors and constantly ridicule her dreams. My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove (2000) is a work consisting of two long poems based on Aztec and Nahuatal instructions to youths facing rites of passage. The poems relate teachings from Castillo's ancestry that are several hundred years old, yet are still applicable to the modern world. I Ask the Impossible (2001) is a new collection of poems, several of which focus on Castillo's young son as he grows and matures.

Critical Reception

Critical reception to Castillo's work has been largely favorable. Critics have recognized Castillo's efforts to shed light on feminist and Chicana concerns in her poetry and prose. Commentators have complimented her poems for being lyrical, straightforward, and successful in capturing the essence of a proud Chicana woman in a society dominated by white males. Reviewers have consistently noted Castillo's natural poetic abilities that many claim are apparent in her fiction. Her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, received wide critical praise. The technique of offering three different courses of reading has been lauded as insightful and thought to contribute to a deeper understanding of the characters. Critics were divided over Castillo's third novel, So Far from God. While a handful of reviewers found the novel's magical realism unoriginal and a detraction from the overall message, others have praised the book for its important empowerment themes and believe this work to be Castillo's most important novel to date.