Carlos César Arana Castaneda (kahs-tahn-NAY-dah) is a controversial anthropologist whose novelistic writings have attracted a large following. He claims to have been born in São Paulo, Brazil, on December 25, 1935. Some reference works concur with this place of birth but list December 25, 1931, as the date. Castaneda claims that he was born into a prominent Italian family of another name, that his mother died when he was a child, and that his father was a professor of literature. According to his story, he legally took the name Castaneda in 1959. Yet United States immigration records indicate that he was born in Cajamarca, Peru, on December 25, 1925, the son of César Arana Burungaray, a goldsmith, and Susan Castaneda Nova. According to these records, he was using the name Castaneda as early as 1951. When confronted with these discrepancies, Castaneda dismissed them as inconsequential.
Castaneda graduated from the Colegio Nacional de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and later studied painting and sculpture at the National School of Fine Arts in Lima. In 1951, he immigrated to Los Angeles, California. He initially studied psychology at Los Angeles City College between 1955 and 1959. In the latter year, he became a student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he received a B.A. in anthropology in 1962. He studied intermittently at UCLA over the next nine years, earning an M.A. in 1964 and a Ph.D. in 1970. While a student, Castaneda spent five years in Mexico, apprenticed to a Yaqui sorcerer. It was his account of this apprenticeship that would bring him literary celebrity.
Castaneda’s field of graduate study was ethnomethodology, and as early as 1960 he had set out to study the ritual use of medicinal and psychotropic plants by American Indians in the southwestern United States. In the summer of that year, he met Don Juan Matus, an aged member of the Yaqui tribe, who was reputed to have extraordinary powers. First in Arizona and later in Sonora, Mexico, Don Juan initiated Castaneda into the ritual use of peyote and other hallucinogens. By the autumn of 1965, Castaneda had almost come to regard the visionary states shared with the old Indian as an alternate reality, one totally at odds with the rationalistic Western tradition. Castaneda turned the notes he had taken during his apprenticeship into a master’s thesis. In 1968, the University of California Press published the work under the title The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. The modest run of two thousand copies excited great interest. The book was reissued as a paperback and immediately became a best-seller. It was taken up by the antiestablishment counterculture,...
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