Omar Sigfrido Castañeda was born on September 6, 1954, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, but grew up in Michigan and Indiana after his family moved to the United States. Although he became an American citizen in 1986, he returned to Guatemala on numerous occasions to study Mayan life and culture for his novels, short stories, and picture book.
Before becoming a respected novelist and English professor, Castañeda joined the military, where he served for four years in avionics (electronics used in airplanes) communications maintenance. After his service in the military, he attended Indiana University in Bloomington, where he earned a B.A. in 1980 and an M.F.A. in 1983. When he later became an educator, his work took him to Florida, Washington, and China. His wife's work as an anthropologist allowed the couple to travel to foreign countries such as Mexico and China as well as to return to Guatemala.
Castañeda was an award-winning writer, earning such prestigious honors as an Ernest Hemingway fellowship, a Critchfield Research Award, a Fulbright Central American Research Grant (during which he wrote Among the Volcanoes), and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Some of his work reflects the magic realism style so popular in Central America. His primary literary influences were Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Miguel Angel Asturias.
Castañeda's work is characteristic of the new Latin American style of literature that combines emotions and aesthetics with strong ethnic and political viewpoints. In a Booklist article, Rosemary Brosnan quotes Castañeda: ‘‘You cannot separate politics from art. One can only ignore or obfuscate the politics in art. Those who try to separate the two are really sanctioning the dominant view.’’ This sentiment accounts for the fact that he often used his writing to express his concern for peace and justice in Guatemala.
Castañeda died of a heroin overdose in January 1997. He was a professor of writing at Western Washington University at the time, and his death came as a shock to the campus. He is survived by his wife and two children.