“While I Was Gone a War Began” is a narrative or lyric poem, a type of poem that is noted for having a lone character speaking about a personal concern. This definition truly fits Ana Castillo’s poem about war and other violence because she wrote the poem as a social activist in reaction to disturbing world events. Poetry is considered an ideal medium for protest because the structure of a poem requires that strong emotions be stripped to their barest expression. In “While I Was Gone a War Began” Castillo certainly achieves the expression of strong emotions and manages to tie together a number of issues in a short amount of space, including the relevance of her life as a writer.
It was almost inevitable that Ana Castillo would grow up to put a Chicana imprint on feminist and political causes. She was born in 1953, right at the beginning of a time in America when people began to rise up to claim their civil rights and question many social institutions. The Korean War was just ending, but social problems in the United States were stirring up the winds of dissent. During the summer of Castillo’s birth in Chicago, there was a huge race riot in protest of integrated housing there. That same year, President Eisenhower authorized “Operation Wetback,” which directed the Immigration Service to arrest and deport over 3.8 million Chicanos over the next five years. The use of the derisive term “wetback” in the name of the project indicates the extent of prejudice and discrimination directed at Mexican Americans at the time. This oppression is still evidenced in the relationship of the “gringo ranchero over the Mexican illegal” that Castillo mentions in the poem. As a Chicana activist, Castillo is very aware of the way that border ranchers take advantage of illegal immigrants from Mexico, using their status as a threat to enforce subjugation and exploitation.
When Castillo was a child, hers was the only Mexican family in an Italian neighborhood. Their Italian landlord would not allow them to use the front door and insisted that Castillo’s mother scrub the front-entry stairs on her knees every Saturday morning as a condition of their lease. As Castillo later wrote in “A Chicana from Chicago” in Essence, she grew up with a “strange sense of ongoing vigilance and repression.” Those circumstances made an indelible impression. From then on, being a member of a minority of color, being a member of a Hispanic culture, and being female defined her life and determined her mission in life as a writer.
As Castillo entered her teenage years, the situation for Chicanos was such that life was a struggle and social opportunities were limited. She remembers being subjected to police harassment because of being a Chicana. Considering the conditions Castillo experienced in Chicago, it is no wonder that the Mexican American communities in the Midwest agitated for change and joined the Chicano Civil Rights movement, even though their issues were different from those in the Southwest, where the movement was made famous. At the same time, the civil rights demonstrations by African Americans were grabbing the headlines. In her article for Essence, Castillo comments:
I am very familiar with police-state mentality. I was a minor when I witnessed the riots after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination  and saw the city go up in flames from my back porch. I remember the national guard marching into my neighborhood shopping center.
Castillo’s memories of harassment, racial hatred, and a police state bring to mind the third stanza of “While I Was Gone a War Began,” where the question is asked “Who is the last racist?” and references are made to the tyranny of colonial rule. The latter is illustrated in the poem by “the Mexican official over the Indian,” a reference to the Mexican...
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