Also known as: Ana (Hernandez Del) Castillo, Ana Hernandez Del Castillo
Birth: June 15, 1953 in Chicago, Illinois
Occupation: Writer, Poet, Educator
Ana Castillo is, according to Elsa Saeta writing in Melus, "One of the most articulate, powerful voices in contemporary Chicana literature," a poet, essayist, editor, and novelist whose "work has long questioned, subverted, and challenged the status quo." Writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Ibis Gomez-Vega commented that Castillo is "one of a few Mexican American writers who have attracted the attention of the mainstream reading public." Gomez-Vega further noted: "From her earliest writing [Castillo] has tried to unite those segments of the American population often separated by class, economics, gender, and sexual orientation. Her success is a tribute to her self-discipline, her courage, and her considerable literary ability."
In her writing, Castillo explores the tribulations of womanhood, offering pungent socio-political comment as she does so. The style of her work is based on established oral and literary traditions, yet at the same time it is highly innovative. She is "the most daring and experimental of Latino novelists," maintained Commonweal contributor Ilan Stavans, further noting that her "desire to find creative alternatives and to take risks is admirable." In the early 1990s, with the publication of her third novel, Castillo's success as a novelist allowed her to turn to writing full time. Previously she had served as writer-in-residence at a number of colleges. Best known for her novels So Far from God and Peel My Love like an Onion, Castillo is also the author of five volumes of poetry as well as hard-hitting essays such as those gathered in Massacre of the Dreamers.
Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1953, Castillo is the daughter of working-class parents Raymond and Raquel Castillo. Castillo credits the rich storytelling tradition of her Mexican heritage as the foundation for her writing, though outside of the family she found little initial encouragement. She attended a high school that prepared its students to join the work force as secretaries and clerical workers despite the fact that as a youth Castillo always dreamed of having a career in the visual arts. But Castillo knew, as she told Saeta, that painting "would not have been considered a real profession for me." According to her family background, she was "supposed to be . . . a file clerk." Lack of typing talent, however, saved her from this, as well as an aversion to authority.
"But I love to draw — I always loved to draw and I always liked to write," she told Saeta. "I've written since I was very little." When she was nine years old, she wrote her first poems following the death of her grandmother. In high school and college, Castillo was active in the Chicano movement, using her poetry to express her political sentiments. In college, however, she found that she literally could not draw anymore, convinced by the university system that she had no talent for it. So she concentrated on writing and won much encouragement from friends. By the time she graduated from college, she was already publishing her poetry in magazines and anthologies. Remembering her negative experiences at painting classes which, by a combination of sexism and racism, discouraged her from painting, Castillo was careful never to take writing courses. She told Saeta that she was afraid some instructor would tell her "that I had no right to be writing poetry, that I didn't write English well enough, that I didn't write Spanish well enough." Instead she found her own poetic voice without the benchmark of other poets and teachers.
Out of college, Castillo first earned her living as an instructor in ethnic studies and history, and as poet-in-residence at various universities. Her first published volumes of verse--Otro Canto, The Invitation, and Women Are Not Roses — "examine the themes of sadness and loneliness in the female experience," according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Patricia De la Fuente. "[They speak] for all women who have at one time or another felt the unfairness of female existence in a world designed by men primarily for men."
In the mid-1980s, Castillo turned her hand to fiction. Her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, was described by De la Fuente as "a far-ranging social and cultural exposé." Through the device of letters exchanged over a ten-year period between Teresa, a California poet, and her college friend Alicia, a New York artist, The Mixquiahuala Letters explores the changing role of Hispanic women in the United States and Mexico during the 1970s and 1980s and the negative reaction many conservative Hispanic and Anglo men felt toward their liberation. Castillo created three possible versions of Teresa and Alicia's story — for the "Conformist," the "Cynic," and the "Quixotic" — by numbering the letters and supplying varying orders in which to read them, each with a different tone and resolution. Her next novel, Sapogonia: An Anti-Romance in 3/8 Meter, tells the tale of Maximo Madrigal, the male narrator, and his obsession with Pastora Ake, the only woman he is unable to conquer. De la Fuente declared: "Castillo hits her full-fledged and sophisticated stride in an intricately woven tale of the destructive powers of male-female relationships."
The novel So Far from God was Castillo's first to be widely read and reviewed. The lengthy narrative follows the life of one strong Latino woman, Sofi, and her four daughters. Esperanza, the eldest, graduates from college and becomes a television newscaster, but finds her life empty and unhappy despite her apparent success. Caridad, the beauty of the family, squanders her life in a series of one-night stands. Fe, seemingly the most "normal" sister, goes into a year-long trance when her fiancée leaves her. The youngest, known as La Loca ("The Crazy One"), dies on her third birthday, only to be magically resurrected and regarded thereafter as a saint. Castillo's customary social comment is supplied through the voice of the narrator, who describes herself as "highly opinionated."
Barbara Kingsolver stated in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that So Far from God belongs to the genre of magic realism frequently identified with prominent South American writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and others. Yet, in Kingsolver's view, Castillo's book stands apart because of its humor and easy readability. "Give it to people who always wanted to read One Hundred Years of Solitude but couldn't quite get through it," she advised. According to Stavans, "The novel's intent is original: to parody the Spanish-speaking telenovela, e.g., the popular television soap operas that enchant millions in Mexico and South America." Yet Stavans criticized the novel as the least successful of all Castillo's works. "The experimental spirit is absent here," he complained. "The terrain is overtly sentimental and cartoonish. . . . The novel is uneven, conventional, and often annoying." Still, he expressed his strong belief that "in due time, [Castillo's] creativity will match her passion to experiment and the outcome will be formidable."
Ray Gonzalez agreed in Nation that So Far from God is overcomplicated, stating, "Castillo's novel takes on too much. It is full of stories told by too many characters who fade in and out of the vague plot." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called this third novel "inventive but not entirely cohesive," while Belles Lettres contributor Irene Campos Carr also admitted that, "The author's tendency to try to include everything in this book seems forced, and at times become intrusive." However, Carr's overall assessment was favorable: "The story . . . catches the reader in a net of surprises as the narrator carefully details folklore, new Mexican recipes, home remedies, and more."
Castillo expressed her feminist concerns in another form in Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. This book, which is based on Castillo's doctoral work, explores the Chicana experience and the historical and social implications of Chicana feminism. It is a "provocative" collection, according to Marjorie Agosin in MultiCultural Review, who praised Castillo as "lyrical and passionate" and "one of the country's most provocative and original writers." Castillo coined the word "Xicanisma," a socially committed and politically active brand of Chicana feminism, in essays that are "bristly" and "provocative," according to Booklist contributor Mary Carroll, and which "will be a stimulating addition to ethnic and women's study collections." Reviewing the book in Progressive, Matthew Rothschild called Massacre of the Dreamers a "powerful collection of essays on Chicana feminism" with an "insistent demand for justice."
Reviews for Castillo's first collection of stories, Loverboys, were consistently positive. The twenty-two stories are about all kinds of relationships, including straight and gay sexual relationships as well as familial love. The stories take place in mostly urban settings and are dominated by strong Latina characters. Racial and cultural issues are explored as well as the sexual and personal dynamics of each situation.
In a review of Loverboys for Booklist, Donna Seaman made a strong connection between all of Castillo's work: "Whether [she] is writing poetry, essays, or fiction, her work sizzles with equal measures of passion and intelligence." In Loverboys Seaman found the author "defiant, satirically hilarious, sexy, and wise." Catherine Bush wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the collection of stories was "seductive, loquacious, full of infectious vigor, sometimes defiant, often confessional and (like all lovers, I suppose) at times annoying, rambling into the seemingly inconsequential." An enthusiastic reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked, "The vitality of Castillo's voice, and the fully engaged lives of her hot-blooded characters, endow her first collection of short stories with earthy eroticism and zesty humor" and reflected, "The world of Castillo's literary art resembles the cinematic bohemia depicted by Pedro Almodovar, and her inventive vignettes convey a volatile magic of such a world."
The success of Castillo's fiction does not indicate any change of purpose on Castillo's part, according to Samuel Baker in Publishers Weekly: "If Loverboys bids to occupy the mainstream of contemporary fiction, it nonetheless retains strong connections to Castillo's tremendously varied, and often quite radical, previous body of work." Indeed, such radical thinking is found in an editing project published by Castillo in the same year as Loverboys, a collection of writings about the patron saint of Mexico. Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe was conceived by editor Julie Grau and accepted by Castillo because "what we could call the feminine principle is too absent from — is too denigrated by — Western society," as she noted in a Publishers Weekly interview. Castillo, not a practicing Catholic, asserted that she would love to see the book banned by the Catholic church.
The Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to an Indian man, who later converted to Catholicism, in 1531 and has since become a complex religious, cultural, and feminist symbol. Such complexity is reflected in the essays, poetry, and fiction commissioned by Castillo, in works by authors including Sandra Cisneros, Richard Rodriguez, Ruben Martinez, Luis Rodriguez, Rosario Ferre, Octavio Paz, Elena Poniatowska, Pat Mora, and Denise Chavez. Donna Seaman explained in Booklist that Castillo's virgin is "a transcendent spiritual figure revered as a manifestation of the cosmic female force," and as such is protective and maternal. Seaman called the book a "profoundly moving and original collection of writings." Robert Orsi described the book in Commonweal: "These are not works of sweet nostalgia and childhood memory but fierce, troubled, and troubling accounts of the writers reengagement with [the Virgin] in the circumstances of their lives now, often long after some of them had rejected her. The essays, poetry, and fiction in this extraordinary collection record what becomes possible and necessary in the presence of la Virgencita, what experiences, perceptions, and feelings she makes accessible." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly praised the "marvelous" stories and poems and recommended them to readers interested in going beyond traditional religious teachings "to a broader horizon in which the religious and cultural intersect."
Following the 1996 publications of Loverboys and Goddess of the Americas, Samuel Baker dubbed Castillo "one of the most prominent Latina writers in the U.S." in Publishers Weekly. At the time, Castillo reflected, "I was a Chicana protest poet, a complete renegade — and I continue to write that way." In several works from the cusp of the new millennium, Castillo showed not only her versatility, but also her ability to reach a wide audience with her message.
With My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove, Castillo presents two long poems or chants about Aztec and Nahuatal instructions for youths preparing for traditional rites of passage. Castillo explained in Publishers Weekly, "These poems are teachings from my ancestry . . . hundreds of years old, from the time of the conquest of the Americas, and yet applicable today." Reviewing the book in School Library Journal, Ann Welton observed that Castillo "reworks ancient chants into modern forms" in a poetic text that "celebrates the rites of passage of a young person's life." Welton concluded that Castillo's book is a "timeless work of art that expresses the hopes and dreams of parents of both eagles and doves." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that the two odes "emphasize the importance of honesty, self-respect and hard work," while Booklist critic Linda Perkins found the volume to be an "attractive addition to Aztec culture" with a "handsome blend of art and poetry [that] makes this a fitting offering for contemporary rites of passage."
In Castillo's 1999 novel Peel My Love like an Onion, a Chicana woman tells a story about the Chicago gypsy community. Carmen — "La Coja" or "the Cripple" — is obsessed with the idea of becoming a flamenco dancer, even though she is not a gypsy and even though one of her legs has been affected by polio. She is at the end of a hard-won career as a dancer, and now the affects of polio are coming back. Added to that, her two gypsy lovers abandon her. After almost two decades of earning her living with sensuous dancing, Carmen is suddenly reduced to working in a sweatshop and other menial jobs. In the end, however, Carmen is, as are many of Castillo's protagonists, a survivor. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called Peel My Love like an Onion "sardonic and seductive," and concluded, "As careful an achievement as the patient peeling of an onion, this compulsively readable narrative should delight, and expand, Castillo's audience. Gomez-Vega called Peel My Love "the first of Castillo's novels to be deeply concerned with the erotic lives of its main characters."
Castillo also published a new volume of poetry in 2001, I Ask the Impossible, which collects her verse work of the past eleven years and "presents poems alight with stubborn love, crackling wit, and towering anger," according to Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman. Lawrence Olszewski, reviewing this fifth collection of poetry in Library Journal, noted that Castillo "enjoys an enviable reputation as a novelist, essayist, and poet, the latter evident in this collection."
Castillo's is a voice that speaks from deeply held beliefs and deep identification with the Chicana movement, though her works cut across gender and political lines, speaking to the common thread of humanity in each reader. As Gomez-Vega summed up in Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Castillo's novels, short stories, and poetry all emerge from a working-class Latina sensibility; yet her work has crossed social and ethnic lines to examine issues common to all people regardless of their cultural backgrounds or ethnicity. Her detailed descriptions of a specifically Latino culture are the backdrop for a body of literature that speaks to people of all cultures."
Born June 15, 1953, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Raymond and Rachel Rocha Castillo; children: Marcel Ramon Herrera. Education: Northern Illinois University, B.A., 1975; University of Chicago, M.A., 1979; University of Bremen, Ph.D., 1991. Hobbies and other interests: Painting. Addresses: Home: Chicago, IL.; Office: c/o Susan Bergholz, 17 West 10th St., Suite 5, New York, NY 10011.
American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1986, for The Mixquiahuala Letters; honored by Women's Foundation of San Francisco, 1987, for "pioneering excellence in literature"; Women of Words Honoree, San Francisco Women's Foundation, 1988; California Arts Council fellowship for fiction, 1989; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for poetry, 1990, 1995; New Mexico Arts Commission grant, 1991; Carl Sandburg Literary Award in Fiction, 1993, and Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, 1994, both for So Far from God; Gustaves Myers Award, 1995, for Massacre of the Dreamers; Sor Juana Achievement Award, Mexican Fine arts Center Museum, Chicago, IL, 1998.
Writer, 1975 — . Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa, CA, instructor in ethnic studies, 1975; Illinois Arts Council, writer-in-residence, 1977; Northwestern University, lecturer in history, 1980-81; Urban Gateways of Chicago, poet-in-residence, 1980-81; San Francisco State University, instructor in women's studies, 1986-87; German Association of Americanist reading tour of Europe, 1987; California State University at Chico, visiting professor of creative writing and fiction, 1988-89; University of California, Santa Barbara, dissertation fellow, 1989-90; Department of English, University of New Mexico, instructor, 1989, 1991-92; Mount Holyoke College, professor of bilingual creative writing, 1994.
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 42. Gale, 2002.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2004.