Passion, Poetry, and Power

Chicana Author Ana Castillo Deftly Explores Human Themes

by Felicia M. Tomasko

Though renowned as an unabashed activist writer, Ana Castillo said she is also well known for guarding her privacy. Even so, next Thursday, May 25, as the UCSB’s annual Edwin and Jean Corle Memorial lecturer, Castillo will speak candidly about her craft, or what she describes as working with filigree to artfully arrange words into poetry, prose, essays, plays, children’s books, journals, blogs, or speeches. Although her method of expression jumps around a bit, there’s the common theme of politics and social justice that’s at the heart of everything she does. She’s passionate about human rights and human stories, which fuels her fight against racism, classism, and the obstacles that women face. It’s a fight that’s in her blood, which is why more than 25 years ago, Castillo said she “decided that writing would be the activism.” Today, she’s considered one of the foremost Chicana role models.

Her writing activism became famous with her first novel, 1986’s The Mixquiahuala Letters, which garnered her an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Since then, her fiction and poetry have earned a Carl Sandburg Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. All that from a self-taught writer who learned the discipline necessary for professional writing by journaling, a subject she is teaching this semester at DePaul University in Chicago. “I must admit,” Castillo explained recently via telephone, “I am very obsessive about writing.”

That obsession led to her latest work, Watercolor Women Opaque Men, a novel of three-line stanzas whose rhythm is hypnotic and mesmerizing to read. Primarily the story of one woman’s struggle through poverty, the novel also interweaves the lives of women and men making their way through the economic borders of identity. Every word choice is careful, melding meaning, cohesion, and the storyline with the sheer rhythmic nature of the words.

Another recent work, Psst … I Have Something To Tell You, Mi Amor, is Castillo’s first play, which just finished a run at the Atheneum Theater in Chicago. It was offered free, with donations accepted for the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition. Mi Amor is the intense story of Sister Diana Ortiz, who is currently alive and working in Washington, D.C., but was tortured in Guatemala as a missionary. Castillo read about Sister Ortiz in a magazine, and explained, “It called to me intellectually, as a woman of color, as a Latina. It called to my heart. It cannot not call to the heart — what she went through, what she represents. It is a story very worthy and very dramatic. … It is a painful story fraught with political controversy; just the topics that draw me to writing.” Castillo first wrote about Ortiz’s story in a poem, published in I Ask the Impossible, before weaving it into a play, which premiered in 2003 at Chicago’s Goodman Theater summer literary festival.

In addition to keeping up with her journal, meeting deadlines (she just submitted her newest novel to the publisher — on time — on May 1), and overseeing the production of Mi Amor, Castillo expounds regularly on her Web site’s blog ( It’s a good format for her because, she explained, “I am drawn to so many things on any given day that I have so few opportunities to discuss. … I talk about the process of writing, as well as the political topics that draw my attention.” Recent blogs cover everything from the audience response to Mi Amor, musings on chick lit, an interview with an Arabic journalist in Jordan, and thoughts on the complicated issue of immigration laws, globalization, and job shuffling.

Clearly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s her blog, her play, her novels, or her poetry — Castillo’s sharp wit, biting humor, and precise words always manage to penetrate.

4•1•1 Ana Castillo will give the 43rd Annual Edwin and Jean Corle Memorial Lecture at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, May 25, at 8 p.m. The talk is free. Call 893-3535 and see

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