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

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

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

Another recent work, Psst … I Have Something To Tell You, Mi
, 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
, 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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