It was in graduate school that I was first introduced to Ana Castillo. I was searching for fictional novels with curanderas and Latina female protagonists – something that would inspire my own creative work and provide me with more insight into one half of my own culture. It wasn’t too long until I found Ana Castillo’s So Far From God and became mesmerized by the voices of one family of women and their personal stories.
I was happy to discover that she had just released a new memoir, Black Dove: Mama, Mi’jo, and Me, but even more enthusiastic to have a chance to interview an author, feminist, and woman who I admired.
Ana Castillo has not only shared with the world personal essays, poetry, and fictional works that have received awards, but she’s worked hard to bring awareness to women’s issues, especially for Chicanas, Latinas, and other women of color. Traveling far and wide, she’s inspired other women to share their stories and be the change they wish to see in the world.
Beyond just getting a glimpse of this extraordinary woman’s life in this interview, I was inspired once again by Ana Castillo to do more, to share more, and to be more, as I’m sure you will be too.
Fempotential: What does it mean to you to be a feminist today?
Castillo: FEMINISM, while fundamentally understood to be an advocacy for women’s equal rights, has always meant something different for different groups and individuals. In the case of the Chicana today, it continues to mean challenging laws and society not only on women’s equal rights but also on issues surrounding race and culture.
Fempotential: You’ve been described as a “feminist,” “Chicana,” and as “bisexual.” Is there importance in defining and owning our identities?
Castillo: Absolutely. I’m not one to think that labels must always be worn like those HELLO stickers at conferences. It is important for the individual to situate herself in a stratified society. Labels may change just as we change throughout our lives. It’s up to you.
Fempotential: Women of color often struggle with representation in the media or finding positive role models in their community or at home. How do you think we can help young girls and women of color to be successful and reach their full potential whether it is through creative works, education, or a career?
Castillo: One way is through our educational system, to advocate for teachers and a curriculum that are sensitive to issues of race and gender. The media’s reach has expanded enormously because of digital and social media but still isn’t great about representing the actual population. Women, especially those in power, need to support other women. Being vocal and always cognizant of the ways that we can alleviate the underrepresentation of girls and women is something each of us can do.
Fempotential: Who were your female role models growing up? And whom do you admire today?
Castillo: The whole concept of ‘role model’ didn’t become popular until I was in my thirties. I went to public schools and while I had more women teachers than men, they were not Latina or bilingual. My mother was hard working. She is a ‘role model’ for me in that sense. I believe I get my nose-to-the-grindstone diligence from her. I work at my writing because that is what I set out to do, not because I think of any other rewards besides the satisfaction of doing my job well.
I admire a lot of women. I understand the challenges and struggles of a woman to achieve and become a voice no matter what her message is. I have some personal heroes, like Sister Diana Ortiz, the Ursuline nun who was kidnapped and tortured in Guatemala in the 80s and today is devoted to helping other torture survivors. I admire my friend, Elena Poniatowska, for her writing but also because in her 80s she continues to be strong and outspoken about social injustices. I admire all the anonymous women out there who, like my mamá, get up every day to go to work, whether it’s to run a taco stand or clean someone’s house, so that they can provide for their family. And those same women, instead of feeling sorry for themselves, enjoy life and its pleasures. These are the women who give of themselves and give love to their children and extended family. Even when hope is most elusive, these are the women who rise up again and again. They look in the mirror and see a beautiful face and an appealing person. They make things happen and see dreams as goals. These are women who have endured a lot, much of it may be unspeakable. These are women to admire. These are women who can teach us all how to appreciate life.
Fempotential: As a single mother and feminist, did you ever struggle with trying to teach your son to understand feminism?
Castillo: No, I did not struggle to ‘teach’ him to ‘understand feminism.’ He saw me as a strong, confident woman, who provided him with all his needs and most of his desires. He saw feminism embodied in his mother when she worked, wrote, created, promoted her books, spoke in public to large audiences, and provided a home. In college he took a couple of Women Studies courses. However, in his twenties, I saw society becoming the greater influence. I felt his mostly absent father’s views, and my son’s need for his father, sometimes overriding or at least being equal to all of mine. There came a time where I regretfully saw my son viewing women in a traditional sense, women ‘need a man,’ type of thing. We continue to have discussions. He is a devoted father to a growing girl and I think he does everything to instill confidence in her at all levels. This is where I think his understanding of feminism is proving itself.
Fempotential: It’s been reported that Latina women make only 55 cents to white, non-Hispanic men – the largest pay gap among women in the United States. With that in mind, where do you think the Latina and feminist movement is today?
Castillo: It appears to be true that Latinas, primarily in unskilled labor, are among the lowest paid in this country, along with other women of color in similar situations. As I noted again, in the updated 20th anniversary edition of my book of essays, MASSACRE OF THE DREAMERS, girls and women of color make up eighty percent of the world’s impoverished work force. This is generated by globalization. There is advocacy at local levels from country to country. Imperialism doesn’t permit a worldwide feminist advocacy campaign that would effectively address the extent of abuse of female labor.
Fempotential: How can women of other races, ethnicities, and backgrounds learn about and understand the Chicana experience and the struggles they face as a group?
Castillo: The information and literature is out there. Unfortunately, many dominant groups don’t find it necessary to inform themselves about the disenfranchised, from whose labor and disadvantages they benefit. We are the nannies, housekeepers, cooks and hotel staff. We are the sexual fantasy for men but do not threaten white women’s positions in home or professionally. When an individual is ignited with what I refer to as conscientización or political consciousness, s/he sees the world differently and begins to be informed.
Fempotential: Black Dove: Mama, Mi’jo and Me discusses racial profiling and mass incarceration – a large issue in our society and one that’s very personal to you as a single mother whose son was incarcerated. How can women do their part to help end these social injustices?
Castillo: Many women, especially poor women of color, are also part of the mass incarceration phenomenon that has become a major industry in the U.S. I wrote and published about our personal experience in part to reach out to other mothers and families who have experienced a member in the family who has been incarcerated. The large majority of those incarcerated have no major financial connections or family prominence and should be sent to rehab but are sent to prison instead. They are set up to fail when they get out. They are deprived of housing and employment. These are prejudicial and persecutory laws effecting millions, hurting entire families and consequently communities—mostly struggling and of color—and legislators need to review this very seriously. Once a person has done his or her time they should not be forced to spend the rest of their lives trying to assimilate against all odds. It does not make for an evolving society. If you were locked up for possession or selling weed at 20, it is unfair to you and society that at 40 you cannot be licensed to practice law, let’s say, or that you haven’t been able to own a home because you cannot get credit, etc. We all need to look at these laws. On a personal level, it is important and means a lot to me that my book and our story speaks to other mothers whose sons have gone to prison. We are all made ashamed when a family member ends up incarcerated. I hope that by openly discussing my own experience we look at the bigger picture and, to some degree, remove the stigma of shame about this in a society where we have more people in prison than anywhere else in the world. Why? Because one thing we do well in this country is advocate for anything that makes money and prisons make money.
Fempotential: What is your hope for Black Dove? To inspire, educate? Or rather, was Black Dove just a personal journey?
Castillo: Black Dove (Paloma Negra): Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me is a memoir but some of the stories are personal essays. In the personal essay, writers address how our own stories connect with society. Memoir is a personal journey but one that may also resonate with others’ life experiences. The essays in my book cover a wide range of topics, issues, as well as a large expanse of time in my own life. The earliest essay, “My Mother’s Mexico” was written in 1993. I address being a daughter of an indigenous Mexican woman but also raising a brown son in this society. Undoubtedly, this was one objective, to share the story of my son’s spiral. I hope and think it will help other families. My long-range hope for Black Dove is that many, many people will read it, enjoy it and look for my other works. I write and publish in fiction and poetry after all these years; I think there are many potential readers who may enjoy discovering my efforts.
Fempotential: Do you think it’s important for women to share their stories (whether it be stories of trauma or success) with others online, through blogs, or in memoir form? And why?
Castillo: I do, indeed. It is the reason I began to offer public writing workshops on memoir in 2009. Over the years I’ve given workshops throughout this country and elsewhere, such as Argentina and Kazakhstan. My workshops are open to men and women but it’s mostly women who take my class. We all have stories to tell, our life is a journey. In some places, like the two countries I mentioned, we have stories impacted by our own country’s history. These accounts also serve as critical testimonials. Women, however, have not always been brought up to believe their personal stories are important or that much of what they experience should be publicly discussed. Not only is it important to serve as a witness to your life but also the workshop experience, at least the way I run it, serves in forming community, providing support, and giving affirmation.
Photos courtesy of Ana Castillo