When something bad happens to you, you are a victim. If you fight to overcome it you are a survivor. If you then make it your cause to fight for others, you are a warrior.
Ana Castillo is a warrior. She is a warrior with a brilliant mind and a wickedly witty tongue. Her take-no-prisoners view of the Chicano experience plumbs the range of Mexican and Mexican-American history, from pre-conquest to modern day. With all the skill imprinted by her Mayan ancestors, she weaves reality, the supernatural, spirituality, dualism, sexuality, sexism and classism into the warp and weft of her works. She has taken on her Chicana heritage, both defying it and defining it.
In her poetry, essays, novels, and plays, she examines the Chicano world view through the lens of what she calls Xicanism, especially the Xicanisma of Chicano women. As she describes it, “Xicanisma is an ever present consciousness of our interdependence specifically rooted in our culture and history. Although Xicanisma is a way to understand ourselves in the world, it may also help others who are not necessarily of Mexican background and/or women. It is yielding; never resistant to change, one based on wholeness not dualisms. Men are not our opposites, our opponents, our ‘other’.”
Her novels snap with gritty wit and wisdom as she illustrates the complexities of being Xicanisma. It overlays everything: family, careers, relationships, sexuality. She says she likes to look between the absolutes, between the black-and-white, either/or, and burrow into the gray areas. In that gray, she finds truths that transcend ethnicity, religion or sexuality and speak to the core of us all.
In Castillo’s recent novel, Give It To Me, forty-something fashionista Palma Piedras chews through affairs with her ex-con cousin and a butch lesbian in her search for the meaning of life. Abandoned by her parents and raised with her cousin in her grandmother’s highly dysfunctional home, Palma is going through an epic mid-life crisis. “When she thought about the future it looked like the surface of Mars or a Wal-Mart parking lot. Hostile and non-trekable. Holy Cow. Her problem wasn’t being forty plus. She had become a Nihilist Mulch.” Many of us will recognize those WTF moments when we wonder how the hell we got here and where to go next.
Through it all, Palma remains a warrior, as does Castillo. Born and raised in Chicago’s Little Italy, she says she probably grew up more Chicagoan than Chicana. Her father’s family had lived in Chicago for nearly a hundred years, and her mother immigrated to Chicago from Mexico to find work. In her eyes, she was a born American. But to her neighbors, she was brown. She was “other,” with no real sense of what that otherness meant.
In college, she began to find her identity as Chicana. Growing up, she says her factory worker parents were not very sociable within the small Mexican community. “So it was a bit isolating. I had a lot of mixed feelings about my identity and my family, and as time went on, questioning a lot of things as a woman. I was a self-styled feminist,” Castillo recalls. Chicago in the 1960s sizzled with protests. The Democratic Convention, Martin Luther King’s visit there, “where he got the worst reception except for Memphis,” the VietNam war and all the 60s activism shaped and marked her, she says.
While others advocated waging peace, Castillo went to war. Though she began writing as a child, she first wanted to be a fashion designer. Lacking the connections to get into the design schools she wanted, she studied first at Chicago City College before completing her BS in art at Northeastern Illinois University. In college, there were few women’s studies, much less Mexican-American studies. She set about to change that, becoming a lecturer to fund her Master’s and Doctorate degrees. She was delighted when her books began appearing in school curricula, and infuriated when her books, and all Mexican-American studies, were banned by the Tucson school district.
Though most of her works draw from her own experiences and feelings as a single Chicana mother, activist, and lover of men and women, she has not written her own story until now. With her son facing his own challenges as a brown man making his way in a white society, she has written Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me (Life Stories), due in May, 2016.
With her trademark humor, she writes about her son, and The Affair with the woman she loved. In the days when everything was black and white, gay or straight, here she was, in the gray. She was brown. She was bisexual. She was an outspoken Xicana activist who silenced herself to keep her son’s father from gaining custody.
Today, her son is grown. The One is ancient history. She is no longer silent. Indeed, she is a proud, in-your-face Xicana who said in a keynote address: “First her books get banned in Tucson, now she’s made a breakthrough in feminine spirituality. This is a dangerous woman!”
She is at home with her sexuality. In her 1979 poetry book, The Invitation, she wrote of bisexual desires, and the right to have any desires. It appeared then that no one was interested in the offer. So when Give It To Me was announced as the 2014 Lambda Literary Award winner for Bisexual Fiction, she says, “I was stunned.”
All the battles on her journey to that moment streaked through her mind. She took a breath.
“In 1979, I issued an invitation,” she told the audience. “Thank you, Lambda, for RSVPing.”
For more information on Ana Castillo, visit anacastillo.com