Ana Castillo sits in her blue-walled living room clutching a soft beige pillow, her hand displaying a big yellow cameo ring with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
She doesn't consider herself a Catholic, but she wears the ring out of reverence. Besides, she believes in spirituality and positive energies.
You can feel the good, calm vibrations emanating from artworks in her Uptown duplex-portraits artists have done of her, a bright- colored altarpiece and a big painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, two small sculptures of indigenous women from Oaxaca, three framed pictures of her 17-year-old son Marcel, and a painting of the twin sisters Las Cuatas Diego.
A reknowned Latina writer in the United States, Castillo is getting ready to devote her energy to her next challenge-a newly created five-year appointment she begins this fall as a writer-in- residence at DePaul University, where she will also be teaching Latino literature.
"I think it's going to be good for both of us. DePaul is a progressive university and a community service institution," said Castillo, clad in a plain knee-length black dress and black sandals, bare legs, her thick black hair slightly falling on her face and full red lips. Definitely looking young at 47.
Castillo accepted the position mainly because her son Marcel loves Chicago and will attend DePaul University.
"(Motherhood) completely changed me as a woman. I was a very different woman before. I did not have the compassion I have now."
In her fifth and latest book of poetry, I Ask the Impossible, Castillo compiles an eclectic collection of poems about love with compassion, her son Marcel, the Aztec gods, death, friendship, the Zapatista revolution and even Nastassia Kinski.
Other recent works include a children's book, My Daughter, My Son, The Eagle, The Dove. Her book of essays Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma won the 1995 Gustaves Myers Award for outstanding book on human rights. In 1993, she garnered the Carl Sandburg Literary Award in Fiction for her novel So Far From God. She has been a teacher and guest lecturer in more than 20 colleges and universities during the past 25 years.
Castillo began working on I Ask the Impossible in 1990 after her father's death, and it was ready for publication in 1997. But then she switched publishers and the book finally came out last year.
Love me withered as you loved me new, says the poem "I Ask the Impossible," which opens the book.
"I sort of pictured my mother and father as they were growing older, but my father did not grow old, he died young (at age 57)," she said.
The walls turn from blue to yellow in the hallway of Castillo's home, and the posters and paintings continue telling her life story all the way to the kitchen.
Two of those art pieces are "My First Holy Communion"(1996) and "Carmen La Coja" (1998), both painted by Castillo herself. Carmen La Coja (Carmen The Limp), the protagonist of her 1999 novel Peel My Love Like Onion, takes a life of her own in the picture, where she comes out of a lotus.
In the kitchen, a wooden table, dyed emerald green and with hand- painted birds, stands like a monument from the Mexican state of Jalisco. Behind it there is a wooden Russian china cabinet from the 19th century, also dyed an emerald green. On the walls, pottery dishes from Puebla.
They are all as much part of Ana Castillo as Carmen La Coja, the title of the newly released Spanish language version of Peel My Love Like an Onion.
Carmen La Coja, a Chicana version of Bizet's tragic opera heroine Carmen, is a flamenco dancer with a leg rendered useless by polio who ends up keeping her two lovers and becoming a famous flamenco singer.
But she is also the symbol of Castillo's particular theory on feminism for Chicanas or Mexican-American women, which she calls Xicanisma.
It's a feminism deeply rooted in culture but one that hasn't reached an ideological cohesiveness, Castillo said. That feminism should be reached through "individual negotiation."
"In her case (Carmen La Coja), she did something that was very likely not the thing I would encourage my students to do. She already knew she was disenfrachised . . . and she went out with the gitanos (gypsies), who were even further . . . disenfrachised."
Castillo advises her female students who want to become professional "to take assessments of who we are as a people, but as individuals they have to be accountable to themselves and to their own consciousness, what can you do, what can one person do: 'I am Puerto Rican, I am from Logan Square, I know I am not going to represent all Latinos, maybe I can't even represent all the Puerto Ricans, but I can work here.' '"
This need to respond to an individual consciousness stems from Castillo's experience in the Latino nationalist movement of the 1960's and 1970's, where she said she never subscribed to "a strong nationalist line" but to the plea of other women of color.
"Very early on I started assessing the differences for myself as a woman from the male point of view. My bond is with women who were not responsible for what (Ferdinand) Marcos brought to the Philippines or for the Maquiladoras (young women, usually between 14 and 20 years old, who commonly work in bad conditions and earn below the minimum wage in manufacturing jobs along the
U.S.-Mexican border) working for American companies."
Author lives 'Impossible' dream
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Thanks to the success of her literature, Castillo can now speak up for the labor rights of the Maquiladoras or the Carmen La Cojas of the world.
"I don't see myself anymore as a helpless, anonymous voice. It also gives me a great sense of responsibility to speak about them."
Xicanisma also includes the ideas of traditional healing and spirituality, both an essential part of Castillo's life.
Cultural healers or curanderas are in her blood line.
Her grandmother was the neighborhood curandera in the late 50s, as Castillo grew up in Chicago's Near West Side, on the site of the University of Illinois east campus.
From her grandmother, Castillo learned about therapeutical massages and the natural healing powers of herbs.
It was a first step. After all, curanderismo (natural healing) is part of the Mexican indigenous culture. Castillo just didn't expect to have the strong revelation that she had in Mexico.
In 1997, after her mother died, Castillo traveled to a small town in central Mexico and met an indigenous Nahua man who was a curandero and a granicero (rainmaker). A granicero has the power to control the rains.
"When I saw him and told him that my mother had just died, he said: La tenemos que coronar (We have to crown her)," she recalled.
A few months later Castillo was crowned as a curandera and a granicera.
"When you have this type of blessing you have the support of the elder graniceros, it goes back to the time of the Aztecs. But you also have responsibilities, which are to pay respects to the universe, to God and to the native deities," she said.
One of her recent tasks as a curandera was to conduct a marriage ceremony of two friends in Baja California. The spiritual powers of healers and rainmakers influenced her latest book, Spirits, Sex, Eternal Love, which will be published next year.
"I do have a very rounded sense of our spirit, who we are, our bodies, beyond the material issue of race, gender and ethnicity," she said.
She approaches her own artwork-her first holy communion self- portrait, Carmen La Coja or a wild pig from a friend's ranch-as a healing measure only for personal use.
Aware of her widespread recognition as a writer, Castillo only has one regret: that not enough Latinos read her books.
"There are about 600,000 Mexicans in this city. If half of them bought I Ask the Impossible, it would be nominated for best seller," Castillo said. "I have seen with my own eyes working class Mexicans go to Hacienda Tecalitlan and peel $200 in cash to see one group one night. That is
O.K., but why can't you take $20 and buy your child a book and read with them?."
Confessing she reads everything, including The National Enquirer, Castillo said she has been influenced by Latin American writers such as Argentinian Julio Cortazar or Mexican Elena Poniatowska.
In Spirit, Sex, Eternal Love, Castillo revealed the protagonist is called Madame X and the action takes place in Chicago, where Castillo returned to live in 1995.
It is always about the journey, whether you are Quixote or Arawak, it's always about the journey is the first line of the book, Castillo said.
"The only thing I can do is to tell you about my journey. But to tell you that I am going to define the journey, I can't," she said, folding her arms and showing her cameo ring with the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Poet, novelist, artist, xicanista
Lives in: Uptown
Last book published: I Ask the Impossible (2001)
Working on: Spirit, Sex, Eternal Love
My Daughter, my Son, the Eagle, the Dove (2000).
Peel My Love Like an Onion (1999). Carmen La Coja (Spanish version, 2000).
So Far From God (1993).
The Mixquiahuala Letters, 1986.
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