The Early Poetry of Ana Castillo

The Early Poetry of Ana Castillo

What can Ana Castillos early sexy dancing poems tell us about Chicano, Latino and feminist dimensions of the  Mexican Chicago emergence in the 1970s?


Along with Carlos Morton and Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo ranks among the Latino writers from Chicago, who have had the greatest impact on the national level. But while Illinois artists grants, jobs and publications figured in her early development, she, like Morton and Cisneros, only matured as a writer and received fuller recognition after she left her city and state behind.

Raised in a workingclass family and living a Chicago mexicana student and working life, Castillo became active in the citys poetry world in the midâ��70s, not deeply connected with any writing group, but politically attuned to the Chicano movement nationally and to feminist trends as they began to penetrate Chicagos Latino world. With the help of Little Village activist Carlos Heredia and others, she published her first chapbook, Otro Canto (Chicago: Alternativa Publications) in 1977; two years later, she self-published a collection of ten pieces, including three in prose, entitled, The Invitation. Next, she brought together fifteen new poems to join with all seven poems from the second book and eight poems from the first to constitute parts I, II and III respectively of her more definitive collection, Women Are Not Roses (1984), published by Arte Público Press, the most important U.S. Latino publishing enterprise, which had just relocated from Chicagoland to Houston four years before.

As for Castillo’s herself, the definitive move from Chicago came in 1982, bringing her to San Francisco, where she quickly became a figure in the burgeoning Chicano literary movement of the Bay Area, serving on the board of the Aztlán Centro Cultural Chicano de Escritores, publishing her reviews and poems in a variety of journals, and giving lectures and readings in an ever-widening range of venues before moving on to New Mexico and elsewhere--at times returning to Chicago only to leave again, in a career that has sometimes seemed a dizzying adventure. While Chicago is only a nostalgic reference in the most recent section (I) of Women Are Not Roses, her early poetry reveals how childhood and adolescent memories are deeply stamped by her Chicago experience; and her writing after Women Are Not Roses--and especially My Father Was a Toltec (1988), which specifically explores her childhood and adolescent years,affirms ever more emphatically the importance of Chicago in her formation and continuing development.[1]

It is the Chicago dimension that will be stressed in this commentary, and will differentiate the approach here from other approaches to her work that have appeared elsewhere. For here, the goal is to portray Castillo’s development in relation to the recent discussion in elbeisman about the possible connections between Chicago Mexican cultural developments and the broader Latino east coast and southwest movements of the 1960s and beyond in which aspects of Chicano and of more broadly Latino culture (Puerto Rican above all), including a strong feminist infusion, find or don’t find their way into the constitution of what we have been calling the Chicago Latino cultural or artistic emergence—an emergence which would anticipate and in some respect help shape future Latino developments elsewhere as well.


Women Are Not Roses

The most striking aspect of Castillos early work is the emergence of an outspokenly erotic feminist voice, seeing sexual expression as a key to her full liberation as woman, Mexicana (or Latina) and human being, seeing the exploration of sexual experience as the essential repressed and forbidden zone, and therefore the one which must be fully released and exposed if women are to contribute fully and as women to a literature which their authentic assertion will transform. This is where most feminist commentators have tended to place her. So, in her review of Castillo’s second chapbook, The Invitation, Marisa Cantú writes:

Castillo ... daringly begins the effort to describe, define and muse over the sexual and erotic life of women.   ... [Her book] is an offer of dialogue, an entreaty to dance or erotic embrace. "Dance of the Nebulae" suggests that music is the element that can bring man and woman together, permitting a moment of timeless enchantment between the two, bringing them out of their self absorption. The ... poems ... are an experiment that begins the long journey of the self-definition of the sexual and erotic aspects of womens lives. Heretofore pretensions to and of virtue have presumed the nonexistence of womens sexual desires and have generally silenced most poets on the subject. Among Chicanas, I believe The Invitation is the first effort to break that silence. (Cantú, Third Woman I, no. 1 (1981): 82).

And Sandra Cisneros writes:

Castillo comes to mind as one Chicana who has dared to approach the sexual and erotic life of the Chicana without flinching. Castillo re-invents herself as Eve in the garden, but not as the shame-ridden victim full of remorse and regret. Instead, her Eve is a woman fully enjoying the consequences of the forbidden in "Después de probar (la manzana)" and again in "What Only Lovers": "the whole room was/Eden/taking a taste/of you .../and I wanted/to taste you/just once.”(Cisneros, "My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Chicana Writers Struggle with Good and Evil.” Paper delivered at the MLA Convention 1985)

In The Invitation, Castillo created some of the most direct, skillful, playful and comic erotic Chicano and Latino poetry of her moment. First, comes "The Invitation" itself:


Any day now

i will make you

a song

     Playfully Biting

                     a melody for dancing

                     when legs intertwine

Sometime very soon

my eyes will invite

you to create

A Masterpiece

             two bodies blending

             into a poem

           that never ends ...


Next, two excerpts that may not need translating:

Después de probar (la manzana)



Que cosita

       rica y sabrosa

       que entra y sale

       por la boca

       de mi rio ...

               con un ritmo

               que me vuelve






Ay Madre!

Me Muero!

Gato--No te vayas!

Tu--que has llegado

con el cuerno que dejas

llorar para mi-iiiiiiiiiiii!


And to provide an example in English:

Coffee Break


15 minutes

A tiny streak

of sun leaks

though a space

of unpainted glass

makes as a spotlight

for 2 talented fingers

creating fast-  




         WHAT GRACE!

The cracked mirror

reveals a winning face

eternity stops just

to applaud


she takes a modest bow

no time for an encore-

With a hum

& a shuffle

she returns to the brunch

drinking stale coffee

exchanging griefs &


And shes singing

   "Isnt She Lovely"

   on her way to her desk

   thinking of lunch

   when she has

   30 FULL minutes:

   (the 2nd performance

   is always the best!)


What Castillo has to say may seem reducible to the standard early feminism of the 1970s, but it has special application to the Mexican and specifically working class spheres of U.S. and Chicago Latino experience. A poem expressing joy and fun in sex, referring to sex without referring to love, referring to men as objects of pleasure and pretexts for poems, etc., does not register in the same way in the more repressed Chicano-Mexicano cultural sphere as it does in mainstream U.S. contexts. A poem in which a secretary masturbates and orgasms on her coffee break relishing visions of art and stardom in tune and time with her "performance" is more pathetic, perhaps even to the degree it is at once heroic and comic, especially if we consider the odds of a Latina secretarys possible chances of real-life "stardom."

The suggestion might be of course that the moment of Latina liberation is also one of cultural rejection, and that Latina stardom in literature is made through sexual flaunting that is contrary to what some might consider valid and worthy in the culture. But, for Castillo, as for other Chicana writers, the goal has seemed to be accomplishing the acrobatic feat of championing sexual and individual liberation while simultaneously affirming a continuity with traditional norms and concerns. This feat may be more readily accomplishable in an urban center such as Chicago, where the most repressive workingclass Mexican norms can move along a continuum of change that is affected by other Latin American modalities and where particular Latino nationalisms are more readily subsumed in more generalized (and therefore less reducible) Latin American or even broader cultural norms.

This is to say that the Chicago Chicana, in this case, has more alternatives than simply White or Black in her struggle for self-assertion. Since she and family are gradually part of a transformative world, and since the transformations involve lateral Latin American acculturations, the conflict between liberation from and assertion of culture may be more resolvable than in other contexts. Of course, it is still not an easy matter, and it may well involve departure, flight, distance. The daughter is la Malinche at any moment; she may be seen as betraying her culture, and even, say, the overall movement of Latino politics out of which some of her initial orientations arose. Both charges were leveled at Castillo, as they were against almost all Latina feminists, of course. Nevertheless at least lip service to the acceptance of "feminist perspectives" as part of modern progressive Latino identity is a veritable cliché of intellectual circles, even if it still doesnt play very well in some neighborhoods.

With regard to her evolving orientations, it is striking to compare the commentaries cited above to the views set forth by Luis Felipe Díaz in the preface to her first book, Otro Canto. This collection, writes Díaz.. 

forces us to face a world of dethroned gods and myths, as … Castillo confronts ... a society that insists on continuing to breath the poisons of its own destruction. ... [Her poems are for future people and for those who repudiate a past of hypocrisy and destruction[,] ... who [wish to] create a new man and woman. ... For this reason the poems ... impose an aware reader. A reader that is also in search of Otro Canto.


And Díaz cites Castillo as saying:

Throughout history ... there exists ... people brought together by a common bond popularly known as "oppression." At some point, realizing their state, they begin, ever so gradually, so subtly at first, to unite. Once becoming aware of their strength, [they] grow more determined to find ways to change their plight, alleviate their misery. I have been among these people ... These poems are a chronological summary of the development of my own social/political awareness, sometimes expressing naivete as I grasped for answers, sought solutions to seemingly insoluble problems.


A fuller step-by-step Chicago-rooted self construction of Castillo’s work will only emerge in My Father Was a Toltec. Nevertheless we can still trace a few basic contours of her evolution as a Latina feminist poet through a kind of biographical archeology in relation to these earlier publications.

First, there is the movement out of her working class backgrounds into an adulthood that is fraught with all the problems and perceptions of the average womans role in contemporary life. This perspective emerges most clearly in Otro Canto, especially in one of her poignant Chicago meditations, "A Christmas Carol: c. 1976" (pp. 55â��56). In other poems the girl-child, now adult, sees the negative possibilities of her situation in the fate of other women (including a Chicago puertorriqueña like Milagros), calls out to her mother, "Mami, .../ Must I be a Woman Now?"

Clearly the possibility coming out of Castillos early consciousness of her situation and those of other Latinas is Chicano cultural politics as they played themselves out in Chicago during the 1970s. From this perspective, the absences in Women Are Not Roses replicate the kinds of gaps common to much of Chicano history. First, we are missing "I Feel Sad," where the poet reveals the personal and political melancholy she experiences as she refuses to conform to the norms of her city:


I guess I must be wrong

to have stepped out

and say I dont belong

to the nine-to-five

struggling to keep alive crowd


And she then goes on to reveal her city identity by taking on a rap-style that can only remind us of Chicago Rican poet David Henández:


Ill rap with Johnny Carson

or maybe dick cavett some night.


She clearly has good reason to cut some of her more feeble political verses ("Canción del Revolucionario," "Desde Aztlán Hacia Anahuac 76" and "An Evening with Edward Korry 1967â��71," "Un Recado, Una Despedida"); but she has left us with her "1975" which catalogues her major preoccupations at the time, and shes even kept "Napa, California," dedicated to "Sr. Chávez," so we get the flavor of some of her commitments. But what is perhaps more important in what we dont get are the poems, "Diles: (enero 1977, chicago)" and, most striking of all, the title poem, "Otro Canto al Pueblo." The first poem speaks to her sense of frustration about the slanders she receives from unknown others (clearly people who know and read her work) in Chicago, and it affirms her will to leave: "Y me iré." She says these others are out to destroy, that they are "confundidos"--a word which implies they are confused, but also that she has won over them.

We might assume that the next poems assertive manifesto is as much a reaction as it is a cause of her disjunction from the "others," although clearly both dimensions are present. The point is, "Otro Canto al Pueblo" really implies that she will no longer sing the standard Aztlán song. So, writing in a review of Revista Chicano-Riqueñas Chicago Nosotros issue of 1977, Castillo had commented:

Certain themes seem to be consistently used by the young Latin American writer and though I personally am for ... letting the world hear of our present situations, one can only say it in so many ways before the impact of such themes has worn off. (Castillo, Review of Nosotros, in Imágenes, 3 (1978: 21. )

In this sense, "Otro Canto al Pueblo" is not simply another song, but a different one--a manifesto demanding and demonstrating a virtually new feminist direction for Chicano poetry, which is nevertheless still seen as a creation to, for and by the people. So she starts by attacking the standard Chicano image of the Aztec hero:


Moctezuma fue                       Moctezuma was

imperialista,                          an imperialist,

No fue                                  He wasnt

dios                                     god

como                                    as

Quizo creer                            he wanted

a los Esclavos.                        the slaves to believe.


As Díaz had argued, Castillo attacks myth on myth, "mentira" on "mentira." And then, she moves toward her truth:


No me Pinten de                           Dont make me into

Princesa Azteca: Esta                     some Aztec Princess: This

cara indigena, con nariz                  Indian face, with flat

chata, color de Maíz                       nose, my color of burnt

quemado ... No Mienten Jamás         corn ... Dont ever lie

de mi sangre--                             about my blood-

Sigo siendo Esclavo.                      I go on being a slave.


The last line is Ana’s parody of the famous “sigo siendo el rey.” To top it off, she uses the masculine escalvo and not esclava, even though she next speaks to how she will not have children to tell lies to, nor justify her murdered parents. The point is that she will not let cultural politics, nor the male leaders of Chicano politics, keep her enslaved to a falsification of history as she understands it. She will not maintain a definition which makes the woman who dares a malinchista traitor to supposedly noble Aztec warriors. And yet this is not a break with "la raza" but a militant affirmation:


Y Asi termina                          And so ends

este ultimo canto                     this Last song

al Pueblo.                              To the People.

Y el Primer Verso                     And the First Victorious

Victorioso a                            Verse to

Mi Gente.                               My People.


Women Are Not Roses (1984) does not end in this manner. This simultaneous break with and assertion of her relation to Chicano cultural politics is omitted and replaced by a pattern which begins with her new post-"Invitation" orientation and a turn from the concrete Chicano struggles in California (not Chicago) to her woman-centered "Counter-Revolutionary Proposition":


Lets forget

that Everything Matters

for awhile


and make a little love


And Castillo closes on what is the new center-stage of her revolutionary struggle: the relation between man and woman seen as a strategic and necessary confrontation as the only means by which the land (the real Aztlán of exploited farmworkers and cultural nationalists in Chicago and elsewhere) will "once again become ours."

"1974-76, a moment/ of Southwestern influence, our Aztlán period," Teresa, the protagonist of Castillos first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (Tempe: Bilingual Review Press 1986: 38) writes. "Chicago the hawk/the windy city that gave Dr. King the lowest reception outside Memphis/Ignorance/didnt scare me in 1976” (37). Chicago and what Castillo considered the narrow cultural ignorance of some of her Chicago peers did not scare her. However, she did leave after all; and she did not just leave the city, but she also left her initial forms of cultural nationalism, which she replaced by her feminist orientation as a key to any Latino/a revolutionary pretensions.   She would bring this orientation, initiated in Chicago and ever expanded elsewhere, back to Chicago for further explorations and development on her subsequent fictional and real returns.

[1] To avoid confusion, several years after publishing My Father Was a Toltec with West End Press, Castillo was to re-publish it along with Women are not Roses and a few other poems under the title, My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems, 1973-1988 (New York: Norton, 1995). In a subsequent essay, I will write about the important Toltec poems, as well as her Chicago representations in Sapagonia, Peel My Love Like an Onion and other texts.

Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS), U. of Illinois at Chicago. World Cultures & Literatures-Modern & Classical Languages (WCL-MCL), U. of Houston. Director Global CASA/LACASA Books.

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