Ana Castillo Painter of Palabras

Article excerpt

With lyricism and wit, this artful pioneer of Chicana literature recounts the dreams and struggles of marginalized peoples

On a brilliant fall evening, in a downtown bookstore in Washington, D.C., a favorite gathering place of those who like to read or to hear a good stow, several people are listening to the stow of Carmen. Not the Carmen of Merimee nor of Bizet, however. This story is of Carmen la Coja, a resident of contemporary Chicago. A brown, Chicana Carmen, a survivor of polio. The listeners are a diverse group; young and old, brown, black, white, caught up in the spell of the storyteller. The storyteller, an attractive woman, brown like Carmen, with the poise and presence of a dancer herself, is Ana Castillo, a woman of many voices and talents, who is reading from her latest novel, Peel My Love Like an Onion.

Castillo is the daughter of storytellers. "Both my father and mother were incredible storytellers. I remember my father, since I was a child, had a repertoire so the same stones were told, with the same running joke; you knew when it was coming. My father and mother had totally opposite personalities. My father as a hobby was a percussionist. He played congas and played bongos. He loved the mambo and he was a social kind of guy. He would talk to everybody and it didn't matter if you wouldn't talk back. He was very self-confident, a very attractive man. My mother was mostly Indian, Mexican Indian. True to that background, she was also very stoic, was uncomfortable with non-Spanish-speaking people."

Castillo talks of her mother's shyness and her avoidance of people, a result of her having been raised an orphan, noting that she was even uncomfortable around people who were Mexican but who looked like rich, white Mexicans. "But, if you would get her around the table. Or if you got her in a good mood, or if she felt comfortable with friends, say on Thanksgiving or something, she could really tell stories that were just amazing. She could really draw you in. I know that I got that from both of them. My mother had a very beautiful singing voice, and my father loved music, but I was not ever a very comfortable speaker, so my storytelling has come out in pictures and in written words."

Peel My Love Like an Onion is narrated by the protagonist, Carmen Santos, a forty-something Chicana who is reflecting on her life. Carmen's life was indelibly marked by the effects of polio, which struck her when she was six years old. In fact, it was polio that eventually led her to become a professional flamenco dancer and later, a very successful singer.

Carmen's journey, hobbled not only by polio but also by the circumstances of being Chicana and poor, begins when she finds herself in Miss Dorotea's dance therapy class. Miss Dorotea, a new teacher at the school for cripples, as they called it then, tells her students: "Kids, you can do anything you want to do. Don't let anyone tell you different." This message transforms Carmen and becomes the touchstone of her journey through life. She does, in fact, learn to dance, to dance flamenco, in spite of her afflicted leg and foot. When she is eighteen, her teacher introduces her to some of her flamenco dancing friends. Thus, she meets Agustin, who becomes both her dance partner and errant lover. Through Agustin's love, however, she eventually sees and comes to accept herself as a complete, unblemished person. "A good lover will ... see something in you that you never knew was there. And when there's something you don't like to see in yourself a good lover won't see it either," Carmen observes. But Agustin's love is imperfect; he abandons her each summer to be with his wife in Spain. Seventeen years after Carmen begins her relationship with Agustin, Manolo, his young, talented godson, and also a flamenco dancer, makes a passionate entry into her life and for a year they share an ecstatic relationship. But Manolo, torn between his love for Carmen and for Agustin, disappears. …