Fernando D. Castro
Portrait | About | C.O.L.A Project | Past Projects
A little more than fifteen years ago, when I was teaching at San Fernando High School, Fernando D. Castro called me out of the blue to ask if I would be interested in having him as an artist-in residence. I was overjoyed by the possibilities of such a collaboration since I found myself without resources to address the students’ high dropout rates, apathy, illiteracy, and poverty. The collaboration lasted more than a decade and resulted in many volumes of student poetry as well as an enduring friendship.
Fernando issued my students a passport to a new place: their own community. The students told us stories, and their subsequent poems were a revelation for those young people, whose sense of place and self were changed positively forever. My students inspired him as well. When I read his book The Nightlife of Saints, I saw how Castro recast into poetry one of the stories he heard in class, about Chuyito, a mendigo (beggar) who hung out outside the famous Lupe’s Café in San Fernando. He writes, “maybe the sun just scorched him to death outside of Lupe’s, or maybe he found AA and now preaches against evil rum and damnation.”
Always attuned to the life around him, Castro creates—in the words of Holly Prado, who wrote the introduction to The Nightlife of Saints— “from his place as an immigrant, teacher, friend, gay man, poet, and an unflinching observer of his adopted home of Los Angeles/Pasadena.” To me, his poetry always brings to mind Walt Whitman, as both rely on a breath full of imagery that travels fast but is well crafted. Castro’s Colombian homeland and adventurous travels inspire his poetry.
A soft-spoken, seemingly shy man, Castro doesn’t brag about himself, so it took me a while to learn of his history as a cultural worker and community arts organizer. With friends, he founded TA’YER, a theater and performance group that reached out to the city’s gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender Latino talent. As a journalist he has written for local publications such as La Opinión and Frontiers magazine. But now the focus is at last on his own creative work.
In his forthcoming collection of poetry, Redeemable Air Mileage, Castro takes us on many journeys of place as well as trips of culture, race, gender, and perspective. Perhaps it is fitting that this well traveled architect of structures and words has a Finnish architect for a hero: Alvar Aalto. Castro describes Aalto this way: “Quiet people are invaluable; they prepare a warm room for you with a fine sauna—a sweat lodge and a warm meal while the talkers are still talking.” Somewhere deep inside, Castro must know that he is describing himself.
Castro’s project for C.O.L.A., a collection of poems themed around his concept of the “native tourist,” is a welcome return to the City of Angels and the everyday occurrences that he approaches with a fresh eye and a mouth eager to taste and describe. Castro endows Los Angeles with various personas, historical characters, and events. “I am artist and artisan,” he writes, “and I am willing to wear my weekend overalls. You have got to love this dreamy place.”
— Sheila Roth