My Father Was A Toltec
By Ana Castillo
Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos
1988 was a great year for poetry and poets of colour.
Not Vanishing by Chrystos, my favorite book of poetry, was published in 1988; Audre Lorde had her ninth collection of poetry on bookstore shelves; and Chicana poet Ana Castillo came out with her fourth collection My Father Was A Toltec.
One of the classic texts in terms of Brown poetry, poetry of colour, revolutionary poetry, My Father Was A Toltec not only has a catchy name, it’s all true. Castillo’s dad was a member of one of Chicago’s oldest gangs The Toltecs. Named after one of the Indigenous nations of what is now known as Mexico, The Toltecs ran a hood in Chi town. Brown men wearing fedoras and slacks with suspenders and shiny black shoes: cool, cocky, Chicano/Mexicano.
Castillo shares stories of Chicago life, what it was to be a “Dirty Mexican” in the 1960s, family trials, oppression, and the ever-present system of patriarchy. And she does it in both English and Spanish, some poems not having translation—you got to love her defiance. Castillo is saying, Soy Mexicana, deal with it.
Castillo, the daughter of a street warrior, was also someone not to be messed with. Poems of her dad being slashed by a rival are followed by verses of Castillo herself getting it on with racist white girls.
’88 was a year where Hip Hop, the then new street form of poetry, was still in its earliest stages. ‘Ghetto’ terms were still that, language used by those who lived in what Castillo describes in one poem as “the hood” with an asterisk beside it and a translation provided at the bottom of the page: *neighborhood. Now, with Hip Hop being the hottest music around, rich and middle class white kids walk into their SUVs talking about driving back home to “the hood”. A lot has changed in twenty-years.
Even more sad is that the really crucial things about our culture still have not changed.
DIRTY MEXICAN, Castillo’s poem about being called exactly that, is a story of white on Brown violence, white boys killing a sex worker (“mutilated” to be exact), Castillo speaking out with chalk on the sidewalk—“MEXICAN POWER”—and in person:
“That’s right, honey, I’m Mexican!
Watchu gonna do about it?”
DIRTY MEXICAN is a saying that has deep roots. When the colonizers came to the land now called Amerika they would say, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”. That was later used for Brown people from down South: “The only good Mexican is a dead Mexican”. Signs on restaurant windows would say “No Dogs Or Mexicans Allowed!” Then, Castillo and millions of others were being called “Dirty Mexican” even if they weren’t from Mexico (not all Spanish speaking Brown folk are from Mexico).
Today, where white folks like to talk about the minority being the majority, ‘their land’ being taken by Brown folks from down South, and the building of fences guarded by machine gun carrying thugs the U.S/Mexico border, the reality of Castillo’s poem is back, some arguing it was never gone.
DIRTY MEXICAN is more than just a poem. It’s history. It’s story passed down. It’s letting Brown folk know who we are and where we come from. It’s a reminder of the vicious cycle of colonialism.
As people with roots in the South and treated wrong in the north, we are not innocent, we have our own shit to deal with. The most powerful poem in the collection that speaks to one of our biggest problems is SATURDAYS. The poem points out in seven subtle yet smacking lines our history, and current upholding, of patriarchy.
“Because she worked all week,” is the start of the poem. “She” is Castillo’s mother, working “5 to 5”, like many women of colour. Five to five, not the regular hours people complain about. Saturdays was laundry day. Castillo helped her mother do the laundry. More work for a woman who worked 60 hours a week, probably for little pay, and way less than what a white woman would get paid. This is still a reality in North Amerika.
The poem takes you through the process of cleaning: washing clothes in the kitchen sink, hanging them outside on a line, the ironing, the folding, and then…
Castillo’s dad enters the picture, wearing the “tailor made silk-suit bought on her credit”. “Her” meaning Castillo’s mother who adjusts his tie and then hears the audacious and sad words, “How do I look?” They are not going out together. He is going out to meet a different she, and Castillo’s mother knows.
“Bien Good,” she responds and keeps on ironing.
Castillo further explains the scenario, the relationship, the culture, the sadness of it all:
“That’s why he married her, a Mexican
woman, like his mother, not like
they were in Chicago, not like
the one he was going out to meet.”
As Brown folk we are quick to point out the wrongs happening to us form the outside in. Are we pointing out what we do to ourselves? How many “she’s” and “not like’s” are in our lives? How many do we know? How many are being groomed to be both?
SATURDAYS is about a day in Castillo’s life in 1968 and published twenty years later. It’s been twenty-two years since then and I don’t believe much has changed. We’ve had strong women like Castillo and Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga write, speak out, and do their best to effect change. Where were the men during all this? Where are the men now? Are there men who are speaking out? Where are the changes? We always hear about Anzaldua, Castillo, and Moraga, where are the new Latin@/Mesitz@ peoples speaking out against all this?
Saturdays are the last day of the week. To Castillo and her mother it was the day the man in their life betrayed the family. Saturdays are like this for many people.
Through getting to know many peoples from down South I’ve had this sad reality shared with me over and over again. I’ve been taught that there’s an unwritten rule in the South: “Every woman who gets married knows that one day her husband will cheat on them. They still get married and they stay quiet.”
Castillo was not only recounting the events of every Saturday, she was calling for an end to such Saturdays. While having a deep affection for her father, the Toltec, Castillo questioned him on the page, exposed his wrongs, and showed the true strength of her family: her mom.
My Father Was a Toltec has poems dedicated to influential women like Jean Rhys, other Chican@ poets, the President of the United States, and poems of promise as well as manifestos like We Would Like You To Know and In My Country. Castillo challenges white folk, Brown folk, men, the system, and herself.
Take the time to experience Castillo’s collection: read, re-read, be challenged, learn, put pen to pad, and enjoy.
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Wednesday November 3, 2010 for an inclusive interview with Latina poet Janet Romero.