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My Father Was a Toltec: And Selected Poems

My Father Was a Toltec: And Selected Poems

by Ana Castillo

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Mixing the lyrical with the colloquial, the tender with the tough, Ana Castillo has a deserved reputation as one of the country’s most powerful and entrancing novelists, but she began her literary career as a poet of uncompromising commitment and passion. My Father Was a Toltec is the sassy and street-wise collection of poems that established and


Mixing the lyrical with the colloquial, the tender with the tough, Ana Castillo has a deserved reputation as one of the country’s most powerful and entrancing novelists, but she began her literary career as a poet of uncompromising commitment and passion. My Father Was a Toltec is the sassy and street-wise collection of poems that established and secured Castillo's place in the popular canon. It is included here in its entirety along with the best of her early poems.

Ana Castillo’s poetry speaks—in English and Spanish—to every reader who has felt the pangs of exile, the uninterrupted joy of love, and the deep despair of love lost.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“If you have read Ana Castillo’s work before, you will not be disappointed. If you have not read Castillo before—where have you been?” —Houston Chronicle

“Ana Castillo is immensely insightful in every sense of the word. Her work…must be read if one is to gain understanding of the landscape of the soul.” —Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Random House
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The Toltec
c. 1955

My father was a Toltec.
Everyone knows he was bad.
Kicked the Irish-boys-from-Bridgeport's
ass. Once went down to South Chicago
to stick someone
got chased to the hood
running through the gangway
swish of blade in his back
the emblemed jacket split in half.

Next morning, Mami
threw it away.

Electra Currents

Llegue a tu mundo
sin invitacion,
sin esperanza
me nombraste por
una cancion.

Te fuiste
a emborrachar.

Red Wagons
c. 1958

In grammar school primers
the red wagon
was for children
pulled along
past lawns on a sunny day.
Father drove into
the driveway. "Look,
Father, look!"
Silly Sally pulled Tim
on the red wagon.

Out of school,
the red wagon carried
kerosene cans
to heat the flat.
Father pulled it to the gas
when he was home
and if there was money.

If not, children went to bed
in silly coats
silly socks; in the morning
were already dressed
for school.

c. 1968

Because she worked all week
away from home, gone from 5 to 5,
Saturdays she did the laundry,
pulled the wringer machine
to the kitchen sink, and hung
the clothes out on the line.
At night, we took it down and ironed.
Mine were his handkerchiefs and
boxer shorts. She did his work
pants (never worn on the street)
and shirts, pressed the collars
and cuffs, just so--
as he bathed,
donned the tailor-made silk suit
bought on her credit, had her
adjust the tie.

"How do I look?"
"Bien," went on ironing.
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.

The Suede Coat
c. 1967

Mother would never allow
a girl of fourteen to wear
the things you brought
from where you wouldn't say--
the narrow skirts with high slits
glimpsed the thigh--
they fit your daughter of delicate
And she wore them on the sly.

To whom did the suede coat with
fur collar belong?
The women in my family
have always been polite
or too ashamed to ask.
You never told, of course,
what we of course knew.

Dirty Mexican

"Dirty Mexican, dirty, dirty Mexican!"
And i said: "i'll kick your ass, Dago bitch!"
tall for my race, strutted right past
black projects,
leather jacket, something sharp
in my pocket
to Pompeii School.
Get those Dago girls with teased-up hair
and Cadillacs,
Mafia-bought clothes,
sucking on summer Italian lemonades.
Boys with Sicilian curls got high
at Sheridan Park, mutilated a prostitute one night.
i scrawled in chalk all over sidewalks
crashed their dances,
get them broads, corner 'em in the bathroom,
in the hallway, and their loudmouthed mamas
calling from the windows: "Roxanne!" "Antoinette!"
And when my height wouldn't do
my mouth called their bluff:
"That's right, honey, I'm Mexican!
Watchu gonna do about it?"
Since they didn't
want their hair or lipstick mussed they
shrugged their shoulders 'til distance gave way: "
Dirty Mexican, dirty Mexican bitch."
Made me book back, right up their faces,
"Watchu say?" And it started all over again . . .

For Ray

i found a stash of records
at the Old Town Street Fair.
Gave up Perez Prado,
"Rey del Mambo,"
to Ray.

But Cal Tjader's
Soul Sauce
Guacha Guaro
cooler than
a summer's night breeze--
Della Reese in spaghetti strap
dress cha-cha-cha--
is mine.

And who am I?
A kid on the guiro
who no one saw jamming
scrawny and scabby kneed
didn't sing Cucurucucu Paloma
or Cielito Lindo but happy
to mambo
please to teach ya
all of seven then . . .

Now, with timbales
and calloused hands
not from a career of
one night stands but the grave
yard shift on a drill press,
Ray thrills the children
who slide in party shoes
at Grandpa's house where
the music blares and it's
all right guacha guaro
guacha guaro it's all right.
My daddy's still cool.

Daddy with Chesterfields in a Rolled Up Sleeve

The school principal was a white lady
who came to class one day
to say a man claiming to be
my father
was in her office.

Later at tio Manuel's flat
Daddy said Mami was
on her way. (It must be serious,
i thought, Mami never misses work.)

All Manuel's tribe gathered:
rotten toothed daughters with children
of varying
hair textures and surnames;
David, a junkie,
mean face of an Apache;
Daniel, smiled nice, did nothing
with his life;
Abel and his boy Cain;
Juanita my madrina, the eldest,
never married.
Twelve children my uncle raised,
his wife died with the 13th.

But this guy across the table
is young with acne,
hair greased back. He smokes cigarettes,
doesn't ask permission, speaks English
with a crooked smile: charm personified.
Hangs out with the boys,
who call him Brodock (they all have
names: Ash Can, Monskis, El Conde,
Joe the Boss, Ming)--this man, who Mami says
doesn't like to work,
plays bongos and mambos loud all day
while Abuelita keeps me out the way
of boys jamming, drinking beer,
while wives work the assembly line.

At tio Manuel's where Daddy took me on the bus,
the Spanish radio has announced
the death of Dona Jovita.
The curandera from Guanajuato--
with jars of herbs
grown in coffee cans--
had raised the Toltec long
after her sons had grown,
her only daughter murdered by her husband.
The boy, the story goes,
was brought forth by the curandera,
or, if you please,
Dona Jovita, herself,
gave birth to him at 60.

And Daddy, who never looks at me
and talks to me at the same time
says "Granny died," and begins to cry.
Daddy is the only one
who calls her Granny.

And i, most delicate of her offspring:
Ana Maria. Ana Maria learns English in school,
wears gold loop earrings in mother-pierced ears,
brings flowers to the Virgin every spring.

Anita knows yerba buena, yerba santa, epazote,
manzanilla, ruda, addresses spirits
with Abuelita, touches soreness of those
who come, little hands under
shriveled ones, that heal.

"Granny died," he said, and cried.

Daddy's white foreman
who doesn't believe his mother died,
comes to watch Daddy cry at the coffin.

Every year Mami makes enchiladas for Daddy's birthday,
never as good as the memory of his mother's.
Mami takes her place now,
tells his daughter to her face:
"You're like your father,
don't like to work,
a daydreamer,
think someday you'll be rich and famous,
an artist, who wastes her time
wearing finery she can't afford,
neglecting her children and her home!"
The father lowers his eyes.

Had i been 19 not 9
i'd have pulled my hair,
screamed her name, "Don't leave!
Don't leave me behind with this mami
who goes off to work before light
leaves me a key, a quarter for lunch,
crackers for breakfast on my pillow
that rats get before i wake!
Don't leave me
with this mami who will empty out all
your jars, the trunks of your defunct
husband's moth-eaten suits,
the Toltec's wind-up toys,
to move bunkbeds into your
room where you stuck crucifixes
with chewing gum on an old iron headboard!
(A testimony to your faith--
yet the Church did not grant you a Mass
upon your death.)
Don't leave me with this daddy,
smooth talkin', marijuana smokin',
mambo dancin', jumpin' jitterbug!"

The only woman who meant anything in his life.

--No creo que fue tu mama,--your wife whispers.
"I don't care!" you reply.
--Que ni eres mexicano,--
"I don't care!" you say for
dona Jovita,
la madre sagrada
su comal y molcajete,
la revolucion de Benito Juarez y Pancho Villa,
Guanajuato, paper cuts, onyx, papier-mache,
bullfighters' pictures, and Aztec calendars.

i speak English with a crooked smile,
say "man," smoke cigarettes,
drink tequila, grab your eyes that dart
from me to tell you of my
trips to Mexico.
i play down the elegant fingers,
hair that falls over an eye,
the silk dress accentuating breasts--
and fit the street jargon to my full lips,
try to catch those evasive eyes,
tell you of jive artists
where we heard hot salsa
at a local dive.
And so, i exist . . .

At 15,
Mami scorned me for not forgiving you
when she caught you
with your girlfriend. Had i been 25,
i'd have slapped you, walked out the door,
searched for dona Jovita who loved for no reason
than that we were her children.

Men try to catch my eye. i talk to them
of politics, religion, the ghosts i've seen
the king of timbales, Mexico and Chicago.
And they go away.
But women stay. Women like stories.
They like thin arms around their shoulders,
the smell of perfumed hair,
a flamboyant scarf around the neck
the reassuring voice that confirms their
cynicism about politics, religion and the glorious
history that slaughtered thousands of slaves.

Because of the seductive aroma of mole
in my kitchen, and the mysterious preparation
of herbs, women tolerate my cigarette
and cognac breath, unmade bed,
and my inability to keep a budget--
in exchange for a promise,
an exotic trip,
a tango lesson,
an anecdote of the gypsy who stole
me away in Madrid.

Oh Daddy, with the Chesterfields
rolled up in a sleeve,
you got a woman for a son.


maybe i can be
an "exotic" version
of Pati Smith/strike
lewd poses for Fan-Belt
Mag/make heavy comments to
Time like "i'm into Razor Blades,
mon, double edged, of coarse"/my shaved
head back up could call itself Los Razor
Blaids and wear shark skinned suits without
collars and very pointed high heeled boots/my
poems would emit musk--and would NEVER be repeated
except by electronic sound and to make it that much
more heavy, mon, i'd muffle the mike with pantyhose so
nobody would know how heavy i really was and up would go
the acoustic guitar to accent the poetry of my ever so heavy
mammary glands and that's how they'd remember me in Paris before
i toured Morocco and sent Japanese adolescents en masse to Spanish
courses in Tokyo figuring i was too heavy to be reciting in Yankee tongue
and Beirut loved me because i wasn't exotic but actually a long lost Lebanese
compatriot and Xmas holidays i'd relax in the Caribbean or Mexico, right off the
coast, of course, where not even the tourists would recognize me, so naturally brown
Indian brown, before the tan and my working class folks back in Chicago would still be
wondering when i was going to settle down to a decent, stable job although the postcards
are nice and the cover picture on People was something to save for the relatives in San
Antonio but so blurred it was hard to tell it was really me next to those pelones that
travel with me and are becoming unworthy millionaires off my brains and possible talent
and all this happened shortly before i was taken to a hospital with my wrists intact
since i wasn't really into razor blades but something sawed through a very delicate
place in my head and it split in two precise halves so that i was assigned a very
bland room without doorknobs on the inside and without bars but the windows did
n't open anyway and my mother knew it all along when it was discovered that my
manager ran off and spent all my investments but being the hard but silent
type she said nothing the day i came "home" talking about teaching or go
ing back to the University of Chicago for a PhD but what would i live
off of meanwhile and i remember my long ago ex-husband who would be
married to a truly exotic, non-English-speaking girl who went into
labor when she found i was back and hadn't even needed a visa and
it would be October because autumn is when bones turn yellow and
all things return to what they once were or really never stopped

For No One, Or Perhaps You

i am carnival
annual holiday from
work and tedium
your masquerade
as mythical hero: marbled
Ulysses. i am Sundays
at the matinee
a fifty cent piece
for candy and popcorn
your first party where girls
formed a motif on the opposite
wall, the last dance of your youth
as dawn broke and you went home alone;
the taut seconds before she
turned the corner,
whose mouth was freshly baked bread,
both your faces flushed
with virginity.

i am the one
with whom you play Houndini.

i am Rome
the villages of Mexico
the house maids therein,
that certain actress whose
celluloid thighs were magnified
in their perfection.
i am the spy
in the hole of your conscience.

Woman of Marrakech

As if i were Fatima
you have sex with me
and go away,
Fatima who dances
for men, without one
of her own
who has no inheritance
no home, nothing. Fatima,
whose brother comes after her
with a knife. She is shame.
As if i were sex personified
you remember the way to my
city, my street, the house
where you don't dare knock.

Sex is seven hundred hotel
rooms in Paris, one of them
ours and unused.

It has been a month, one
menstrual cycle. i am a
fly stuck to the light, an
hysterical speck on a linen
collar. You have so many
important things to do. i am
a woman

Recordando un disparate

Llamaste. Se me olvido cuanto antes que
te habia olvidado.
Llegaste despues. Desde luego se me quito
el disgusto. Como ninos jugamos.
Me traias tu regalo hecho por tus manos:
--Se llama "Disparate".--Sonrei de acuerdo.

Quise besarte y te bese Era una tarde
(ayer, para ser precisa) cuando el calor
era aun tolerable.

Querias saber por que no andaba por la playa,
tomando aire y sol en vez de estar vestida
de gitana, escuchando discos y pensando
en poemas nuevos. Y tu tan palido
se que tampoco te asoleas . . .

Y cuando iba a tocar otro disco tu
salias del bano peinado y oliendo
a mi jabon.
--Me voy, Madame--dijiste.
--Si, como es tu costumbre--dije yo.
--Y antes, me crucificas, como es la tuya--
--Siempre traes tus propios clavos y tu cruz.--

Te fuiste.
El beso que me quisiste dar
se esfumo en el aire. Me fui a banar.
Tenia un compromiso a las ocho.

Meet the Author

Ana Castillo is the author of the novels Peel My Love Like an Onion, So Far from God, The Mixquiahuala Letters, and Sapogonia. She has written a story collection, Loverboys; the critical study Massacre of the Dreamers; the poetry collection I Ask the Impossible; and the children’s book My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove. She is the editor of the anthology Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, available from Vintage Español (La diosa de las Américas). Castillo has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Book Award, a Carl Sandburg Award, a Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Chicago. Find out more about Castillo at her homepage: www.anacastillo.com.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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