by Diane Lefer
Long before I'd read Fernando Castro's poetry, I was given a book written by girls from an Opportunity School for pregnant teens, girls he had mentored as writing workshop leader and then, through his nonprofit organization, Ta'Yer, had published. I heard about his other community-based work as co-founder of the Ta'Yer Multicultural Performance Collective: Gay Latinos--mostly with no background in writing or in theatre--created short plays based on their experiences and their visions of better lives. Fernando produced the shows throughout LA County communities, including Spanish-language churches, to open hearts and minds and bring people together in opposition to homophobia.
Beyond that, I knew Fernando was born in Ibague, Colombia and grew up in New York City in a struggling immigrant family. A high achiever, he earned a bachelor's degree in architecture from Columbia University and a masters from MIT but after these accomplishments he abandoned architecture in favor of poetry. A few years ago, I heard him read from his collection The Nightlife of Saints one afternoon at Mama's Hot Tamales where he invited the musicians of Grupo Alebrijes en Vuelo to share the stage.
I'd often tried to figure out how he got from architecture to poetry and from Cambridge, Mass to Mama's at MacArthur Park, but Fernando's conversation in person usually comes out in cryptic one or two-word utterances, unlike on the page when language spills out in torrents. Of course there are hints in his poems of how the two disciplines relate, as in "No Patience with Doilies," his tribute to Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, which leads into a memory of Baker House at MIT:
Bricks and water; like Helen Keller's teacher,
modeling language in the form:
But I wanted more than hints. After Fernando published his most recent collection, Redeemable Air Mileage, supported in part by a C.O.L.A. (City of Los Angeles) literary fellowship, we sat down over Indian food and I finally got him to talk about his creative path.
"We were basically homeless all our lives." He explains his family was constantly on the move from town to town, "so we were always looking for a home that would be a permanent place. Architecture gave me that feeling of being able at last to be rooted. And then when I started looking at the work of the masters, I began to appreciate the sacredness of space, from churches to temples to civic buildings. I was in love with the idea of developing a language to express my ideas." But the actual process of drafting and drawing turned out to be overwhelming. "I was just too restless to commit myself to hour after hour of sitting still."
He uprooted himself once more, relocating to Los Angeles in 1984. Poetry was already an important influence in his life, he told me, especially The Beats and, in Colombia, the Nadaístas. In California, he immediately began attending workshops at Beyond Baroque, the legendary arts center in Venice, where he studied poetry and performance with the likes of Holly Prado (with whom he still studies informally), Bob Flanagan, Michelle T. Clinton, Scott Kelman, and Terry Wolverton. He soon moved into the role of facilitator, doing outreach and coordinating a workshop to bring more writers of color into the program. Experience gained, he went on to found Ta'Yer in 1989.
Several years ago, he began to produce theatre on a more professional level, teaming up with Rubén Amavizca-Murúa, director of Grupo Sinergia at the Frida Kahlo Theatre in LA. He commissioned stage adaptations of works of South American literature, especially those from his homeland and focusing on works with gay and/or political themes. Bernardo Solano's Manzanita: A Violent Affair, was adapted from Espérame en el cielo, Capitán, Jorge Enrique Botero's fact-based novel about a transgender youth drafted by the Colombian army who falls in love after his capture by FARC guerrillas.
And here's where I come into the story: I have also been the happy recipient of Ta'Yer commissions. Most recently, I adapted the classic Colombian short story, En la diestra de Dios Padre by Tomás Carrasquilla Naranjo and moved the action to the US-Mexico border. (I remain eternally grateful, not only for the workshop under Rubén's direction but because the play was produced by the New Carpa Theatre at the Border Justice Conference in Phoenix and in protest against SB 1070 on the lawn in front of the Arizona State Capitol even though rabid anti-immigrant state senator Russell Pearce tried to stop the show. It was an honor to be part of this action, and it only became possible for me because of Fernando Castro.)
Today, as an urbanist/transportation planner with Caltrans, Fernando is often called upon to address community sensitivities. Though he is not designing freeway interchanges, he does work at the intersection of community concerns and the built environment. He continues to question and yet apparently thrive on his sense of dislocation, using all his vacation time to travel the world. He writes of Cuba:
One day they ran out of paint in Havana;
the walls of the city became the color of indifference:
street dog colors of beige and bone
(from "Our Lady of Chuchos")
and India where he goes in December to avoid Christmas; Russia, where Anna Akhmatova's flat "cries frugality and winter" and an internet cafe in Munich where from the phone cabin customers
in tongues of different percussions,
calling Nairobi, Warsaw, Chad, Sudan
When I go out to pay, I startle the Iraqi dooman, whom I capture
viewing nudie boy drawings and illustrations--
dark skin, broken German/English,
lovers of men add more impurities to the mix, add a pink triangle to our armbands.
As Fernando says over dinner, he feels he always has one foot outside and one foot inside and when I ask whether his dual perspective comes more from being a Latino immigrant or more from being gay, he says, "We pay taxes. We vote. We have all these things, and yet..." When he says "we," as gay? As Latino? I guess he means both. Or, as he writes, "I'm mestizo...both empire and colonized."
I tell him that when I first read his book, I felt it was about mortality, but on rereading, I was struck by the sense of disenchantment. He writes about returning to his birthplace for the first time and finding it small and ugly. He writes about sad places and false prophets.
"I don't think it's loss of hope," he says. "And it is about aging and mortality. As you get older, you lose some naïve hope but you gain a new clarity. A different way of seeing."
And then I see how poetry and theatre are a natural extension of his early love for architecture. As he writes in "Hadrian's Villa Before Lunch," it's all about his "lust for ways to leave beauty after I am dead."
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Diane Lefer is an author, playwright and Los Angeles-based activist. She is co-author, with Hector Aristizabal, of The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation (Lantern Books, 2010). True to her writer/activist nature, she’ll be a visiting artist at the MFA Program, Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington State University in early May and will be heading to Barrancabermeja, Colombia soon after to lead a writing workshop at the International Peace Theatre Festival.