A Smithsonian Museum gallery dedicated to the Latino experience opened on June 18, 2022, at the Washington, D.C. Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Verónica Castillo, a Southtown San Antonio resident, is one of the selected artists featured in the 4,500-square-foot Molina Family Latino Gallery. On opening day, Castillo’s “Tree of Life,” a “candelabra” clay structure, was one of the most popular exhibits, according to Eduardo Díaz, Deputy Director, National Museum of the American Latino. Officially, the Smithsonian Latino Center has now merged with the National Museum of the American Latino.
¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States is the Smithsonian’s first gallery exhibition dedicated to the Latino experience and Latino contributions to the United States. Diaz kindly gave me and my wife Harriett a tour of the exhibit a month before its official opening. Although the exhibition at that point was a work in progress,
Castillo’s beautiful “Tree of Life” had been installed near the final section of the exhibit.
Castillo, a fourth-generation clay artist, grew up in Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla, Mexico. She acknowledges having been an artist all of her life–indeed at least working with clay since the age of five when she began helping her parents, both master clay artisans, in their work. In her pre-teen years, she was assigned to create more difficult small objects. By age twelve she began creating her own designs, producing small but intricate pieces of clay art. At sixteen she was already assisting her family in completing complex Trees of Life.
Castillo learned her artistry from her father, Don Alonso Castillo Orta, and her father was taught by his father, Don Simón Uroza, and his mother, Catalina Uroza. Verónica Castillo’s parents, Alonso and Soledad Marta Hernández Castillo determined early in their marriage to teach all their children to work with clay. The Castillo
siblings learned from among the best in Mexico. Her father Don Alonso was known as a “Maestro de Maestros,” a master among the master craftsmen.
Although the Castillo family’s fame centered on their creations of “Arbol de la Vida,” Tree of Life sculptures, Veronica ventured into different topics and spaces. At age sixteen she took an interest in “Day of the Dead” skulls and masks. She also ventured into working with the black clay of the Oaxaca region. She favored feminist themes such as a “tree of life” dedicated to women mariachis and singers.
Castillo excelled in her studies and mastered accounting in college. In 1992 Veronica traveled with her parents to an exhibit of the family’s work at the Galeria de La Raza in San Francisco. By age 20 Castillo had completed her studies in accounting and resumed working with clay full time. She met several San Antonio women who traveled to Puebla for the purpose of acquiring Mexican folk art. They brought clothing and exchanged the clothing for artworks. In 1995 Castillo met a board member of Esperanza, a San Antonio non-profit organization. Esperanza arranged for Castillo to take an internship at their Collectiva de Mujeres.
During her first year with Esperanza, Castillo taught women in the collective the art of making clay sculptures. Teaching left little time to create her own work. By the year 2000, she had returned to making her own clay pieces. Often described as “delicate, intricate, and brightly painted,” her thematic clay sculptures gained fame among Latinos interested in the arts. The arts gave Castillo a voice on social issues.
In Mexico, “there is no justice for poor people,” Castillo explained as she recounted her participation in a
2003 women’s conference at UCLA dealing with the hundreds of murders of young Mexican women in Juarez over a decade. The Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA invited scholars, artists, and the mothers of slain women to discuss what they titled “The Maquiladora Murders, Or Who is Killing the Women of Juarez?” The murdered women had come to Juarez to work in the semi-skilled industries or maquiladoras of the border. The fact that at the time of the conference no one had been arrested for these horrific killings angered Castillo and compassionate people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Castillo’s commitment to social justice led her to accept an invitation from UCLA conference sponsors and faculty associated with the UCLA Research Center to design the conference poster and a “Tree of Life.” In her Tree of Life, Castillo placed the figures of small women and five skulls on the branches of her tree, a powerful statement of the horrific events in Juarez. Her work was purchased by UCLA and can be seen at the Fowler Museum on the UCLA Westwood campus.
Castillo is a gifted artist and an excellent communicator; thus it did not take her long to make good friends with fellow artists and scholars in San Antonio, notably UTSA professor Josie Méndez Negrete and Norma Cantú of Trinity University. Negrete introduced Castillo to many of her scholar friends and art collectors. Harriett and I met Castillo through Negrete and bought two of her small statues some ten years ago. (We wish we had bought more). Thanks to the diligence of Professor Norma E. Cantú, who nominated Castillo for the National Endowment of the Arts Heritage Fellow, Castillo won the prestigious NEA award in 2013. A NEA newsletter noted that traditionally the Tree of Life clay sculptures depict religious scenes, but “Castillo also uses her work to
address social and contemporary issues such as violence against women and violence on the border.”
Castillo has reserved a special place in her studio for the artistic works of her family–all true masters of clay sculptures. Several of the pieces are by her father Don Alonso Castillo Orta, a recipient of Mexico’s prestigious El Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes (The National Prize of Sciences & Arts). The Castillo family has exhibited extensively throughout Mexico and abroad. Veronica Castillo’s bio noted that the family’s works of art are part of valuable collections in the United States, Munich, and London and have been shown in museums in Chicano, Brazil, and the Spanish Royal Palace of King Juan Carlos I.
Verónica Castillo is a true treasure of Texas. Her inclusion in the first Smithsonian Latino gallery exhibit will allow art lovers to see her brilliant work as well as give all
viewers a greater understanding of the deep and ever-evolving roots of Mexican and Chicano art.