La dona of East Los Angeles reaches heavenward, slowly raising a stunning statuette of a serpent biting its tail, a symbol of nature’s remarkable power of renewal.
Hundreds of guests, many of them hardened activists, are reduced to tears. The applause hits a crescendo. And later comes a standing ovation.
Aurora Castillo, the 81-year-old co-founder of the Mothers of East Los Angeles, glows in a spotlight, and with quiet dignity and high drama accepts the richest environmental prize in the world--$75,000--for protecting her neighborhood from toxic waste and environmental racism.
Castillo, known as la dona-- a title of respect given to her by her largely Latino community--began fighting to protect the Earth a decade ago. She never set out to be an ecological warrior, much less the first person from Los Angeles to win a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize--referred to by Time magazine as the Nobel Prize for environmental heroes.
Winners from Africa, Europe, Asia, South and Central America and the Island Nations, have traveled here to share the Herbst Theatre stage with Castillo as the North American representative--as well as the first Latina and the oldest recipient--of the program founded six years ago by philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman of San Francisco.
Castillo, who is attending with her twin sister, Bertha, and several nieces and nephews from the Los Angeles area, accepts her award with humble appreciation.
She tells the international audience that all people, regardless of ethnicity, race, education and income “have a right to a clean environment.”
She fights for her beloved barrio, she says at the podium, because she is committed to the children who deserve “clean air, clean water and pure food.” She is fighting back tears that later, at a private dinner attended by Mayor Frank Jordan and world-renowned environmentalists, she will describe as tears of struggle, of sacrifice, of survival.
“With great joy, I accept this honor on behalf of the Mothers of East Los Angeles.”
The passionate Dona Castillo--the feisty great-great-granddaughter of Augustine Pedro Olvera, Olvera Street’s namesake--brings down the house.
It is a few days before her San Francisco trip last week, and Castillo is explaining how she--and nearly 200 active members of the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA)--successfully blocked the construction of a prison, fought a toxic-waste incinerator, a hazardous-waste storage site and joined a coalition that detoured an above-ground crude oil pipeline.
Sitting in an office at the Church of the Resurrection where the mothers’ group took seed in 1986, Castillo seems an unlikely national leader. But in the area of environmental justice--a grass-roots effort that primarily prevents poor, minority neighborhoods from being the targets of environmental damage caused by industries--she is just that.
Almost 10 years ago, when the church’s priest, John Moretta--now a monsignor--asked women parishioners to protest the construction of the Eastside’s eighth prison, Castillo was among the first to step forward.
Moretta, who has been with Resurrection for 12 years, remembers uniting the mothers. But he never thought the group would last.
“I am surprised, more than anyone, that they have lasted because they had no training, no real finesse.” But, he said, “The mothers had Aurora Castillo.”
And Castillo continues to be their cheerleader and a tenacious woman who will not take no for an answer--a trait, Moretta said, that has endeared her to the mothers.
“Many times through the years, especially when the ladies were disheartened, Aurora would not give up. She feels a great sense of concern for when she sees any kind of abuse against her people.
“She is the group’s spiritual person,” said friend Frank Villalobos, president of Barrio Planners Inc., a landscape and architecture firm. Villalobos is also a community activist who formed the Coalition Against the Prison in East Los Angeles, and with Moretta, organized the mothers’ 12-hour bus trip to Sacramento to protest the prison.
“Within 10 minutes Aurora can get ladies together for a protest,” said Villalobos. “I drive a 14-passenger van and at a moment’s notice she can have 15 ladies on the bus ‘and one more on a little stool,’ she always says.
“Aurora is the one who carries the torch. She is an icon in East Los Angeles.”
Lucy Ramos, MELA’s president, said that without Castillo’s guidance and devotion to community issues, “We probably would have gone down the drain in the middle of a toxic area by now.”
Mary Lou Trevis, MELA’s vice president, said that among Castillo’s many strengths is her organizational skill. Castillo is the one who phones the members a week before a meeting as well as on the day, always the last Tuesday of the month. She shows up with the sodas, with stacks of information and protects the membership’s telephone list with her life--a roster that many a politician has asked to have and been denied.
“She reminds us that we’ve always had negative things going on in our community and that now is the time for Latinos to have a voice,” Trevis said. If an issue threatens the safety and health of the children, “you can expect 900 mothers showing up--that’s the power of Aurora.”
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) contacted Castillo and her group in 1987 after learning about a planned incinerator in Vernon, a small, industrial community adjacent to Castillo’s Boyle Heights neighborhood. Roybal-Allard was a state assemblywoman at the time.
“The mothers were unrelenting,” Roybal-Allard said about the six-year battle. “Aurora’s passion has always been about protecting our community, our children. In our community, the family is the cornerstone of the Latino culture.”
Familia has always been important to Aurora Castillo, the matriarch known as “Nina,” the family’s affectionate nickname for madrina, or godmother , which she is to several of her brother’s sons and daughters. Three years ago, Arthur Castillo, her only brother, died of cancer at 74. Her twin, who has been married and childless for 40 years, lives in Canoga Park. Another sister, Henrietta, 78, lives with Castillo in their childhood home. Henrietta, a MELA volunteer, prefers to remain in the background, but drives Castillo everywhere, including Saturday afternoon Mass, and keeps track of her appointments.
Aurora and Henrietta never married because “we were never boy crazy. We were always thinking of getting ahead,” she said.
“My dad always used to say, ‘Put your shoulders back, hold your head high, be proud of your heritage and don’t let them buffalo you.’ ”
That’s advice Castillo said she has carried with her all her life, especially through experiences of prejudice, bias and personal difficulties that have seasoned her to “fight like a lioness for the children of East Los Angeles.”
“Times were different when I was a child,” she said, recalling the Depression. Her parents, Frances and Joaquin Pedro Castillo, worked long hours in a laundry.
“It may have been tough times, but we had everything in abundance,” Castillo said. “We didn’t have a swimming pool. We didn’t have a string of horses. We had plenty to eat. And we had plenty of clothes to wear. That’s what I mean by abundance.”
Her father, a U.S. Navy regimental sergeant bugler during World War I, was her hero. She and her siblings were also reared by their grandmother, who they called “Mama Grande” because she was a six-foot-tall, 300-pound woman.
But she was light on her feet, Castillo said fondly. “We’d say ‘Mama Grande, baile por nosotros (dance for us, Grandmother).’ And as heavy as she was, she was graceful and classic in her moves. She would be on her toes.”
Frances Castillo always dreamed of her daughters working as bank tellers--a job she considered glamorous in 1933. Castillo wanted to study accounting and had her father’s unwavering support. But teachers at Garfield High School had other ideas.
“They wanted us to study home economics,” Castillo said. “Because we had Hispanic surnames, they thought that’s all we were capable of doing. They thought we would be wasting our time taking a business course. They told us they were ‘only thinking of our welfare.’ ”
After graduation, Castillo enrolled in business college paid for by Bertha, who worked at the laundry with her parents. In return, Castillo did office work for dance instructor Trinidad Goni so the twins could learn flamenco, ballet and Mexican dances.
Once, Mama Grande paid an ex-bullfighter 50 cents--money that would have bought many a nickel loaf of French bread--to teach the girls intricate dance movements with a cape.
Dancing led Castillo to briefly study drama and voice at Los Angeles City College. An agent got her a three-month job as a translator for the movie “Across the Wide Missouri,” which starred Clark Gable and Mexican actress Maria Elena Marquez. Among her many mementos is a photo taken with the stars while on location in Colorado in 1940--and having breakfast with Gable.
Eventually Castillo was hired at Douglas Aircraft, where her sisters worked: Bertha was an expediter and Henrietta, a riveter.
But Bertha recalls Aurora saying, “I have too much education to belittle myself,” and was determined to get a secretarial job, which she did after acing a business law test.
“Back then people just seemed to think we, as Latinos, didn’t have the potential,” Aurora said.
Just thinking about the injustices minorities deal with on a daily basis--then and now--moves her emotionally. She paused to compose herself.
“People figure us to be an uneducated, low-economic Democratic community,” she said about East Los Angeles. “And of course, who would think that but a Republican? We may not have a Ph.D. after our names, but we have common sense and logic and we are not a dumping ground,” she said. “We’re not the sleeping giant people think we are. We’re wide awake and no way will anything be put over on us.”
In a receiving line in San Francisco, Dona Castillo, is overwhelmed by the attention. Photographers. Accolades. Hugs.
Still to come is an East Coast goodwill trip sponsored by the Goldman Foundation to meet Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt and U.N. Undersecretary Nitin Desai.
An important person, yes? But not to the coat-check person, who refused to return Castillo’s red, fur-collared cloak because the honoree couldn’t find her ticket.
Negotiating long after everyone else had left, as if for an incinerator, Castillo finally demands that the checker ask her questions so she can prove that one of the two remaining coats is hers. (The other belonged to her twin.)
The rattled checker throws up her hands and says “Here, take it.”
Another battle has been won.