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Aurora Castillo; Advocate for East L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aurora Castillo, a fourth-generation Mexican American who organized and galvanized the Mothers of East Los Angeles to fend off a state prison, a toxic waste incinerator, a hazardous waste treatment plant and an oil pipeline, has died. She was 84.

Castillo, the environmentalist known as la dona from her Boyle Heights neighborhood to Sacramento and Washington, died April 30 in White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles.

In 1995, she became the first Los Angeles resident, the first Latina and the oldest person to receive the $75,000 Goldman Environmental Prize. Called the Nobel Prize for environmental heroes, the annual award was established in 1989 by San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman to encourage and acknowledge a grass-roots activist from each of the world’s six continental regions.

Never married and childless, Castillo determined years ago to “fight like a lioness for the children of East Los Angeles.” When a Church of the Resurrection priest suggested a women’s group in 1986 to protest construction of a $100-million state prison--the eighth penal facility in East Los Angeles--Castillo responded.

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She developed and fiercely protected a 400-number phone list of volunteers she summoned to monthly meetings, peaceful rallies and bus trips to the Capitol steps in Sacramento. She provided sodas and stacks of information.

“Our concern is the possibility of escapes,” she told The Times in 1989 during the anti-prison effort. “No prison is escape-proof. There are just too many children in our area to risk it.”

In 1992, state authorities located the prison elsewhere.

In 1987, Castillo and Mothers of East Los Angeles sued to stop construction of a toxic waste incinerator in Vernon, charging that it would be environmentally dangerous to their dense Latino community. They also staged protest marches and packed public hearings. The incinerator proposal was abandoned in 1990.

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The group also prevented construction of a hazardous waste treatment plant scheduled to be built near an East Los Angeles high school and had a company’s conditional-use permit revoked for improper storage of hazardous waste. Castillo and her colleagues managed to reroute an above-ground oil pipeline from Santa Barbara to San Pedro so that it would pose no risk for East Los Angeles.

“People figure us to be an uneducated, low economic Democratic community,” she told The Times in 1995. “We may not have a PhD after our names, but we have common sense and logic, and we are not a dumping ground. We’re not the sleeping giant people think we are. We’re wide awake, and no way will anything be put over on us.”

The feisty Castillo was the great-great-granddaughter of Augustine Pedro Olvera, for whom Olvera Street is named, and the daughter of laundry workers. She credited her father for instilling her with a lifelong willingness to fight for her community.

“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,’ ” she said in 1995.

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With her parents’ encouragement, she set out to study accounting--deterred only slightly by teachers at Garfield High School.

“They wanted us to study home economics,” she 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.”

Nevertheless, Castillo enrolled in business college and did office work for dance instructor Trinidad Goni in return for flamenco, ballet and Mexican dance lessons. She studied drama and voice at Los Angeles City College and worked as a translator on the 1940 film “Across the Wide Missouri,” fondly recalling breakfasting with its star, Clark Gable. She spent most of her career as a Douglas Aircraft secretary.

Castillo is survived by her twin sister, Bertha; another sister, Henrietta; and several nieces and nephews.

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