“Memories of our experiences remain engraved in our minds. Sometimes we may not remember them, but we can recall them in our dreams. Since I was a child, I have had this dream… to defend our community, our lives. That’s what it’s about—my memories, my dreams, all that inequality. That’s what inspires me when I create a piece of art.”
Verónica Castillo, an internationally acclaimed artist living in San Antonio, Texas, has shaped her own legacy through clay. In 2013, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship Award. Her ceramic piece Latino Roots, History, and Justice is currently on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino’s first-ever exhibition, ¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States.
Castillo is renowned for her thought-provoking Tree of Life, or Árbol de la Vida, sculptures. While Tree of Life motifs appear in other parts of the world, the sculpted candelabra style she works in originated in Mexico. Intricate branches bear symbolic figures painted in vibrant colors and patterns. Craftspeople often work with Christian themes such as the creation of Adam and Eve and Christmas. On the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, many families display a Tree of Life as a form of altar to represent loved ones who have passed on.
Tree of Life sculptures were first given to symbolize a marriage pact. When two families wished their children to marry, they made an agreement. A fruit tree—either mamey sapote or chicozapote (sapodilla)—was gifted to ask for the girl’s hand. When the children became of age and the tree bore its first fruit, the couple would marry. The groom’s family would then find a craftsman to sculpt a clay tree adorned with fruits, birds, and human figurines.
Castillo’s relationship with the sculpture seems as intertwined as the tree’s branches. She was born in Izúcar de Matamoros, Puebla, Mexico, widely known for its Tree of Life sculptures. The original name of the city is Itzocan, a Nahuatl word which carries two meanings: “the place where obsidian is carved” and “the place where people paint faces.” Upon arrival, the Spanish changed the name to Izúcar because they could not pronounce the Nahuatl word.
As with many parents in their city, Castillo’s mother and father, Alfonso Castillo Orta and Soledad Marta Hernández Báez, both accomplished makers, taught her their trade.
“During my first nine months of life in my mother’s womb, she was always working with clay,” Castillo says. “Maybe that’s where I fell in love with the smell of the clay, the crackling of the wood, the sound of the water, the mixture of water and earth, how it has that beautiful aroma. I am so fortunate to work with the four elements of life: earth, fire, air, water. And passion, that too is very important.”
Castillo’s father taught her to extract clay from the earth, techniques her grandfather passed down to him. They removed the mud along the skirt of the Popocatépetl volcano, where the clay was abundant. He taught her to notice the differences in the textures of various clays and the amount of heat necessary to fire each type. Through trial and error and, sometimes, exploding pottery, Castillo came to understand this earthen medium.
“The clay is generous, but having knowledge of it is not the same as knowing it,” she says. “You must truly feel the clay, learn how to recognize every aspect of it. If you are disconnected, you can’t do anything.”
But Castillo says it was really her mother who taught her the techniques of painting. She would whiten fired pieces with gesso, so the acrylic paints would adhere better and the colors wouldn’t appear dull against the naturally red clay. Her mother gave critical yet helpful feedback that helped her children grow as artists. Castillo sees her influence in the fine, delicately painted detail in her figurines today.
The Castillo family garnered numerous recognitions for their craftsmanship. Castillo’s father received Mexico’s esteemed National Prize for the Arts and Sciences. Despite her family’s success, Castillo longed to explore narratives that went beyond holidays and biblical stories. She had an intrinsic desire, a calling, to explore themes of social inequality.
Her father was initially wary of his daughter’s interest in breaking away from tradition, but he encouraged her to create. She remained conflicted since she had a deep respect for her father yet differed in fundamental approach.
“A lot of times an artisan is not permitted to create, develop, or express away from what is called popular art. But I say art is art.”
A major call to action came from Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city on the border near El Paso, Texas. Between 1993 and 2005, more than 400 women and girls in the city, most of them factory workers, were brutally murdered, and by 2003, public outrage could no longer be stifled.
The inaction of the Mexican government and the transnational corporations that owned the factories led activists to protest the femicide in Juárez. Castillo sought to bring attention to the victims through her artwork. She created El Árbol de la Muerte: Maquilando Mujeres (The Tree of Death: Factory Women), her first piece to radically depart from her family’s traditional artistic themes.
Instead of traditional arches, the bodies of women in various stages of decomposition line the tree’s branches. At the base of the tree are four figurines of girls with nervous demeanors, symbolizing innocence soon mutilated. Their empty hands represent the economic inequality they suffer from the factory owners.
For Castillo, creating such provoking images proved emotional, and key to her own artistic creation story. “It was to honor and respect the victims, to educate people about the violence and femicide happening in Juárez. Not only in Juárez, but worldwide.” The piece was auctioned to raise funds for the victims’ families and organizations for mothers seeking justice.
Before her father’s passing, Castillo asked him for permission to speak about the Tree of Death in an upcoming presentation.
“I told my father that I want to talk about my evolution and how, for me, the idea of the Tree of Life has been transforming. My father said, ‘Show me your work.’ I remember when he saw it, his eyes grew very wide, and he asked me, ‘Did you make this piece?’ and I answered, ‘Yes.’ He told me I was ready, and that I always end up doing what I want anyway. I told him I didn’t want to create any more Christmas nativities, altars, candelabras. I want to make trees with themes, themes for those who cannot speak.”
Her mother supported her unconditionally. With the blessing of both her parents, Castillo changed course. “I did this without losing the techniques, the traditions, nor the heritage of my family.”
To this day, her maker’s signature includes a “C” for Castillo, “M” for Marta, and “A” for Alfonso to show the world that she is who she is because of them.
Right now, fighting the disastrous effects of climate change is a top priority for Castillo. “The harm caused to the environment has angered Mother Nature. Mother Nature won’t be destroyed, but she will leave us to face the consequences of what we have done to her. But she is generous, so she will take her time and teach us how to learn to survive. Maybe I won’t live to see it, but I am going to educate.” To this day, the importance of the natural world and our place within it remain a prominent theme people find in her work.
In 1994, Graciela Sánchez, director of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center in San Antonio, invited Castillo to come to the United States to show her work, then to join the staff of the MujerArtes Clay Cooperative, where she taught her students to value not only clay but themselves. Castillo went on to lead the cooperative for fifteen years.
“I listened to the problems of the women,” Castillo says. “Most of them were immigrants, some without documents. Others were native Texans, but they had family problems. Machismo domestic abuse from their partners. They had neither voice nor vote. So, they started to trust me and confide in me.” Castillo taught the women how to defend themselves through the power of their voices.
At MujerArtes, Castillo met Norma Cantú, former president of the American Folklore Society and current board member of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center. According to Cantú, Castillo sets herself apart by bringing her heart and wisdom to this tradition. “She’s also teaching not just how to do the craft, the art, but also how to feel about it. Her spirit transmits through the artwork.”
The Tree of Life sculpture Castillo created for the National Museum of the American Latino features not one face but three to signify each of the exhibition’s themes. Latino Roots, History, and Justice is situated in a rotating case so viewers can see every part of this beautiful storytelling. Adrián Aldaba, the museum’s public programs manager, worked on bringing this project to life.
“Trees of Life typically tell the stories of creation, the story of Adam and Eve and so forth,” Aldaba says. “But here it was describing the creation of a nation. Well, can we take that same idea and talk about how Latinos have been a part of or how they came to be nation builders?” It was up to Castillo to transform the exhibition’s themes into a cohesive piece. Aldaba says the exhibit aims to be “as inclusive as possible, regionally, culturally—to dispel the myth that Latinos are a monolith. We are diverse.”
The first exhibition theme is “Identity and Community,” through which Castillo discussed how immigrants of the United States did not abandon their homelands. “They brought their hearts, and they planted them here in the United States to continue to educate, to form, to create,” she says. Castillo visualizes this theme at the top of the tree with a heart surrounded by branches and roots. This, she explains, “is the heart of all the immigrants that bring with them their culture, their language, and they have it well-rooted in the United States.”
The second theme, “Fighting for Justice,” conveys the activists and changemakers who defend their identities. She represents the top of this side with a monarch butterfly that “not only signifies the migration from here but from Latin America. It is universal migration, human migration.”
The third theme is “Breaking Boundaries,” showcasing those who have used their personal platform to raise awareness and create equal access. She signifies this with a sun. “The sun, in my Aztec culture, is the god Tonatiuh. He is the one who gives us strength. That’s why the sun is the strength of the warriors and for the women who die in childbirth. But for me, it is the strength for every human being who fights, who defends, and who places value in their voice.”
Castillo has artfully blended the origin stories of Latin American peoples in an inclusive way to showcase the nuanced histories of Latinos. She incorporates various birds and flowers that represent different countries of Latin America. She says her heart fills with joy to have her work educate and validate the experiences of Latinos in the United States.
In 2014, Castillo founded Ecos y Voces del Arte, or Galeria E.V.A., in San Antonio. It is not only an art gallery but a welcoming community space.
“Galeria E.V.A. opens its doors to everyone. It doesn’t matter—gay, lesbian, trans, straight. If you’re an artist, I can see your work. It can be exhibited in the gallery. There’s a lot of organizations that do not give the opportunity to artists of great talent. I just don’t understand why. In South Texas, there is not great activity within the art area, so I want you to know that there is.”
Castillo feels blessed with the support she’s been given and wants to continue helping her community. In 2020, Galeria E.V.A. prepared food for the homeless. She believes that this is their most important work. “We have been feeding people for two and a half years,” Castillo says. “They say that the plate you give us is filled with love. It’s from a family, from a home. That is the greatest gift a human being can give you, one who says thank you and gives you blessings. That is the greatest work we do.”
Castillo offers advice to artists advocating for social change. “Art is a powerful tool, and whatever medium you choose, use it in an honest, clean, and pure way. Do not create art in the hopes of gaining fame or wealth. Sincerity and humility are essential for the gift that artists have been given.”
Verónica Castillo has always considered herself a dreamer, but it is her memories and experiences that inform the artist she is today. Castillo’s Tree of Life represents adaptability and growth. It is rooted in family and in stories from the past yet flourishes through new beginnings. Through her art, she has met the troubles of the world face to face, yet her childhood dream never faded, and so she sees a child’s empathy and ambition as instrumental for our future.
“Children are the future of change through their art. Art can humanize people. It stops you from being selfish. It is a tool that should grow, not disappear. Pure art will emerge when you look within your heart.”
Francesca Galván was an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In 2023, she graduated from Arizona State University with a BFA in animation. As a visual storyteller, she appreciates the opportunity to write and illustrate stories of uplifting trailblazers such as Verónica Castillo. A special thank you to Verónica, whose character and artistry continue to inspire her. She also sends her appreciation to the National Museum of the American Latino, Norma Elia Cantú, Olivia Cadaval, Adrián Aldaba, and Rosie Torres.