Ana Castillo wears academic regalia and stands outdoors at a dais as she addresses an audience

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Northeastern Illinois University honored celebrated poet, essayist, activist, novelist and scholar Ana Castillo with the Distinguished Alumnus Award during the annual Golden Gala and Alumni Awards. This year’s ceremony, emceed by 2011 Distinguished Alumnus Award winner and retired WGN anchor Robert Jordan, took place Oct. 17.

Castillo has contributed to national publications such as Salon and Oxygen, and serves as editor of La Tolteca 2.0, an arts and literary zine that features creatives of all backgrounds, while focusing on the marginalized. Castillo’s novels include “So Far From God,” “The Guardians” and “Peel My Love like an Onion.” Her novel “Sapogonia” was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She has been profiled and interviewed on National Public Radio and the History Channel, and was a radio-essayist with NPR in Chicago.

The Distinguished Alumnus Award is the highest honor Northeastern bestows upon alumni. As is tradition for winners of the Distinguished Alumnus Award, Castillo (B.A. ’75 Art) will deliver remarks to the graduates during the December 2020 Commencement.

After graduating from Northeastern, Castillo moved to California, where she taught ethnic studies at a community college. After a year, she moved back to her hometown to attend the University of Chicago, where she earned a master’s degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Based on study of her poetry of the time and her first novel, Castillo was invited to the University of Bremen in Germany. Castillo wrote “Massacre of the Dreamers,” which was accepted as a formal dissertation, and earned cum laude Ph.D. honors in American Studies. “Massacre of the Dreamers” was published in 1994, and Castillo later received an honorary degree from Colby College. In 2014, a new anniversary edition of the book was published by the University of New Mexico Press. Castillo served as the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Visiting Scholar at MIT and held the first Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Endowed Chair at DePaul University.

Castillo, who was born and raised in Chicago’s Near West Side community and now resides in New Mexico, is eager to speak to the graduates.

“I am aware that this is an unprecedented time in not only the history of this country but the history of this world,” she said. “If there is something that I can offer that might speak to them, it is my privilege to do so. It’s important that we all are aware—regardless of our ethnic background, our gender, our lifestyle choices—that we’re all sharing this planet together. I hope that my words might ring true so that they will have the inspiration.”

Castillo remembers her time at Northeastern fondly. As a transfer student, she participated in student groups inside and outside the University, specifically involving the Latino arts. In her first year at Northeastern, Castillo recalls advocating for the University to hire a Chicano professor, who eventually became her first Latino professor in college.

“His arrival was affirming to my existence,” Castillo said. “The professor made a difference for me because he affirmed my own personal history in the United States. I was able to take that with me when I went to teach in California.”

Castillo was invited back to Northeastern in 2008-09 to speak in the Presidential Lecture Series, then again in 2018, when she debuted her poem “These Times” during the inauguration of President Gloria J. Gibson.

“It was an honor and a privilege and a pleasure to come back for the inauguration because Chicago is my hometown,” she said. “My great-grandmother arrived there over 100 years ago. My son is there, my granddaughter is there. It was also an honor and a pleasure, because the president is an African American woman, to be able to celebrate her accomplishment.”

Castillo recently finished new collection of poetry she wrote between 2012 and 2020 that she hopes to publish soon. Titled “My Book of the Dead,” the collection of 40 poems addresses the meaning of life, current events and what happens after death.

Northeastern honored four more individuals during the Golden Gala:

Alumni Service Award
Charles L. Good 

B.A. ’04 Economics and History     

Community Leadership Award
Berhane Hailemichael   

B.A. ’14 Justice Studies
M.A. ’17 Community and Teacher Leaders   

Outstanding GOLD Alumni Award
David Robertson   

B.A. ’16 Nontraditional Degree Programs
M.A. ’18 Community and Teacher Leaders      

Future Alumni Leader Award
Melanie Glover  

B.A. ’18 Justice Studies
Current Graduate Student