Debra A. Castillo

Debra Castillo with actors from “Palenque Rojo” in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, México.
Debra Castillo with actors from “Palenque Rojo” in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, México.

Debra comes from a ninth generation, family-operated, small dairy farm in Wisconsin.  From a very young age she was attracted to arts and culture:  she wrote her first novel, Brownie, The Horse that Talks (co-illustrated by younger siblings), along with other short novels and memoirs beginning at age seven; her magnum opus, Never Say Dull, based on stories she told her siblings during barn chores and before bed, was written between the sixth and eighth grades. She scripted plays for sock puppets, organized variety shows, was a protective fashion designer for her knock-off Barbie, Andromeda, and took over many cooking duties for her family starting at age nine.  Sadly, her artistic ambitions were unaccompanied by any significant talent, except for cooking, which she really is very good at.  As a Cornell professor, she has taught a lot of students, written a bunch of academic books, and has been an administrator for local and international organizations. She dabbles in the arts through a longstanding collaboration with Teatrotaller, the Latino/a theater troupe, and works with an arts and education project called Cultura Ithaca.  In her free time she enjoys making quilts, which she gives away to family and friends, and if they lack the spark of true artistry, at least they are colorful, washable, and warm.

The chapter in the book was co-written with Carolina Osorio Gil, a longtime collaborator in the community, and talks about the challenge of grass-roots organizing with members of vulnerable populations in small, rural communities like Ithaca.  It begins like this:

“I heard you help people” – Grassroots Advocacy for Latin@s in Need

Early in Spring 2016, a Salvadoran woman in her mid‐sixties walked into the CULTURA office, a cubicle located in the Tompkins County Workers Center, on the second floor of Autumn Leaves Used Bookstore on the Ithaca Commons. Carolina smiled because she had been expecting her. Several months earlier, at the end of 2015, the woman’s husband, Ernesto, had stopped in and said that she would come to get help filling out the paperwork to get her permanent residency, after over thirty years of living in the USA. However, that day Francisca was there for a more urgent matter. Her Medicare had expired and she was trying to figure out what to do about a medical bill that she had received for $200. She was very concerned about what might happen if she didn’t pay on time. Carolina made a phone call to the medical center to see if they could give her some time on the bill while she sorted out her Medicare, and they were very understanding. She then called Department of Social Services to make sure Francisca could make an appointment to renew her Medicare.

Although CULTURA was founded as an arts and educational project, experiences like these inspired us to extend our mandate by designing events and programs around issues like financial education, food security, and healthcare.  We also realized that CULTURA Ithaca–as one of the few readily identifiable Spanish-speaking, Latin@-serving community organizations–needed to do more one-on-one advocacy work, along with developing a greater awareness of these issues in our community.

Carolina Osorio Gil and Debra Castillo – “I heard you help people” [PDF]