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All in the Family : Crossing Borders and Generations, Castillos Work to Keep Bond Alive


One of Long Beach's oldest Mexican American families gathered for the 32nd year at a Long Beach park Saturday to celebrate what they share -- and what they don't.

Hundreds of Castillo family members filled rows of picnic tables as long and wide as a Boeing 747 . Toddlers and children spilled onto the grass, where they shrieked and played and chattered, nearly always in English. Some of the younger Castillos speak no Spanish; others, like Maura Castillo's section of the family, were born in Mexico.

Maura Zamarripa Castillo, 29, a Cal State Long Beach graduate and daughter of a bracero , or field worker, visits her family in central Mexico annually and says she would only marry a Mexican. But her cousin, Long Beach social worker Olivia Castillo Pohl, 44, has never been beyond Baja and married an Irishman. "I don't think I even ever dated one Mexican," Pohl said. "It's not that I didn't like them. But the blonds were always cuter."

But even if their tastes in sweethearts differ, Pohl said, the Castillos share a fierce sense of pride in who they are. "To Mexicans," she said, "the family is No. 1."

For many of the older family members, the annual trek to the family reunion is the end of a long, hard journey that took them from poverty to a place where their children are college graduates with professions, Mexican restaurants and middle-class lives.

Lupe Castillo, at 78 the oldest of the Long Beach clan that now has nearly 500 members, reigned as patriarch Saturday. The youngest was 1 month old, a fifth-generation American of a family whose roots originate at the end of a dirt road in the hardscrabble ranches outside the Mexican city of San Luis Potosi.

Lupe Castillo's father was one of nine brothers and sisters who left Mexico in 1915 during the revolution, when Pancho Villa stole the family's most precious possession--their horses--Lupe Castillo said. They went to Texas, where they heard tales of abundant land, crops and work in the fertile fields of Southern California.

They arrived in Long Beach and discovered farm work would not feed the family, so the brothers took jobs laying the city's sewer system. One of the brothers bought a bungalow on East 14th Street and raised a family there. The house still stands, but it is no longer in the Castillo family; Jose Castillo traded it long ago for land in Durango, Mexico.

Outside Long Beach, family members now live in Texas, Arizona, Southeast Los Angeles, Orange County and scattered about the farms and ranches near San Luis Potosi. The last of the original nine brothers and sisters died three years ago, said Norma Fernandez, who was elected as Castillo family president last year.

The granddaughter of one of the original nine, Fernandez, 45, was chosen to run the family at last year's dinner-dance, the other annual family function.

As president, Fernandez orchestrates the family's many operations, from picnics, parties and collecting dues ($40 a family), to softball games, fund-raisers and charity drives to provide food, clothes, roads and medical supplies to San Luis Potosi.

The Lakewood Castillos are the most recently arrived from Mexico, and the most connected to it. They constituted a small, Spanish-speaking pocket at the picnic, surrounded by English speakers and a growing number of blond Castillos. Alejandrino Castillo, 45, had just returned from delivering an ambulance to El Rincon, near San Luis Potosi, donated to the community by the American Castillos and members of Club San Luis Potosi, formed to help the family back home.

Alejandrino Castillo returns frequently with donations; his dream is to finance the paving of the road that leads to the farming town where about 50 or 60 of his Mexican relatives still live.

Most of Alejandrino Castillo's immediate family live in Lakewood, and a few more arrive from Mexico every year, he said. "When the children grow up to become teen-agers, the parents let them come and stay with the family here," he said. "They usually end up living here. That's why the family here is so big."

Although they live in the United States, a part of their soul remains in Mexico, he said.

His niece, Maura Castillo, agreed. "I was born in a little town an hour and a half from the paved road," she said. "There was no water, electricity or toilets. My mom and dad worked in the fields. My dad knew that would be our life if we stayed. That's why we came.

"A lot of us had to leave Mexico not out of choice but out of necessity--for a better life, for a future for the children," she said. "My father had a third-grade education. Here, the children had the opportunity to be educated."

In the United States, Maura Castillo's father supported his six children as a migrant farm worker. Today, Maura is a sales executive with a health maintenance organization.

"A big reason why we get together like this," she said, "is to keep what is Mexican. That is the tradition we bring from Mexico. To teach the children our culture. The true heart inside me stays Mexican," she said. "That is never going to change."

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