By Jeff Huebner

“I’ve been exposed to a lot of pain in my life, but mixed in with that has been a lot of beauty,” says Aldo Castillo, a 38-year-old sculptor, graphic designer, and art dealer who just moved his gallery to River North. “Instead of becoming an angry and bitter person, I needed to turn the pain into something positive. So I did the best thing–doing what I love, which is art.”

Castillo left his native Ocotal, Nicaragua, in 1976, shortly after the Sandinistas started their revolution against the Somoza regime. “I had seen a lot of my classmates killed by the Somozas. My parents didn’t want me to get involved politically–they wanted me to study and live.”

They sent him to the Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala City, where he studied architecture and graphic design. “I wanted to be an artist, but there wasn’t a formal school of the arts in Nicaragua–because no one would choose a career like that. A lot of fine artists became architects because of the pressure of having a career so we could survive. But after graduating, I realized I didn’t want to work as an architect all my life. I needed to express my creativity.”

Castillo took off for Lima, Peru, in 1980, a year after the Sandinistas toppled the Somoza regime and sparked the decade-long civil conflict that pitted the revolutionary government forces against the U.S.-supported contras. He studied painting and sculpture, but by the end of 1981 he was back in Guatemala City.

For the next four years Castillo worked as an exhibit organizer and graphic designer for the Popol Vuh Museum, which specialized in Mayan art, colonial art, and Guatemalan folklore. He also began exhibiting his bronze sculptures and drawings at the museum and other galleries, and he began to be interested in education. “My background at the museum was to expose people to the enjoyment of Latin American art and culture so they could gain a better understanding, appreciation, and respect of it.”

Meanwhile the war back home was beginning to divide his family. “At the beginning my family supported the Sandinistas. But when Reagan created the contras, people couldn’t choose to fight or not to fight. The Sandinistas forced young people into the military, and every family became divided. The Sandinistas became suspicious of divided families because some members might support the contras. My father went to jail three times.”

Castillo is the oldest of eight brothers, three of whom served in the armed forces. Noel and Alvaro, he says, were taken from a movie theater and forced into the war. Juan was drafted and became a pilot. “He flew a MiG plane for the Sandinistas. But the Sandinistas had denied they were going to get those powerful planes, because they didn’t want the U.S. to know. Thirteen boys were taken to Russia [for training]. Eleven were killed during the war. My brother was one of the two who lived.”

Around 1984 Noel and Alvaro fled the army and made their way across the mountains to Honduras, where they were picked up by the authorities and detained for eight days. “They needed to investigate and torture them to make sure they weren’t trying to export the revolution into Honduras,” Castillo says. He used his connections to get them into Guatemala, where they still live. Juan is now in Managua, and his mother and father, who divorced during the war, still live in Ocotal.

Castillo came to Chicago in 1985. He had friends here, and he wanted to attend the School of the Art Institute. He applied for a scholarship and was soon given one.

He also applied for political asylum. But Nicaraguans had to prove that their lives were in danger if they wanted to be granted asylum here, and he didn’t have documentation. “They tried to send me back to Nicaragua, but I couldn’t go back there. In Guatemala I had been accused of being a contra. Inside my own country I was taken as a contra because I helped my brothers escape. I may have been sympathetic with the Sandinistas, but they were suspicious of anyone who didn’t help in the revolution. They told my parents that studying architecture was a bourgeois activity which the country couldn’t afford. I would’ve got thrown in jail.”

Immigration officials revoked his visa, which cost him his scholarship. But they couldn’t deport him because he hired a lawyer to gather enough evidence to prove it was dangerous for him to go back to Nicaragua. Without a visa he couldn’t get a green card and couldn’t work legally. Yet he found a job as a busboy and later as a salesman with Marshall Field’s Collectors Gallery.

In the summer of 1986 or ’87 he says he got a mysterious phone call. “I was asked to come downtown and meet a man who had some gifts for me. I asked who they were from, but they didn’t want to tell me. Friends, they said. It was going to be a surprise. This man took me to a restaurant and pulled out a badge. I assumed he was with the CIA. But he was like the KGB. He let me know that they knew everything–they knew I was illegal, they knew about my family and my friends, they knew about my conversations on the phone. They also knew that my brother was a Sandinista pilot.

“They wanted me to go to Nicaragua to approach him to escape into this country. I assumed they wanted to find out what the Sandinistas were doing, to know about the war there. They asked me not to tell anybody. I said, ‘How do I know you’re not a Russian agent or a Nicaraguan agent?’ He took me up to the office of the FBI.

“Anyway, I told him I’m not going to betray my country–I’m not going to sell my brother’s head. I was so sure they were going to kill me because I said no. After I left I went to the bedding department of a department store and bought a beautiful white cotton bedspread with embroidered materials. I don’t know why–it was something like your grandmother would buy. Then I had a facial massage and then bought myself a great meal. I went home and prepared for a bullet in the head for three days. But then I thought, you know, I’m not a dangerous person. I’m not politically involved. There’s no reason for people to kill me.”

Castillo finally received political asylum in February 1991 and is now a permanent resident. He didn’t go back to the School of the Art Institute. “It’s been tough being in Chicago, because people have many stereotypes about Latinos. I have an education background, but ten years ago there was not a professional Latino working for a gallery or a museum here. There was no room for me to work in what I knew. At the time I thought people were prejudiced, but then I realized that they just weren’t being exposed to Latin American art, that they needed to see how strong all the different cultures are. So I felt I needed to do something about it.”

Castillo had long since stopped doing his own art, but then a friend offered him money to rent a studio. He found a sun-filled upstairs loft at 3513 N. Lincoln, but decided he wanted to turn it into a gallery of Latin American art. He opened the gallery in May 1993 and started exhibiting works by many of the artists he knew from working at the museum in Guatemala City. He became the midwest representative for many Latin American artists who were better known in their own countries–Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru–as well as artists from Chicago, Spain, Japan, and South Africa. Last September and again this February he curated exhibits of the work of international artists for Around the Coyote.

Last month Castillo moved his gallery to a plush downstairs space in River North, at 233 W. Huron. “People who collect art are used to buying in galleries downtown and not in out-of-the-way places. I was in an inexpensive neighborhood, but I was using most of my energy attracting people. I was burning out. I realized I needed to make a move to get more foot traffic.” Though he’s now in the center of the city’s commercial-gallery district, Castillo says he’ll continue what he calls his “social mission,” educating the public about the arts, culture, and history of Latin America.

“I’ve always been conscious of trying to make things positive. Every day it’s a shock to me to know I’m not bitter. One day maybe I’ll stop to take an inventory about how my past really affected my life. I still don’t know psychologically what happened, but sometimes you have to go back and recall those traumatic things to help you heal. This new gallery is a risky move, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I have to try.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Armando Villa.