By Tori Marlan
If Nancy Castro had chosen to have an abortion, she’d still be a teacher at Cristo Rey high school. But the 26-year-old Castro chose life, and apparently that’s the wrong choice if you’re pregnant and unmarried and would like to keep your job at the four-year-old Jesuit school in Pilsen.
Castro chose life as decisively as one can: she planned it. She says she started preparing for a healthy pregnancy a year in advance, incorporating high-nutrient items such as fresh vegetable juices into her diet. She says she wanted to be a “young mother” and have three children. It wasn’t a perfect time to get pregnant–she was working toward a doctorate in curriculum studies–but she knew other women who’d successfully juggled a job, graduate school, and family. When she thought it through, the time seemed as good as it would get. She was healthy. She had a good job. She lived in a rent-free apartment in the house she grew up in. She was in a stable relationship with a man she planned to marry. “Everything was going great,” she says. “I wanted to start my family. It was natural and normal to take that step.”
She got pregnant in February, timing it so that if all went well the baby would be born at the end of November, after she finished the fall quarter at DePaul University. She says it never crossed her mind that the decision to have a baby would cost her her job.
Castro began teaching Spanish and social science at Cristo Rey in 1997, after getting a master’s degree in Latin American literature from Purdue. She says she loved the work, her students, her colleagues, and the mission of the school, which was founded by the Jesuits in 1996 to offer an alternative, bilingual education to students in Pilsen and Little Village, where only a little over half of students in public schools graduate. Castro also liked the school’s innovative work-study curriculum; students work for local companies five days each month, and in exchange for the services of one student each workday, the companies help cover the cost of tuition.
According to 16-year-old Mayra Garibay, Castro was a patient, dedicated, inspiring teacher who would go out of her way to help students, even before and after school. In Castro’s classroom, she says, “school was fun, yet you learned everything you needed to know.” Despite a busy schedule as a full-time teacher and full-time grad student, Castro participated in extracurricular activities. When some girls wanted to start a pom-pom squad, she agreed to supervise the practices. As a dining-club sponsor, she chaperoned monthly excursions to ethnic restaurants. And each year Castro single-handedly made sure there was a school float to ride in the Mexican Independence Day parade. This fall she was supposed to split her time between teaching and working in the shared position of curriculum director. “I was promoted,” she says.
But over the summer everything changed. In late July the principal, Sister Judith Murphy, summoned Castro to the school for a meeting. To her surprise, it focused on her pregnancy. She says that Murphy began the meeting by saying, “I guess congratulations are in order.” But, says Castro, “She was red in the face, and she just proceeded to insult me: ‘You are very unprofessional, very immature, because you didn’t tell me.'” According to Castro, Murphy, who declined to be interviewed for this article, then implied that Castro had left her in the lurch, that the administration would have to scramble to find someone to replace her during her maternity leave. Castro says she apologized for not telling Murphy about her pregnancy, even though teachers at Cristo Rey usually found their own substitutes, something she, her due date still four months away, had every intention of doing.
But something else was bothering Murphy, says Castro. “She said, ‘I cannot have a single pregnant woman on staff.'” Castro interpreted the comment as an order to get married. She was shocked. “I said, ‘You’re saying I need to have a piece of paper to come back?’ And she said yes.”
Castro felt uncomfortable discussing her personal life with her boss, who clearly had a moral objection to the choices she’d made. Nonetheless, Castro says, “I told her–not that it was any of her business–‘Family is very important to me. And I just don’t see how a piece of paper’–‘It’s not just a piece of paper,’ she said–‘how that changes my family values. I would never have planned to have this child if I didn’t know I was going to have strong family support, because that was important for me and I think it’s important for my kid to have that.’ I told her I wanted this–this was planned. And she’s like, ‘Even worse.’ I’m like, ‘Whoa, even worse?’ She was judgmental! Somebody who has devoted her life to God treats people that way? I didn’t know God was about that. I didn’t know Christianity was about that–wanting to make people feel inferior. She was very insulting. I don’t understand why.”
Castro grew up in Chicago in what she calls a “traditional family.” Her parents, Catholic Mexican immigrants, taught her “what my duties are with God.” But to her, religion is intensely private. Faith isn’t something that can be measured by whether one goes to church or follows the dictates of an institution.
Castro says she managed to stay calm throughout the half-hour meeting with Murphy, but by the time it ended she was shaken up and a bit confused. She says Murphy had turned almost treacly, wishing Castro and her baby the best and asking for a hug. “I started to cry in the hallway,” Castro says. “I was like, ‘What the hell just happened? I need to get home fast so I can talk about it and reflect on it.'”
Since a single pregnant woman could not be on staff, Castro decided she had two options if she wanted to keep her job: she could get an abortion or she could get married. Neither seemed in line with her Christian values. “I could just get married with anybody off the street and that’ll be OK?” she says. “What does that say about the sacrament? If I get an abortion, what does that say about life? And if I was to get married, I was going to get married because someone was telling me to?” Castro says she’d planned to get married before classes started anyway. “But did I need to tell [Murphy] that? No. That wasn’t any of her business. How was that going to affect my job performance?”
Later that afternoon Castro called Murphy and resigned. The decision, she says, was motivated by principle: “I can’t conform to what an institution is asking me to do.” She also believed her relationship with her boss had been destroyed. The way she sees it, she was forced out of her job. “There was no way, after the way I was treated, I could go back and work for somebody like that.”
Castro says she soon realized she hadn’t done anything wrong by not discussing her pregnancy with Murphy, and she wanted a meeting so she could revoke her apology and make it clear that she’d resigned because of the way Murphy had treated her. Had Murphy approached the situation differently, treated her with more respect and without condescension, she says, the outcome probably would have been different. She says she left three messages for Murphy that went unreturned, though she did get to air her complaints in a meeting with Father John Foley, the president of the school. Like Murphy, Foley declined to be interviewed for this article.
Shortly after she resigned, Castro told some of her colleagues that she would not be returning to Cristo Rey. “I wanted them to know,” she says. “We were a very united staff.”
According to Alfredo Romero, who’d been hired as a new teacher, Castro’s absence when the school year began created tension between the teachers and the administration. He says the teachers commandeered one staff meeting and questioned the administration about what had happened. He says administrators responded by saying that having a child without being married “wasn’t appropriate in a Catholic setting.” He adds that the message was clear: Castro was no longer a good role model for the students. “That shocked the heck out of me,” he says. “I thought it was ridiculous. A young Hispanic woman going to school for her PhD–what better role model?”
Romero also felt personally insulted by the administration’s position. “I was raised by a single woman,” he says. “Four of us–all college graduates. My mother is dead now, but I felt she was a good person, and I don’t think you should judge a person on whether they’re married or not or having a child out of wedlock.” He hoped administrators would “realize they made a mistake” and rehire Castro. “I heard from all the other teachers she was a great teacher,” he says, “and that all the kids loved her.” The day before classes were to begin, when it was clear that the administration was making no effort to bring Castro back, Romero resigned in protest.
“That made me grin,” Castro says. “I think it’s so important that people stand up for what they believe. I know we have families to feed and bills to pay, and that was crossing my mind–what the heck am I gonna do? I have all these payments–tuition, books–and a baby on the way. But I couldn’t go back. I was like, ‘I don’t care. I’m gonna find a job somewhere.’ And I went on the goodwill of God.”
The media contact at Cristo Rey declined to answer either specific questions about Castro’s resignation or more general ones about whether the school has a code of conduct, written or unwritten, for its teachers. The city’s only other Jesuit high school, Saint Ignatius College Prep, has a written policy stating that teachers may be dismissed for “actions contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.” The school’s president, Father Brian Paulson, writes that intentionally having children out of wedlock would constitute “a failure to act consistently with the stated philosophy and objectives of the school as a Catholic institution…. We would evaluate such situations very seriously.” Yet in practice the school offers what one employee considers a “very tolerant and compassionate work setting,” pointing out that the school has several gay teachers in committed relationships on staff even though the Catholic church condemns homosexual acts.
Castro’s resignation illuminates what appears to be, however inadvertent, a double standard at Cristo Rey with respect to the personal lives of male and female teachers. A former teacher says that the school has hired at least one male teacher who’d fathered children out of wedlock. But as long as teachers keep their private lives private their jobs seem to be secure. As a woman, Castro didn’t have that luxury–it’s hard to be discreet about impending motherhood.
Andrea Guzman, a 16-year-old former student of Castro’s, scoffs at the implication that Castro’s pregnancy diminished her capacity to be a good role model. Castro’s marital status “doesn’t affect the fact that she’s intelligent and never quit school, never gave up,” says Guzman. “That’s a role model right there.” She says that if there’s something to be learned from Castro’s choices, it’s that she had the good sense to wait to get pregnant until she finished college, had a career, and was no longer dependent on her parents. What’s so wrong, she wonders, with Castro’s example of “having a child when you feel ready–mentally, physically, and economically?”
When Castro resigned, Cristo Rey, a school with a predominantly Mexican-American student population, lost its only Mexican-American teacher. There was no Cristo Rey float in the Mexican Independence Day parade this year. Guzman says, “A huge part of Cristo Rey is missing because she left.”
When Mayra Garibay heard about what had happened with Castro, she began planning a petition drive on Castro’s behalf. Garibay says she enlisted about 50 of her fellow students to sign the petition, but that when she called to tell Castro of her efforts, Castro told her not to bother, saying she couldn’t go back to work for Murphy. Besides, by then she’d found another job, at Our America Charter High School, a bilingual school in Humboldt Park, where she interviewed shortly after resigning. “The principal was awesome,” says Castro, who married her boyfriend, Adams Ruesta, in September. “He said, ‘Work until you can’t walk anymore–we’ll figure your contract out. How much were you making at the school? I can offer you this. We’ll offer you insurance.’ He was awesome.” She pauses, then says, “He was human.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.