Stepping out 

“This is my cave, my sanctuary,” Juanito Castillo says as he enters the guest-house-turned-music-studio built for him behind his parents’ home on San Antonio’s West Side. “I’m out here all the time, whenever I feel like it: midnight, 2 a.m.”

A musical prodigy who dazzled locals as an adolescent member of Esteban Jordan’s band, Juanito is finally getting a taste of adulthood. At 19, he is no longer restricted by bedtime nor does he have to ask his mom and dad for permission to travel to Dallas with his friends for a gig. He can eat Whataburger everyday if he chooses and can go on a date with his girlfriend without worrying that a chaperone might cramp his style.

Juanito has become a young man. He would, however, be the first to tell you he’s always been pretty independent.

It seems like only yesterday Juanito was a little boy with an accordion in his hands, playing for crowds at Market Square and local church festivals. Hailed as brilliant at an early age, Juanito quickly moved up the ranks to the conjunto elite and captured the attention of many Tejano musicians on the scene, who were amazed by his
virtuosity.

What made his abilities even more remarkable was that Juanito has been blind his entire life. Born three months premature, he lost his sight during complications in the hospital, which ultimately damaged both his retinas.

His calling in life, however, would not be altered by his inability to see. When he was only 3, Juanito heard his father strumming a guitar and was immediately intrigued.

“My dad was just fiddling around, and I got on his lap and started imitating him,” Juanito says. “I knew exactly what I was doing. It was rhythm. That’s what I picked up right away — pots and pans and paint cans and a pair of spoons.”

It wasn’t long before a small, flea-market-bought squeezebox was placed in Juanito’s hands. Although it might have entertained him for a while, he wasn’t impressed with the quality of music he could create on the airy toy.

“Me, being the spoiled, blind brat that I was, I told my dad I wanted a bigger accordion,” Juanito says. “Even when I was little, I’ve always had something to say about what I wanted to do.”

Juanito’s musical education began when his parents took him to Alamo Music Center for private accordion lessons with Bene Medina of Conjunto Aguila. Medina remembers when he first met Juanito, he wasn’t certain he could teach someone who couldn’t see how to develop as a musician.

“When Juanito came in he was so little,” Medina says. “His parents asked me if I could teach their child who was blind. I told them I could try. As soon as I saw him play, I knew he was something special. To me he’s a musical genius.”

“People considered me a prodigy, but I never considered myself anything,” Juanito says. “Honestly, I’m just another soul in this world just doing what he knows how to do.”

By age 11, Juanito was already a staple of the Tejano scene and had released his first album. As a member of Grupo Carisma, he would also perform solo and with other musicians who asked him to sit in for a set.

“I never had time to be a little kid,” he says. “I was always growing up way too fast.”

At 14, Juanito released his second album, Como Todas Ellas. During this time he attended Lanier High School, but his dream of becoming a full-time musician and touring took precedence over everything else, and Juanito eventually dropped out of school before his junior year.

“I could have gone to college and got my degree, but that is only a degree in theory,” Juanito explains. “That’s not a degree in soul, a degree in power, or a degree in creativity. I decided I would rather go live life myself than have someone tell me the story. That’s why some people are boiling in the Ramen noodles and some people have their head above the water.”

Although he’s most acclaimed for his skills on the accordion, Castillo can play 14 instruments, and in 2003 he joined Esteban Jordan’s conjunto as the drummer and began touring around the country. His time with Jordan ended two months ago, when Juanito left the band to pursue his own projects, which include a third, untitled album currently in post-production, and a fourth, which will see Juanito venture away from his familiar norteño roots and experiment with other musical influences.

“I want to do a big-band jazz album and add some Stevie Ray Vaughan type of accordion blues,” Juanito says. “Some people think I can only do conjunto, but I can play a lot of different music. My range is from Miles Davis to Flyleaf. Then, throw in a little Papa Roach and George Strait and Hank Williams Jr.”

Juanito also wants to start his own band, a group he says he will lead without ever really stepping into the spotlight. If he’s learned anything in the last few years, he says, it’s that he has to take everyone else into consideration before himself.

“It’s always been about me,” Juanito said. “Now, I want it to be about the band and the people around me — the entourage that helps me. I want every single musician to shine. I hope everybody digs what comes to be. It’s gonna be crazy. It’s gonna be me in my world, honestly. The world of music.”


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