West Side Story

It qualified as a classic Manny Castillo gathering.

A group of local artists and friends convened at One9Zero6 Gallery on Wednesday, January 7, for a long night of brainstorming, painting, drinking Lone Star and scarfing Fred’s Fish Fry. They finally wrapped things up at 4 a.m., exhausted but proud of what they’d created.

The one person conspicuous by his absence was Castillo, who could usually be counted on to man the barbecue pit while rocking his chanclas with socks. Castillo, the executive director of San Anto Cultural Arts and drummer for local underground-rock band Snowbyrd, had succumbed the night before to cancer, less than two months after his 40th birthday. At his family’s request, as a final tribute, his friends were hand-painting his casket.

The stunning, deep-blue result suggested a lowrider design adapted to the contours of a funeral casket: Images specific to Castillo (his face, a red Taco Land logo, chanclas, and a barbecue pit) mixed with classic Chicano and Aztec iconography.      

Ian Tyler Ibarra, a local filmmaker and one of Castillo’s closest friends, says with a laugh: “They even took it to a body shop to get it clear-coated. Manny never even took his truck to a body shop. But that was fitting. He would have loved it.”

Painting the casket represented a way to turn a shattering tragedy into a creative, collaborative act, and Castillo always thrived on creative collaboration. Over the last 15 years, he’d helped to transform the economically moribund West Side, launching an ambitious community-arts program that produced 36 murals, provided educational opportunities for Westside kids, and instilled a sense of pride and engagement in a community often ignored by city leaders. He also established a well-deserved reputation as one of the most dynamic, exciting drummers on the local music scene, with a flamboyant, frenetic style that perfectly suited the man behind the kit: brash, sarcastic, generous, idealistic, and almost childlike in the exuberance he displayed for his musical and artistic passions.

Beyond his obvious accomplishments, Castillo possessed an intangible personal power, a magnetic pull, that drew people close to him. Like no one else on the local scene, he always seemed to be at the center of activity: bellowing “War Pigs” or spitting out “Baby Got Back” at a karaoke bar; checking out young punk bands at Taco Land; dancing to Esteban Jordan’s conjunto at Saluté; bluntly critiquing zydeco bands at the International Accordion Festival; jamming with Snowbyrd at Limelight; and hosting the annual Huevos Rancheros fundraising gala for San Anto.

Through it all he seemed indestructible; a goateed super-vato in a gray fedora who exuded supreme confidence. In San Antonio, he was the archetypal guy at the bar that everyone seems to know or wants to know.

“One of the things that made an impression on people was that he seemed to come off as sort of arrogant,” says Juan Miguel Ramos, a local artist and drummer for the band Sexto Sol. “When I was younger and getting to know him, the way that I interpreted that was kind of like a confidence that you needed to have, in order to be yourself in all situations. I had bad posture, I was very quiet, I had poor social skills, and he was like the opposite.

“To some people, at first that seems like arrogance. And I’ve talked to people that didn’t have a very good first impression. Once you get to know him more, you know it’s kind of rooted in the fact that he’s going to be Manny no matter what.”

Cancer ravaged Castillo’s body with such malicious swiftness that his passing still feels surreal for many of his friends. Former District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle, a key career mentor for Castillo, says that he first complained of chest pains in July and quickly scheduled a doctor’s visit, but X-rays detected nothing. The pain persisted and by September, he told himself that he’d go back to the doctor as soon as he made it past the October 4 Huevos Rancheros gala.

“He woke up the morning of the Huevos Rancheros at 3 a.m. in such pain, and didn’t know if he was going to make it, but he did,” Radle says.

The following week, Castillo went for more medical tests and doctors determined that a very aggressive tumor had attached itself to his lungs. On October 20, he underwent surgery and in November he began chemotherapy and radiation treatments. For a few weeks, friends expressed hope that he’d make a full recovery. On Friday, January 2, however, with doctors resigned to the inevitable, Castillo checked into a hospice. Four days later, surrounded by family and close friends, and with the conjunto sounds of his beloved KEDA playing in the background, he quietly passed.

“His death is a wakeup call for a lot of people,” Ibarra says. “Not like, ‘Oh shit, I can die tomorrow, too,’ but ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life? What are you out there doing in your community? What are you doing to help future generations or to document the history of your people?‘”   

If you talk to enough of Castillo’s friends, common themes quickly emerge. Many of them will describe him as the big brother they never had, and most of them will tell you that they first met him at Taco Land. The now defunct punk-rock mecca was a favorite hangout for Castillo, who gigged there frequently and spent countless nights checking out other bands.

Patti Radle, probably the biggest influence on his adult life, is a major exception, in the sense that she met Castillo not at Taco Land but at the office of her community-empowerment organization, Inner City Development.

Castillo, a Westside native and 1987 graduate of Holy Cross High School, had just returned to SA after studying at the University of New Orleans. Inner City Development, an organization formed in the 1970s by Radle and her husband Rod, ran a newspaper ad in 1992, informing would-be community activists that they could get free room and board at Inner City’s volunteer house in exchange for 15 hours a week of volunteer work.

 “Even just in his interview, right away you could tell he was a little different, that he had a spark,” Radle says. “It was sort of this courageous, humorous, sarcastic thing. You could tell right away that he appreciated what Inner City was about when we would be telling him more and more, and asking him questions to see if he was going to qualify. And during his interview, he made some remark like, ‘Does Joe McCarthy know about you?’”

Radle recalls that Castillo immediately demonstrated a concern for the Westside community and questioned why no murals could be found in the neighborhoods.

Shortly after Castillo joined Inner City, his band El Santo traveled by van with three other local groups on a Pacific Northwest tour. One of those bands, Glorium, featured a 21-year-old drummer named Juan Miguel Ramos who doubled as a visual artist. The two drummers spent much of their time in the cramped, smelly van excitedly talking about the possibility of a mural program on the West Side.  

Even before the tour, Ramos had received an early taste of Castillo’s self-assurance and rebellious spirit after a joint gig at Taco Land.

Ramos says: “He asked me what I thought of their music, and I was referring to his drum playing, and I said, ‘There’s too much mustard on that hot dog.’ ’Cause he would just go all out and it’d be extreme. He just kind of laughed it off and I felt like, almost for spite, he just poured it on even more.”

Over the course of their Pacific Northwest tour, Glorium bassist George Lara overheard all the mural talk and put in a good word for a childhood friend of his named Cruz Ortiz. At the time, Ortiz was working construction jobs and feeling like he hadn’t found his true calling. When his friend called him from the road to talk about a possible mural project, he grew excited.

The bands planned to celebrate their SA return by heading straight to Taco Land and playing a gig. Ortiz showed up at the club and laughs at the memory of that eventful night: “I thought `Castillo` stunk really, really bad. They looked so nasty and he just looked tired. And I felt like I was in the way, like, ‘Hey, I’m a dork. I paint.’ And he’s a cool punk-rock drummer.

“But he was really excited that George had told him about me. We instantly clicked, and he told me about the chance to live at Inner City.”

That weekend, Ortiz moved into the Inner City volunteer house, where he met his future wife, fellow Inner City volunteer Rina Moreno.

In a 2004 interview with the Current, Castillo recalled that they’d sleep with the windows open at the volunteer house, and every night they’d hear gunfire outside. With that in mind, Castillo, Ortiz, and Ramos conceptualized a mural that would offer the promise of a better future for Westside residents but openly acknowledge the grim realities of violence and poverty in the area. They called the first mural Educación.  

“The dude was a genius,” Ortiz says. “He read all the time, he was an incredible mathematician, analytical thinker, technical thinker.”

During his time as an office assistant at Inner City, Castillo demonstrated a passion for the community and a rare ability to connect with kids, but he was never known for his punctuality. Ortiz jokingly says that “the boy got away with crimes,” because of Radle’s obvious regard for him. Inner City held meetings every Monday at 9 a.m. and Castillo was “religiously late.”
Ortiz adds, “We’d get scolded for Manny’s miscue. I’d say to Manny, ‘What the hell are you doing, dude? I got in trouble ’cause of you.’”

Castillo initially developed the mural program at Inner City, and with Radle’s help, found a funding opportunity through the VISTA program that enabled him to create San Anto Cultural Arts.

“He wanted an independent organization,” Radle says. “We’re all volunteers at Inner City, and he needed regular, full-time people. So then we entered in the process of getting the incorporation papers done, and we were able to dedicate a portion of our building, so that he could have an office in the same complex.”

During a trip to the Valley, Castillo had observed that the creators of a mural published a newspaper to keep the community informed of their progress, and he decided to create a similar publication, which he dubbed El Placazo.   

“Through doing those things, and always listening to others, he made sure that since it was public art, that it was really endorsed and supported by the community,” Radle says.

San Anto — with its emphasis on mural crews in which young people assisted and developed expertise that would help them lead future projects — ultimately became a model for artists and community organizers in other cities. Ernesto Cuevas, an Atlanta-based artist, met Castillo in 2005 at a National Association of Latino Arts and Culture workshop. Cuevas came down to San Antonio for a week-and-a-half training session with Castillo’s organization and used the San Anto blueprint to create an organization called Red Cielo.

“He served as a mentor for me; he served as a big brother, and he helped me to define more effectively what my mission and what my goal was,” Cuevas says. “I was at San Anto and I saw an adult mentoring a 13-year-old, who was mentoring an 11-year-old, and they were all working collectively on their community newsletter. The passion that the community had for them, and the fact that artists were so engaged in giving back to the community through this vessel left a huge impression on me.“

Courtesy Image
Castillo, right, with Snowbyrd bandmate Chris Lutz (left) and comedian Dave Foley, after a Toronto gig.

Castillo facilitated the creation of art on the West Side, but he was not a painter. His own primary creative outlet was music.

A punk-rock devotee, he worked to bring the Minutemen documentary, We Jam Econo, to Café Revolution for a 2006 screening. He proudly had his picture taken on the road alongside drumming heroes such as Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart and Dinosaur Jr.’s Murph. And he regularly emailed friends his Tune of the Day choices, most often vintage soul classics from the ’70s.

He liked to describe himself as a “lead drummer,” and while that sounded like a brag, it was also undeniably true. Castillo’s rampaging fills not only propelled the music forward but danced atop the proceedings, in a style most often compared to The Who’s Keith Moon.   

“I like to think of Manny as this amazing musician,” Ortiz says. “He was just sweating the whole damn time. I remember him playing and his body wouldn’t move, and he’d be sticking out his tongue or something, and then his arms were a blur.”

Castillo had no use for half-measures or equivocation, and the power (and volume) of his drumming was so overwhelming, it bordered on a political statement. Chris Lutz, Castillo’s bandmate in Snowbyrd and the River City Playboys, took Castillo aside at one point and suggested that Snowbyrd might be playing too loudly. He says Castillo replied, “You don’t know what loud is.” To back up the point, Castillo took Lutz to the South Side to hear conjunto bandleader Jet Martinez.

“They were so loud and so good, just incredible,” Lutz says. “They were 10 times louder than us. So we immediately went and bought bigger, louder amps. Of course, Manny didn’t need new drums — he just played louder.”

Castillo’s relentless devotion to his native city occasionally put him at odds with Jeff Smith, the head of Snowbyrd’s label, Saustex Records.

“I’d tell him, ‘You’ve got to go play in Houston and Dallas. It’s just something you’ve got to do,’” Smith says. “He’d say, ‘Dallas sucks, Houston sucks.’ At that time I didn’t really get it, but he genuinely felt that San Antonio was not only his home, but one of the greatest places in the world, and somewhere to be proud of. He did his best to perpetuate that.”

Ian Tyler Ibarra remembers that Castillo would jokingly refer to fans of the Dallas Cowboys or Dallas Mavericks as “Republicans.” He also dubbed women who worked for SAWS or CPS “Janies,” presumably because he found that so many of them were actually named Janie.

His sense of humor also revealed itself in 2007 when he sent out a mass email featuring a photo of him, arm in arm with actress Rosario Dawson (Ibarra says they met at a Philadelphia bar), suggesting that he and Dawson had decided to go public with their romantic relationship. In the photo, Dawson smiles broadly for the camera, while Castillo maintains a cool, deadpan reserve, like getting his picture taken with gorgeous celebrities is simply part of his daily routine.  

“He used to get a kick out of giving me a hard time, because it was so easy for him to push my buttons,” Ramos recalls. “I remember one time his band, the Cleofus Trujillo Trio, was playing at Taco Land, and we’d talked about how `Cruz Ortiz` and I would take some artwork for the show. Manny had completely forgotten about it, and there was something he was supposed to do to help out. I was so upset and completely frazzled, and he just looked at me and smiled and laughed and walked away. Ultimately, everything was fine, and he had a way of reminding you to check yourself.”

One of the bitter ironies of Castillo’s life is that by the time cancer began to attack his system, he’d started to focus his considerable energies on health awareness. In 2004, San Anto sponsored a 5K run, and he talked at great length with friends about the importance of proper nutrition. Less than five months ago, he and Ernesto Cuevas even began a friendly long-distance contest to see if they could each lose 10 pounds in the month leading up to the 2008 Huevos Rancheros gala.  

“When you’re running organizations and trying to do this kind of work in the community, one of the things that people often lose sight of is their health,” Cuevas says. “We started trying to eat a little better. Manny actually took us to the gym several times when we were `in San Antonio`, trying to get us active and conscious of what we were doing in our own lives as far as our health.”

Ortiz says: “There was always art, but art was just a vehicle. I’m hoping people listen to the message.”

At Castillo’s funeral, there could be no doubt that his mantra of community empowerment had reached people. The overflow crowd at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church included poets, painters, punk-rockers, politicians, and humble families from the neighborhood. Mayoral frontrunner Julian Castro stood in the back of the church. Up in front, Sexto Sol’s Eddie Hernandez played electric guitar while Eastside legend Frank Rodarte blew sax and sang an Impressions-inspired “Amen” that would have surely brought a smile to Castillo’s face. Outside the church, mourners filled the bed of Castillo’s green Sierra pickup with flowers.   

Our Lady of Guadalupe pastor, Father Marty Elsner — who had prayed at Castillo’s side in his final hours — told the grieving crowd, “Manny has the right stuff, and he wants you to know that you have the right stuff.”

Elsner defined “the right stuff” as the willingness to bring communities together, to listen, to be generous, to elevate the lives of others, to share your talents with the world.    

“He made people feel good about themselves,” says Ibarra, when pressed to explain what drew people to his friend. “If he knew two people who didn’t know each other, he’d introduce you, and you weren’t just a painter, you were ‘an amazing painter.’ He’d say that you were great at what you did — whether you were an artist, plumber, or an auto-body guy.”

Ibarra recalls how devastated Castillo felt when San Antonio musical icons Doug Sahm, Randy Garibay, and Taco Land owner Ram Ayala died. Now, sadly, Castillo is part of that pantheon. Ibarra pauses and softly says: “Doug and Randy needed a drummer.”

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