Nury Castillo was just 10 years old when she first arrived in the United States. A petite, black-haired girl with big eyes, Castillo barely knew how to undo her own braids, let alone learn to speak English. Of that time in her life, Castillo vividly remembers the bedroom she shared with her parents and two sisters, in her aunt’s home in Indiana. Castillo’s parents emigrated from Peru in the 1970s, in search of a better life.
“I think about it now. It must be tough for a family to live in one bedroom for a year. It must have been difficult living like that,” said Castillo.
The cramped living arrangements were just one of the challenges she faced. Learning the language was a huge obstacle for Castillo, since, according to her, she was one of the only Hispanics in the entire town.
“No one was bilingual. There was no ESOL. The only help I had was from a math teacher who had a [Spanish-English] dictionary. I think she used it in college, and she knew what was happening, and she helped me,” explained Castillo.
After several moves between Indiana and Florida, Castillo ended up in Georgia. Today, she is a teacher and administrator at Dacula Middle School, in Gwinnett County.
Castillo’s experience as an immigrant, including the challenges she faced and the assimilation process to living in the U.S., is all chronicled in her new book, ‘3,585 Miles to be an American Girl.’ She hopes that the memoir, which is directed at children, delivers a message of overcoming obstacles and of inclusion and empowerment for the Latino youth community in Georgia.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from. All immigrants have gone through the same thing,” Castillo assured.
The inspiration for the book, written in both English and Spanish, came about in large part due to the passing of Castillo’s mother, Sofía. The experience awakened in Castillo a desire to put her memories to paper and create a platform to tell other Hispanic children, “you can do it.”
“My mother died five years ago. Life grabs you, and you go between your children and your job… but when she died, I began missing her and I sat down to write. She inspired me. I started thinking about how we got here, and I said to myself: it must have been so difficult. I don’t think I could have done what they did. That’s how the book was born. In fact, the girl who is the main character in the book is named Sofía, after my mother,” said Castillo.
Castillo began writing her book in March. While researching the process and requirements for publication, she realized something interesting.
“I found out that, in 2015 at least, less than seven percent of children’s books had Hispanic or Latino characters. Everything I was seeing inspired me to write,” she added.
Each page of the book represents a memory of Castillo’s life upon arriving in this country. According to her, one of her saddest memories is watching her sister crying and refusing to get on the school bus. “I want to go back to Peru,” her sister told her. Even today, the story brings tears to Castillo’s eyes.
She does have happy memories, however. “My parents would always tell me that I was very smart. My father was so strong. He worked so much. From dawn to dusk. He would come home late. But before the year was over, we had a house and car. He always worked so hard,” said Castillo.
That love is precisely the message she hopes to inspire in her book. “The most beautiful gift in the world is for someone to believe in you. Being a teacher, that is my passion: to pass that message along to our children. Believing in them.”
Furthermore, Castillo says that children “should be able to see themselves in this book. They should see their diversity. Because you might be the only different person in class, but you have to believe. If I did it, anyone can.”
Creating the book was truly a community effort, according to Castillo, who explained that her students helped choose the title ‘3, 585 Miles to be an American Girl.’ That number reflects the distance in miles of the flight from Peru to Indiana.
Hers has been a long road, but throughout the journey Castillo always hears her father’s voice saying the same thing: “Don’t forget that your mother is always with you.”
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