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3D Tour of the Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Verónica Castillo (b. 1967) is an award-winning ceramicist. Castillo created this Tree of Life (El Árbol de la Vida in Spanish) for the National Museum of the American Latino’s debut exhibition, ¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States. Trees of Life are clay sculptures from Mexico that are traditionally religious in theme, but Castillo’s sculptures are unique because they are inspired by her surroundings and depict everyday social injustices. In this Tree of Life, titled Raíces, historia y justicia latinas (Latino Roots, History, and Justice), she visualizes themes from ¡Presente!  

Castillo is currently based in San Antonio, Texas. Her family are the renowned Castillo Orta folk art family based in Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla, Mexico. They have passed on a pottery tradition for four generations. Izúcar de Matamoros is well-known as a site of origin for this ceramic practice with roots in ancient Indigenous civilizations, like the Olmec and Maya. Notably, Castillo’s father, the potter Don Alfonso M. Castillo Orta (1944–2009), won the Mexican government’s Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes (National Prize for Sciences and Arts) in 1996. He specialized in Trees of Life and taught Castillo, her mother, and her five brothers the ceramics craft. 

Before the Spanish colonization of Mexico, people exchanged Trees of Life and their branches to mark bonds between families or cultures. After Spanish colonizers settled in the Americas and imposed Catholicism, these sculptures took on a more religious tone representing holidays like Christmas and Day of the Dead. Castillo’s contemporary Trees of Life are innovative in that they visualize social issues. For example, in 2003 she created El Arbol de la Muerte: Maquilando Mujeres (The Tree of Death: Factory Women), about the ongoing murders of hundreds of women and girls in Ciudad Juárez near the U.S.-Mexico border. In her artistic practice, Castillo aims to “create another language in clay that shows the difficulties people have in everyday life that create an unjust world.” (National Endowment for the Arts. “National Heritage Fellowships: Verónica Castillo,” 2013)

In Raíces, historia y justicia latinas, the artist has affixed clay figurines and symbols to the tree’s three looped branches. Each branch shares a theme with one of the three subsections in the “Shaping the Nation” section of ¡Presente! The first branch's theme is “Identity and Community.” This branch addresses how Latinas and Latinos of diverse walks of life express themselves and support their communities through cultural celebrations and collective, institutional organizing. “Fighting for Justice” is the second branch’s theme: it explores trailblazing Latina and Latino activists who dedicated their lives and careers to social and political change. Finally, the third branch's theme is “Breaking Boundaries.” This branch's figurines and symbols examine how Latina and Latino leaders have dismantled barriers and made space for other disenfranchised people in the arts, politics, sports, and the military.

Latino diversity is the glue that brings each branch and story together. As the tree’s foundation, its round base aims to represent Latino diversity which encompasses the variety of ethnicities, races, genders, sexualities, careers, experiences, and other aspects of life experience that people use to define themselves. To achieve this representation, the tree’s base features imagery of an expansive blue ocean connecting several solid-white continents. That birds-eye image of Earth symbolizes that US Latinas and Latinos are unique individuals who can share qualities that bring them together. In Castillo’s words, “For me, what personally draws me, is to demonstrate social and cultural problems by giving voice to our Mother Earth through clay.” (Trees of Life: Cultura, Tradición e Inovación. “Verónica Castillo,” 2016 2015)  

Click to expand image Color Photograph of the shaping the nation nook showing tree of life in case with historic images surrounding it.
© Tony Powell. National Museum of the American Latino. June 13, 2022

Tree of Life

Click to expand image Map showing Mexico with  Puebla, Mexico highlighted in Red
TUBS, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons 

Map of Puebla, Mexico

Click to expand image Map showing Puebla Mexico with Izúcar de Matamoros highlighted in red
Battroid, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of Puebla Izúcar de Matamoros

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