The extent of visiting Spanish Professor Jose Castillo’s campus celebrity was best seen at last semester’s Halloween Harris when the winning costume was tight black biking shorts, a grey spandex muscle tee shirt, and a biking helmet, an outfit that Castillo sported frequently in the dining hall at the beginning of the year.
Although Castillo is notorious on campus, most students know little about him beyond his distinct attire and his status as a visiting Spanish professor.
Castillo and his family immigrated to New York City from the Dominican Republic in 1971, when he was four and a half years old. The son of an officer of the Dominican Republic, Castillo initially decided to pursue medicine under the influence of his uncle. “I really respected my uncle, because he graduated from medical school when he was 21,” Castillo said. “He was my role model.”
However, once he started his first year at Cornell University and began participating in social activism on campus such as the anti-apartheid movement he realized that his future wasn’t in a hospital; he had his eyes on legal work. After graduating from Cornell, he began working as a paralegal to better understand the legal system.
Castillo soon realized that in order to be competitive for law school, he’d have to earn an advanced degree. Since he had never studied Spanish formally outside of college, and he wanted a challenge, he decided to pursue a masters in Spanish.
“After being accepted into Rutgers for law school, I found it to be very monotonous,” Castillo said. “So I decided to finish my masters degree in Spanish.”
He began teaching for a year at the University of Pennsylvania, but then quickly moved to Los Angeles after winning a fellowship at the University of California at Irvine. After spending several years in the area, he moved to Tampa to live with his sister and briefly taught at a local community college before coming to Grinnell.
As a teacher Castillo said he tries to be as open as possible with his students. “I don’t like to be an authoritative figure,” Castillo said. “I like to treat them as intelligent, educated people, like myself.”
As well as a policy of respect, Castillo also tries to be “as authentic as possible” by encouraging openness between himself and his students. “People tend to feel relaxed talking to me, ” Castillo said. “I’m a very friendly, approachable person, one of my Italian teachers told me that it was a gift, but I don’t see it as that way. I just see it as being myself.”
His openness and friendly nature is apparent through his interactions with students and staff in the dining hall, whether he’s wearing a sweater and jeans or biking shorts. Though his outfits have sparked conversation among students, Castillo doesn’t view his workout clothes as anything out of the ordinary. In fact, he would frequently dress that way in California. “I’m athletically fit and I was always at the beach when I was in California. That was my hang out, Laguna Beach and New Port Beach,” Castillo said. “I’m not ashamed of my body or anything like that.”
When Castillo wasn’t working out, spending time at the beach, or working towards his graduate degree, he would frequent art studios and work as an art model.
“I model, like for painters in Laguna Beach in the art studios. I did that to win extra money and because I enjoyed it,” Castillo said. “I’m not a good artist, so what other way can I contribute to the art world, be a part of it or be near it. And that’s with offering myself as subject and let them paint me or draw me. ”
But at Grinnell, the absence of beaches and trendy art studios doesn’t stop Castillo from having fun, and he uses campus resources as much as possible. “You probably could see me at the gym,” he said. “I really enjoy lifting the weights; it makes me feel good.”
He even uses the dining hall because it allows him to interact with people and build strong connections with students. “I mostly participate with the students, they always say, ‘Wow, you’re the only professor that eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner with us.’ ” Castillo said.
Even though Castillo is close to 40 years old, he claims that older students thought he was a first-year. “Most of the students confuse me for a student, someone once told me, ‘Are you a freshman?’ I don’t know what, but when I first came here they thought I was a student, and they still do,” he said.
Castillo is a social butterfly; when he isn’t at the school he loves to interact with the town’s people. “I befriended everyone who owns a business here in Grinnell, Iowa. In town, they probably already know me,” Castillo said.
Castillo looks at the town residents the same way he would want them to look at him. “They tend to be really friendly people, and you get to know them and they know you,” Castillo said.