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REMEMBER WHEN: Boxcar Bennie’s tales of adversity used to inspire others

Ben Castillo with Boxcar Bennie book

Ben Castillo of Horseshoe Bay, author of 'Boxcar Bennie: A Journey from the Barrio to a House of Prayer,' writes about his childhood in post-Great Depression and World War II America. Photo by Jennifer Fierro

Horseshoe Bay resident Ben Castillo, who turns 84 on May 1, spent 1947-53 living in a boxcar city with his parents and eight siblings, struggling for food, clothes, and education. The daily walk to school was 3 miles through cinders that were thrown onto roads to keep cars from sliding.

“Cars were driving over slush and spilled on everybody,” Castillo said. “There were no sidewalks. When we arrived at school, we were soaked cold.”

Today, dressed in a perfectly ironed white dress shirt, dark suit with red tie, and sunglasses, he looks more like the Assembly of God pastor and insurance businessman he was in South Texas before he and his wife, Marty, retired to Horseshoe Bay. 

He tells his story in a self-published book, “Boxcar Bennie: A Journey from the Barrio to a House of Prayer.” The Castillo family story is a reflection of the many American families at that time, he said. It details the struggles and challenges Mexican-American families faced in the late 1940s responding to a call to help the country rebuild its economy after the devastation of World War II, which is why he dedicated the book to his parents, Consuelo and Pedro Castillo. 

Castillo’s voice breaks as he reflects on the sacrifices they made when the family moved from Laredo to the “Silver City” boxcar settlement in Sterling, Illinois, for work.

“My little (dedication) is to give credit to those who uprooted their families to build back America,” he said. “There’s a gap in post-World War II American history. Ithought maybe my family’s story might ignite the desire in some people to say, ‘You know what? Latin-American families helped rebuild America.’”

“Boxcar Bennie” was featured at a Family Leadership Institute conference in Las Vegas in February. Castillo spoke at the event and then held a book signing at FLI’s invitation. The institute is a curriculum of Educational Achievement Services Inc. that helps families of diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds grow as individuals and leaders. 

Named after his great-grandfather, Castillo was 80 when he began writing his book, which documents the experiences — both triumphant and challenging — that influenced who he became as a young man and compelled him to make the decisions he did for his own family. 

“Overcoming adversity is still and will always be an ingredient in the life of every American if we’re going to be a great nation,” he said. “We need to love God and our families and our country always in earnest. I have seen the opposite side of where people feel adversity. They feel they’ve been discriminated (against). I choose to rise above it.” 

In the book’s dedication, Castillo wrote that “the only thing ‘silver’ about the Silver City boxcar settlement was the aluminum paint used to hide the train logos on the side of the railway cars.”

The Castillos and other families in the settlement received help from the Salvation Army to survive.

“I didn’t know what a pair of mittens and corduroys were. I didn’t know what a scarf was,” Castillo said. “The Salvation Army responded to our needs. They brought in Army blankets. I give credit to the Salvation Army.” 

In elementary school, Castillo scored high enough on a musical aptitude test to be invited to join the band. His parents said the cost was more than they could afford. When one of his teachers, Alice Smith, found out, she paid a visit to the family.

“She bought my first B-flat cornet,” he said. “It was a kind act that she did for me. I loved music so much, so much. And she did that for me.”

That act instilled in him a lifelong love of playing music, he writes in his book. At his 80th birthday party, he picked up his horn and played with a mariachi band that was hired to entertain guests.  

Growing up, he learned to discern between what is meant for him and what isn’t. He recalled a conversation with his dad, who told him his grandparents had hidden away a cache of gold and silver. Castillo wanted to go on a treasure hunt.

“I was 14 or 15 at the time,” he recalled with a smile. “I lit up and said, ‘Let’s go!’”

Pedro Castillo said no.

“‘We have nothing to gain from going back for something the Lord would have given to us if it belonged to us. It falls on someone else to own that,’” his father told him.

The big lesson he learned from that experience was the value of being content with what God gives you. 

“(My father) was content and happy,” Castillo said. “And I’ve been a very content man. So many things happened in my life and left me such a blessing.”

editor@thepicayune.com