Elena Castedo wrote her first novel, Paradise, after she had become a grandmother, and in an adopted language, English. To her great surprise, it became a critical success, a finalist for the National Book Award and required reading in many university English departments. Her own self-translation into Spanish, published in five countries, won Chile’s Book of the Year award and was a best seller in Spain and Chile for a year.
Castedo has published fiction and non-fiction books, a play, articles, short stories, often anthologized and read on National Public Radio, and poetry in numerous publications such as The Afro-Hispanic Review, The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, etc. She’s included in the literatures of the U.S., Spain and Chile. She was the editor-in-chief of the Inter-American Review of Bibliography, a trilingual scholarly quarterly. She has taught courses, seminars and lectured at more than 54 universities.
Castedo was born in Spain, was a refugee from the Spanish Civil War in France, then in Chile. At age 14 she formed a dancing team with her little sister in Santiago and they performed in theaters before the movies. She was the editor of her high school paper and the first female to run for student-body president. She lost. She did volunteer work in literacy programs and at Mi Casa orphanage, and organized a group to help homeless children. From early 1955 to late 1957 she traveled, as a gofer, with a group of researchers through most of the countries in the American Continent, from Chile to Canada, by van, train, boat and airplane .
At eighteen she became top-paid fashion model in Chile. She majored in literature at the Catholic University of Chile. After her sophomore year she won a scholarship to travel to the U.S. and through some very odd circumstances, she married in Reno, Nevada when she was underage and spoke very little English. She soon found out her husband was an abusive alcoholic and gambler. He threatened to kill her if she left him. She spent many years struggling to stay above poverty. She sought only jobs that permitted for her children to be with her. In California she worked as a fashion runway and TV model, face-cast model for store mannequins, demonstrator of electrical appliances, nursery school attendant, door-to-door salesperson and private tutor. She took one or two courses a semester at Sacramento State College (now University) and at UCLA.
Her husband died in 1965, leaving debts and no insurance. Disregarding advice, she didn’t go on welfare. In New Haven, CT. she worked for a government agency as social visitor, taught dance to children, tutored at a grammar school and sold a cleaner door-to-door. Everything she owned came from around trash cans or charity sales.
She received scholarships that permitted her to go back to school and earn a college degree, which she did with honors, then a Master’s degree from UCLA, where she won the Best Masters Student in the Humanities award, and a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University. She received a grant from Harvard’s Latin-American Studies Program to do research in Chile. She had art exhibitions in Chile, and from 1969 to 1973 was a member of the Cambridge Art Association in Cambridge Massachusetts.
She moved to Aix-en-Provence, France, where she remarried, and then to Paris, where she had another child. When her husband was appointed Counselor for Economic Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, she and the children moved to Vietnam. After “the fall of Saigon” she moved briefly to Hong-Kong and Taiwan, and traveled with her children to Japan before moving to Virginia.
Her community work includes the Johnson presidential and Bradley Mayoral campaigns in California in the 1960s; volunteer for Chile Foundation for needy children; various "help the libraries" programs; talks to schools with minority students and to immigrant women in various U.S. cities and organizing neighborhood groups.
In the last few years she and her husband have lead a nomad's life, back and forth between Europe and the US for months at a time, that includes the UK; Paris; Madrid; Florence, Italy; Boston and Key West, FL., and at the sme time cared for her mother until she died on 2015.
Her biggest pride and source of joy are her children, 9 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.