A Fire Burns Inside

March 20, 2017 Lacee A.C. Martinez

There were some giggles in the room after Sen. Wil Castro spoke about offering a cream puff to a friend. It wasn't merely about being generous and considerate, he said, as those giggles turned into intrigued looks. "My dad used to bring that home,” he added. “It was special for me because he bought it. He loved it. It was his thing. So, when he shared it with me, it made me feel so special. It's not my thing, but I grew to love it because you could see my dad light up when he took a bite of it. Giving a cream puff is probably more symbolic of how I feel about you."

While he appears to be a well-groomed statesman at just 42, Castro is actually a freshman senator whose very personal moments serve as guided for him in his life and career. In one big breath, he can recite a long list of public and private service he's amassed in a short decade. He’s worked as everything from a public and private school teacher to an acting associate superintendent for some 33,000 students in the public school system, and more recently, as a director as well as chief planner for the Bureau of Statistics and Planning.  

There is one experience in particular that helped shape the neophyte senator’s many accomplishments in such a short amount of time. Tragedy struck the Castro family during Wil’s first year at the University of Guam. He came home to find his father standing outside, shirtless. The elder Castro was in shock after escaping the inferno that engulfed their wood-and-tin house in Barrigada.

It was also the same year when a slew of typhoons, including Super Typhoon Omar, ravaged the island.

The fire placed an additional burden to the already stressed family. And when the flames died down, Castro felt as if no one was there for them. "My neighbor gave us like two rolls of toilet paper. One of my good friends came down with a plastic bag of used clothes. I didn't know if I was offended or touched, but I was emotional because he was the only one who brought clothes. It was not like it was a couple of folded pieces, it was a big bag. I'm sure he cleaned out his closet, so that meant so much," he recalled.

Aside from the house and its contents, two cars and even two dogs were lost to the fire. Wil was left with nothing to fund his education and childhood dream of being a "rich accountant with a CPA." One of his first moves was to inquire for assistance from one of the more popular universities on Guam.

"They told me, 'We don’t have anything for people like you.' I was like, really? Well, people like me end up starting an organization like IFIT, the Islander Foundation of Informed Leaders," he said. The rejection fueled his own burning fire.

That year, Castro’s school club became student organization of the year, with a cornerstone embedded in the preamble to assist those in need. He also ran for senator at UOG, became Lt. Gov. Ray Tenorio's then student government vice president and the student regent concurrently.  "I was so driven by that [rejection]. It is in our culture to help people. But it is very deeply seeded in my core. My passion is to make a difference and pull the handbrake when they really need it."

It was a defining moment that still causes him to pause when others in similar serious situations reach out to his office. "It doesn't matter if I'm in the classroom or I'm a senator. I'm discovering my new self, my new vocation, just always wanting to help people. I have a really sensitive, soft spot when it comes to the vulnerable populations, including the manamko, single parents, and those who are financially disadvantaged."

As for him personally, Castro is looking to build a legacy that he actually lives out and not just spouts. On Sundays, he challenges himself with something he calls "sustentia," where he learns to live off the land with locally made or grown foods. He’s starting small, digging for suni and doing other simple chores after a failed attempt at hunting for octopus in the ocean.  

It’s not a stretch for a man who lost his wood-and -tin home where he grew up in to a fire to feel that the tragedy helped define him.

And it’s certainly not about politics, although his career has led him back to the land. “How can I be the guy who's going to preach about fisheries and corals? That’s my new love. It's natural resources, particularly—coral, coastal, and fisheries because as the director of the Bureau of Statistics and Plans I was exposed to those federally funded programs. The reality is, I need to give people hope and practice what I preach. The idea is I live off things that are made or grown here.”

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About the Author

Lacee A.C. Martinez

Guam born and raised, this contributor has an affinity for island life, people, food and culture. Got a story idea? Email her at lacee@kuam.com.

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