Just outside the small town of Antonito, in southern Colorado’s sparsely populated San Luis Valley, a highway sign points to the state’s oldest church, a twin-towered sanctuary built of brick and local dark volcanic rock.
farther on, the towers of a very different sanctuary rise over a
dusty neighborhood on the other side of the road. No highway sign
marks this shrine, and none is needed: The aluminum-clad edifices,
as tall as church steeples but unlike any ecclesiastical
architecture I have ever seen, loom like an apparition. Their
reflective skin shimmers in the high desert sunlight, beckoning the
curious to the backyard of a tumbledown house at the edge of town.
There, across from irrigated fields, rises El
Castillo, the castle, a fantastical complex decorated
with rows of beer-can ends framing old windows, hubcaps arranged
like architectural sequins, and faced with rough native rock and
slogan-bearing signs. Bizarre at first glance, the homemade shrine
is also oddly charming, very much a part of the small town and its
My husband, Richard, and I stopped at the
complex one morning on a tour of the San Luis Valley with our
friend Glenn. As we pulled up, a wiry figure dressed in a grimy
blue nylon jacket introduced himself as Cano ("Like Chicano, you
know"). We shook hands.
Cano waved us through an arched
gate of bent steel rebar and interlaced willow branches under the
words "Jesus, Lord of Kings," and into a yard crowded with tools,
scrap metal and piles of old lumber.
Cano pointed out the
features of the shrine: the three-sided nichos
he fashioned from discarded bathtubs that shelter plaster statues
of Our Lady, Jesus, and the Holy Family, the six-foot-tall cross
built of beer cans, the twin towers rising five stories overhead.
All, said Cano with some pride, were constructed of
salvaged materials: scrap lumber, used windows, chromed hubcaps,
wooden screens, bottles, and aluminum cans, his signature material.
He snips off the ends for decorative studs, then slits each can to
make a rectangular aluminum shingle that, when pieced with hundreds
of others into a metal quilt, forms the silver "skin" of the
Cano’s vision for El
Castillo came to him sometime after he returned from
Vietnam — locals say the first tower appeared in the early
1980s, the second after the fall of the World Trade Center. The
rambling complex is still growing according to an internal plan
that Cano maintains is directed by God: "When I need something, I
look and there it is."
Gesturing at the twin towers that
rise some 50 feet above the small yard, Cano said, "Those are
‘The King’ and ‘The Queen.’ " A six-armed
cross tops The King’s rounded, missile-nosecone shape.
Balconies decorate its lower stories. The Queen’s flat roof
sports a widow’s walk; below, vertical lines of glass brick
pierce its sloping sides like narrow portholes. Carved wood screens
behind the third-story windows lend a Moorish feel.
Hand-painted signs dot the shrine: "La Raza and La Tierra,"
"Vitamin M," and "La Virgen de Guadalupe." Two 10-foot-tall arrows
plunging into the ground outside the fence bear the slogans
"Alcohol and Tobacco Kills" and "Mary Jane Saves."
Richard listened intently to Cano, Glenn moved about the yard
shooting photos. I sat by myself in the thin shade of an apricot
tree, my head whirling.
Antonito, one of the oldest towns
in the San Luis Valley, was colonized in 1849 by Hispanic farm
families. It once had a commercial railroad, huge herds of sheep,
and a powerful farmer’s union. Today the town ekes out a
meager living from a tourist railroad, government offices, and from
the remaining small ranches and farms.
eccentric shrine may draw tourists off the highway, but to many
locals El Castillo is — at best — an
embarrassment, and its creator, one of the community locos. Stories
abound about the man they know as Dominic Espinoza. There was the
time when the Olympic flame passed through Antonito, for instance,
and Cano grabbed the torch from the shocked runner carrying it. Or
the time he was released from jail, walked a few feet, and stole
the sheriff’s car for a ride home.
There is his
penchant for racing the tourist trains on horseback, whooping, in
headband and loincloth; and his habit of tethering his horse on the
lawn of the town funeral parlor or at the football field for a bit
of free grazing.
There is his strained relationship with
his family, which includes 12 siblings. Some say that he evicted
his mother from what had been his grandfather’s house in
order to build El Castillo.
the man who calls himself Cano is, he is clearly no saint. He
admits to drinking and using drugs, although he gave them all up,
he says, except for marijuana. He lives on food stamps, cash
donations, and whatever he can scavenge or scrounge.
Proud one moment as he describes what he has built, sly as he
mentions a visitor who snapped his picture and gave him money,
Cano’s manner is as much Coyote, the Native American
trickster, as hero. Yet he has a hero’s
ganas, the drive to follow his vision, no matter
the consequences, or how blurred it may sometimes be. He shows a
hero’s zeal in his ability to literally build something out
of nothing, to not only recognize the value in what others toss
away, but to consecrate trash by incorporating it into a shrine.
Cano doesn’t call himself a hero — "It is not me
building the towers, it is God" — but his creations speak for
What they say depends very much on the
perspective of their audience. I am neither Hispanic, Native
American, nor Catholic; nor do I live in the San Luis Valley. I am
a Quaker of Northern European extraction, born to cautious,
reserved people who prefer the order and logic of science over the
turbulent and sometimes messy insights of heart and spirit.
Yet I understand the persistent urging of visions. The
radical acts of political and social disobedience that have sent
Quakers to jail or even death come from the promptings of an inner
voice that will not be denied.
Cano appears to have paid
heavily for heeding those inner exhortations. Adhering to the
mission of building El Castillo has isolated him
from his family and community — even his given name. His
journey follows the lonely border between sanity and madness, a
distinction that can often only be discerned in hindsight, the same
edge that produces profound and visionary art — or work that
is simply crazy.
We exited the gate of El
Castillo and Cano put one arm around Richard: "I love
you, man," he said. He extended his other arm to me. As I leaned
into the embrace, Cano’s graying curls brushed the top of my
head and I inhaled his musky scent, part sweat, part sagebrush
smudge. Staring at the silver towers as we drove away, I wondered
if I had the guts necessary to walk that edge — and what it
would mean if I did.