Eva was born in 1939 in the small town of Valle de Santiago in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. In the native language of her father, Nahuatl, her name means magical child. She says that her parents, Fidel and Conchita Silva, were also magical. Eva’s Aztec father and Otomí mother “could make beautiful things out of nothing,” she says. “They would go outside and collect plants to make paint or reeds to weave chairs…. I thought they were just, like, wow!”
As the family grew, life in Valle de Santiago became more difficult because jobs were scarce. Eva’s father had to look for work in El Norte, the United States. He took a job as a farm worker in Texas and left his wife and children at home. He often made less than one dollar a day, but he sent money home regularly and visited as often as he could. When Eva was three, he brought the family to Pharr, Texas. Everyone in the family worked. Eva’s job, as soon as she was old enough, was picking cucumbers and bag radishes before and after school.
It was hard for the family to move to a new country, but Eva’s parents made it easier. She says, “My father told us that although he was taking us out of Mexico, no one could ever take Mexico and our culture out of us.” Her parents often sang corridos to each other. A corrido is a Mexican ballad. Ballads are songs that tell stories. They also composed and recited poems, made clothing and furniture from scratch, and celebrated Mexican festivals with all the colorful splendor they could create with very little money. This early, ongoing experience with Mexican art and culture influenced Eva to become a traditional artist.
Although Eva’s family spent most of the day working the land, they always made time for art, poetry, music, and stories. For them, art was both beautiful and healing. It was also instructive, teaching how to live as a respectable person.
Eva’s parents not only nourished Eva’s soul with art, but they also nourished her body with healing plants and herbs. They were curanderos, or healers. Once a month, Eva’s mother made a special stew to help protect the family from colds and stomach problems. Eva still uses family recipes and remedies to help heal her family and people in her community.
When Eva was 15 years old, she and her family became migrant farm workers. After the harvesting season ended in Texas, they traveled, with many other workers, on a truck operated by the Amalgamated Sugar Company. The company drove them to its processing plant in Nyssa, Oregon, to work on its large sugar beet farms, processing sugar beets.
For three years, Eva’s family made the 2,000-mile trip between Pharr, Texas and Nyssa, Oregon. In 1957, the family decided to stay in Nyssa year round and make it their home. Soon after, Eva married Teodoro Castellanoz and began a family.
When Eva was 25, she returned to Mexico with her husband. On the trip, she was inspired when she saw a street vendor making coronas de azahares (crowns made from paper and wax orange blossom buds). Her parents had described these to her all her life, so she decided to learn this art form. She returned to Nyssa and began what would become a lifelong, creative calling. Eva won national recognition in 1987 when she was named a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow for her extraordinary artistry.
To Eva, making wax flowers is a spiritual act as well as a physical task. While she is forming her flowers, she prays for the new couple, the young woman entering adult life, or the newborn baby. She feels honored to participate in these rites of passage, and she believes that the person carrying her bouquet or wearing her corona will transform the inanimate flowers, giving them life and making them beautiful.
Each year Eva makes flowers for about a dozen events such as baptisms, quinceañeras, and weddings. Friends have encouraged her to market her work outside Nyssa, but she insists on working with people she knows personally, and she believes in charging people what they can afford. Here is what Eva says about her art:
Coronas de azahares are very important in our culture. They are symbolic of purity, chastity, and innocence. It starts in baptism and goes onto Holy Communion, quinceañera, and marriage. This art has a voice. Children have lots of fun doing this art. I have worked in many schools doing this with children and all of them make beautiful flowers and have a very good time doing it. All of my children know how to do this art and they help me share it with others. I have done an apprenticeship with one of my granddaughters. Another granddaughter did all her quinceañera things herself with just a little help from me.
Eva has lived and worked in Nyssa for more than 50 years. In addition to farming and working in factories, she has continued making flowers for friends and family on special occasions. She also shares her wisdom and skill with young people in the community. Now that she has retired, Eva spends her days playing with her grandchildren, sharing her art in workshops, and recommending healing practices to family and community members.