In Memory of Carmen Castellano

Carmela Castellano-Garcia and Carmen Castellano at the 2014 National Forum on Family Philanthropy

“I’m most proud of the legacy we’re leaving. Latinos are philanthropists,” said Carmen Castellano in a 2015 interview as a part of NCFP’s “I am Family Philanthropy” series. In her 81-year life, Carmen built a legacy she and the Latinx community could be proud of, modeling formalized giving to encourage other generous Latinos to have a “bigger, louder, stronger voice.”

Alcario “Al” and the late Carmen Castellano won the lottery in 2001, with pre-tax winnings of $141 million. Beyond the obvious excitement, Carmen’s first reaction was to start a list of nonprofits she and Al could support with their new wealth. While now able to help their community on a large scale, their winnings were far from the beginning of the couple’s philanthropy. Carmen always had a generous spirit and community-centered perspective. The lottery allowed the Castellanos to formally act upon those values with the formation of the Castellano Family Foundation (CFF) in 2002.

Before the Winning Ticket

Carmen and Al were deeply embedded in their local Latinx community—volunteering their time and dollars—prior to their windfall. During her forty years as an Executive Secretary at San Jose Community College, Carmen co-founded the College’s Latino Education Association. She also authored the College’s first affirmative action guidelines and was a founding member of its Affirmative Action Committee. CFF focuses much of its grantmaking on San Jose’s Latinx community—something it has been able to do effectively, in part, because of Carmen’s deep ties to the community she sought to serve and partner with. “Institutional philanthropy often talks about listening to the communities it seeks to serve. As longtime volunteers and advocates in the San Jose Latinx community, my parents were uniquely positioned to do that and challenged others to do the same. They’ve always been actively engaged with many of the organizations and issues they supported as philanthropists. The lottery simply made it possible for them to make larger, longer-term investments in their community,” notes trustee Armando Castellano.

A Broader Platform

Upon entering the world of mainstream philanthropy, Carmen advocated for more diversity in the sector. She highlighted the lack of funding to Latinx communities and urged donors to fund grassroots efforts. She held boards accountable, requiring CFF grantees to have boards that reflected the communities they served.

In a profile celebrating Hispanics in Philanthropy’s 30th anniversary, Carmen said, “We put a brown face in philanthropy [where it was otherwise] almost nonexistent. That is the big give: being visual and being present.” In another interview, she said, “Let’s admit it, people will listen to you if you have money.” Carmen recognized that she and CFF could be trailblazers, leveraging their existing networks and new clout to urge other philanthropists to give to people of color, to listen deeply to the communities they seek to serve, and diversify the sector.

Castellano family at Blueprint for Change launch event

In March of this year, CFF released its Blueprint for Change report. The call to action extensively outlines the lack of private and charitable capital available to Latinx communities and leaders in Silicon Valley and asks for others to join CFF in meaningful support. Carmen and CFF continue to use their voice to legitimize funding to Latinx organizations and serve as examples to others. “The Foundation was created six months after my parents won the lottery driven largely by my mother, who had a long career as administrative secretary at the local community college. Just months before my mom’s passing we released a comprehensive report on the lack of funding and other equity issues impacting Latinx communities in Silicon Valley. The call to action in the report represents the culmination of my mother’s impact as a staunch advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can’t think of a better way to honor her legacy,” says foundation President Carmela Castellano-Garcia.

An Example for the Field

At a time when the sector is finally reckoning with its storied past, we should look to leaders like Carmen Castellano who was already doing this work, both as a compassionate, intentional community member and as a full-fledged philanthropist. We are saddened by Carmen’s death, but heartened by the incredible legacy she created and the Foundation’s continued work in the community.