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Honoring the Valor and Creativity of a Vietnam Veteran 

Storytelling Beyond the Canvas

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Celerino “Cele” Castillo. Photo by Roberto Hugo Gonzále
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By Roberto Hugo González

During the vibrant festivities of the 10th Annual A Season of Hope Arts Festival last year, a story of valor, sacrifice, and art unfolded in McAllen, Texas. Celerino “Cele” Castillo III, a Vietnam veteran whose life has been dedicated to service, now channels his experiences into painting, offering a unique perspective on the convergence of military service and artistic expression.

Cele’s voyage is not just his own, but a continuation of a family legacy immersed in military service. From the battlefields of the Philippines, where his father was wounded four times, to the jungles of Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division, the Castillos have served their country with honor and distinction. Cele’s transition from soldier to artist demonstrates the flexibility and adaptability of the human spirit.

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Upon returning from Vietnam, where he earned the Bronze Star for valor, Cele embarked on a law enforcement and public service career, shaping the following chapters of his life with the discipline and dedication he learned in the military. His roles ranged from a police officer and detective sergeant to a government agent training Special Forces units across Latin America. Yet, upon retirement, Cele found his calling in the arts, dedicating his time to painting and drawing, often until the early morning hours.

During a heartfelt and private ceremony at the EV Cadillac Dealership, Vietnam veteran Celerino “Cele” Castillo III presents his latest artwork to fellow veteran Mr. Robert C. Vackar. This moment, captured, symbolizes a profound connection between two soldiers bound by their shared history and the power of art. Cele’s dedication to painting, a skill honed from a young age and enriched by his diverse life experiences, from combat to public service, now serves as a bridge between past and present, valor and creativity. Augie Lozano, first on the leaft coordinated the ceremony. Photo by Roberto Hugo González

Cele’s recent creation, a painting honoring another Vietnam veteran, captures his journey and the profound connections formed during the conflict. This piece is a tribute and a bridge between generations, illustrating the enduring bonds forged in service. The frame, designed with unparalleled uniqueness, speaks to Cele’s inventive spirit, adding depth and distinction to his homage.

The A Season of Hope Arts Festival, hosted by Yoli Cantu of the Art Village on Main, celebrates the visual and performing arts and the stories of individuals like Cele, who bring richness and diversity to the artistic community. This McAllen holiday tradition underscores the importance of arts education and provides a platform for veterans to share their narratives, including multiple art disciplines from the community. This event allows this reporter to meet people like Cele, and share their stories of life and art.

Cele Castillo’s story is a reminder of veterans’ multifaceted lives and the contributions they make beyond their military service. Through his art, Cele bridges the gap between past and present, valor and creativity, offering vivid proof of the enduring spirit of those who have served their country.

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Celerino “Cele” Castillo III’s artistic career is deeply linked with his personal history of veteran experiences. Residing in McAllen for over two decades, Cele has transformed his home into a sanctuary of creativity where he lives, breathes, and cultivates his art. Drawing inspiration from his early years when he first picked up a brush under the guidance of a professional artist, Cele’s lifelong commitment to painting has been a constant companion through the variations of life.

His artwork, rich in cultural ideas and vibrant storytelling, respects his heritage and the shared experiences of those who have served. From portrayals of the Virgen de Guadalupe to celebrations of El Dia de Los Muertos and reimaginations of Santa Claus that reflect his Mexican roots, Cele’s canvases are evidence of his belief in inclusion of expression.

A moving moment in Cele’s artistic journey unfolded at the Bert Ogden Cadillac dealership in Edinburg, Texas, where he presented a metallic liquid acrylic painting to fellow Vietnam veteran Mr. Robert C. Vackar. This gift, symbolizing a shared bond forged in the trial of war, was a surprise and a profound gesture of friendship and recognition. Based on a photo of Mr. Vackar in Vietnam, the artwork served as a visual between the past and present, inviting reflection and honoring sacrifice.

The conversation that followed between Cele and Mr. Vackar unveiled personal narratives often left unspoken, bridging their experiences through the medium of art. Cele’s choice to embed the painting within a uniquely crafted frame crafted with bamboo added layers of meaning and personalization to the tribute. Adorned with insignias of rank, unit emblems, and symbols reflective of Mr. Vackar’s military service, the frame itself became a story piece, extending the storytelling beyond the canvas.

Through his generous contributions to veterans and his commitment to utilizing art as a means of acknowledgment and healing, Cele personifies the spirit of giving back. His work celebrates veterans’ diverse experiences and highlights art’s power to convey respect and remembrance.

Cele Castillo III’s story is a compelling, creative, and dedicated narrative. From the battlegrounds of Vietnam to the art studios of McAllen, his journey underlines the profound connections between service and artistry, memory, and expression. In honoring the experiences of fellow veterans through his unique artistic lens, Cele contributes to a legacy of valor and creativity that transcends time and place, bridging the past with a vibrant fiber of hope and recognition for the future.

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