But Castillo bristles at the suggestion that her approach signals a retreat from broader social concerns and said the union continues to focus on issues like single-payer health care, climate change and racial justice. She has been tweeting in condemnation of police brutality, and in support of protesters, after the killing of George Floyd. But she feels that nurses’ issues like health and safety are important in themselves and that any suggestion that they matter less is misguided, even sexist.
Castillo is outspoken about the role gender plays in exacerbating power imbalances between nurses, mostly female, and hospital administrators, mostly male. “People like to pigeonhole nurses,” she said.
“A lot of people expect you to have that posture of being tough and being adversarial and in your face,” Shuler, of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said. “Bonnie is not like that, but she is equally fierce and effective because people don’t see it coming.”
Castillo is warm, with an easygoing disposition, but the occasional eye roll (usually when talking about hospital administrators) reveals the hint of an edge. In interviews conducted from her home over Zoom, paintings of rural farm workers, or campesinos, could be seen on the walls behind her. Once, Castillo’s husband, a construction worker, slipped quietly through a door wearing shorts and a sweatshirt.
Raised in a working-class Sacramento family with immigrant roots — all four of her grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico — Castillo was exposed to labor activism early in life. Her mother, a clerical employee for the state department of corrections, and father, a railroad worker, were both active union members; the famed labor leader Dolores Huerta was an acquaintance of her mother’s. Castillo’s parents introduced her to Mexican-American art and Che Guevara’s book “Guerrilla Warfare” when she was young. When her father’s union went on strike, she accompanied her mother to drop him off at the picket line. “You don’t cross a strike line,” she remembered her father telling her.
Castillo married at age 17 and gave birth to her daughter, Manae, a year later. She stayed at home taking care of Manae, but when she and her husband divorced, she needed a stable livelihood to provide for her daughter, then in elementary school. (She later remarried.) She went to nursing school at night and became the first in her family to graduate from college. “I remember when she got her first job,” Manae, now 42, recalls. “She opened the letter and I feel like she screamed. She was like, We’re going to Toys ‘R’ Us, and you can buy anything you want.”
Castillo started out as an intensive care nurse at the now-shuttered American River Hospital; soon, she was promoted to a supervisory role as a charge nurse.