This article first published in Raw Vision Magazine - Issue 86 Summer 2015
Dominic 'Cano' Espinoza (b. 1948)
Cano's Castle; Jesus' Castle
Art Type or Medium: Architectural; Environment/Installation
Secular or Religious: Mixed
Twisted wire-formed letters near the top spell out “Jesus Cristo,” [slide 1] and sometimes when Dominic ‘Cano’ Espinoza “looks real close” at his castle, he can see the crucified face of Jesus looking back. He built in no such anthropomorphic features, but to him the castle becomes an acheiropoieton – a massive, embossed metal icon image of Christ ‘created without human hands.’ Closing his eyes to embody the vision he sees of Jesus “when he had his thorns on,” his shoulders fall limp and his head drops in silence. As if describing a fleeting vision the Veronica’s Veil rippling in the Colorado breezes, he looks up after a pause,
“so I have a different image of the castle, we call it ‘the castle,’ but still its something that God made, he just used me, I can’t explain it.”
After first building an underground potato cellar on the site, the castle began in 1980 when Cano built a steam room above the cellar, and took improvised shape as found materials presented themselves over about twenty years.
“[I] just followed where one board ends, looking at it, and imagining the board is gonna throw me this way – oh, I think that looks good – I’ll just follow that.” Espinoza calls the taller, rounder of the central towers “the King,” and its amply-crowned angular consort, “the Queen.”
Bejeweled with glittering circles of aluminum can-bottom and colored glass-bottle relief, they rose slowly over surrounding houses like a pair of asymmetrical Gothic towers [slide 2]. South of the King is the low rectangular “Rook,” and turned 90º towards the street to the north, the flag-bearing “Knight” completes the castle grouping [slide 3]. Dominic had no thoughts of building monumental board pieces – the chess names occurred to him only after the castle structures had taken shape. To make the boxy Knight appear more equine, he plans to add a dragon head with a mane of hubcaps and cans.
Espinoza embedded his chain-link property fence inside the same orange rocks he brought back from the desert to build the castle. Now inside castle walls, Dominic’s corner house [slide 4] is to the left as visitors enter through an arched rebar, aluminum-plated gateway [slide 5], and the castle fills out the block-wide lot to a dirt alleyway on the right. Using ropes he is able to climb up inside, but the castle structures have few floors and are not inhabitable. More of a shrine than a building, wire letters under a protective overhang towards the center of the King read “La Virgen De Guadalpue” [slide 6] – pervasive in Hispanic Catholic culture, the vision of Mary standing on a black crescent moon surrounded by emanating rays is also known as ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe.’ A sanctioned miracle in the acheiropoietic tradition, the image first appeared on his cloak full of flowers after a peasant near Mexico City witnessed a glowing apparition of the Mary in 1531, and shrines built around the Virgin of Guadalupe are frequently seen throughout the American southwest.
Vietnam veteran and theft of family property
Born in 1948, having graduated from high school a year before he enlisted in 1968, Dominic Espinoza returned from Vietnam to southern Colorado in 1970, and moved into a small ramshackle house in tiny Conejos. With jobs still scarce, he went back to work in the potato fields of his youth. On the edge of a vast desert plain and neighboring his also tiny hometown of Guadalupe, Conejos has the state’s oldest church: the imposing two bell-towered Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Church [slide 7] is a two kilometer Sunday bicycle ride from Cano’s current home in Antonito. A small public lawn in the center of Conejos surrounds a stone shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe [slide 8] – attended by a kneeling wooden soldier silhouette, and a painting of the miraculous apparition appears on the nearby water tank [slide 8]. One of eleven siblings, his mother worked in the school cafeteria, as a child Dominic would help her haul daily food waste back for the family pigs. Family history recollections, historical accounts, and a suspect 1950’s records-consuming courthouse fire have convinced Espinoza that in the 1920’s, local authorities conspired to murder his great uncle and steal most all of his family’s once vast land holdings: “the heist.” Using scavenged materials to improve his new house in Conejos, Espinoza taught himself carpentry and construction skills, but a glistening roof-covering of flattened aluminum cans didn’t prevent it from burning down. Suspiciously in his view, Dominic was away when the fire started, and reports were that firemen with dry hoses stood back while bullets popped-off inside “like firecrackers” and let his house burn to the ground.
Like many veterans, Dominic reveals few war memories, but does speak of his best foot-soldier army buddy being killed with “one month left in country” – shortly before Espinoza himself was discharged [slide10]. He also speaks of “being fascinated” by the [Buddhist] temples he saw in Vietnam, and later thought of the castle as “my way of building something for our religion.” Shaken by the house fire and convinced that his recent “heist” inquiries had resulted in arson, Cano would build the primary structures out of stone “inside and outside,” and says that the (regal) pink volcanic rock he brought back from New Mexico “almost forced [him] to build a castle.” Wooden members are sheathed in sheets of applied metal scrap, and the hundreds of cut-off aluminum can bottoms [slide 11] are now decorative embellishments to the underlying flame retardant surfaces. Nicknamed “Cano” by his niece, he refers to the castle as a “sanctuary” structure – widespread anxieties over ‘Y2K’ persuaded him to have it mostly finished ahead of the new century.
Potato cellar to castle
To care for his aging grandparents in their home, Dominic and his mother moved into his present house in 1980. Cano needed to mostly stay close, and found himself with time and yard space enough to transform his initial small utilitarian structures into a castle – to finally erect his answer to the Asian temples he had seen more than a decade earlier. Antonito has a seasonal tourist railroad terminal, and Espinoza, who is one quarter Native-American, would dress the part and whoop-it-up on horseback alongside trains nearing or departing the station. As it began to take shape, he lauhs that tourists would occasionally follow the mysterious ‘Indian’ home to find that he (apparently) lived in a castle!
During my 2010 visit, Dominic sorted-out the web of extension cords inside the King and Queen and lit up the dim interior lights for the first time in years [slide 12]. While twilight set in and wind gusts rattled strings of bottles hanging from his home’s second story, Cano beat loudly on a penetrating pair of ‘native’ drums. About a dozen neighbors gathered in the street transfixed by the castle apparition – glowing ever more brightly against the falling sky.
Across the street, the castle faces undeveloped desert [slide 13], but a sporadic irrigation run-off stream has allowed Espinoza to build an animal farm and a tire-fence enclosed vegetable garden [slide 14]. About ten years ago, the landowner (whom he hasn’t seen since) gave him the verbal OK to use the land – where he has also built a brick-surfaced basketball court for the neighborhood [slide 15], a sweat lodge [slide 16] “out of tree limbs and mud,” an adobe horno oven [slide 17], and open tepee structures that conjure the presence of long-vanquished ancestors [slide 18].
Dominic doesn’t own a car, phone or “icebox,” and bicycles to the grocery store when his garden-farm can’t provide fresh food. He believes in the homeopathic use of the aloe vera plant to prevent and cure cancers, he doesn’t see doctors, and is convinced that most bodily ills come from unnatural or contaminated foods and minds. He takes intentional bites from a colony of red ants near his garden, and gets a sensation of relief, “like [he] got injected with some super blood.”
Arrows from heaven
In front of the castle wall two large “arrows from heaven” [slide 19] carry the messages: “ALCOHOL + TOBACOO IS KILLS” and “MARYJANE IS HEALING.” Undiminished by English mis-spellings, a rectangular board resembling a target with blue concentric circles around a small red center circle dangles from a chain between the arrows and symbolizes Cano’s message:
“pureness of heart – keeping away from addiction.”
Nearby, a raised plank with empty liquor bottles under a weathered “SALOON” sign [slide 20] evokes the
“effects of alcohol and the people it destroyed.”
Behind it, and still outside the castle walls, more empty liquor bottles are interspersed with pointed metal skewers around another found sign: “HELiSPOT.”
Prior to 2001, Espinoza built and decorated a horno oven [slide 21] with an applied pattern of marbles that (in retrospect) predicted the 911 event: marbles form the towers, the incoming planes, and show the aftermath [slide 22]. Prison inmates who have converted to Christianity are thought by Dominic to have special insight, and he has been warned about catastrophic flooding, but seated on castle grounds he draws his locale in the dirt: the elevated San Luis Valley – surrounded by ample flood plains below. Cano calls himself, “a survivor’ and believes that the rare “ring-tailed deer” he sometimes sees around the castle at dusk are “my angels looking after me.”