Mireya del Castillo loved animals, was 'guiding light' for her children

Saturday, June 22, 2013 | 6:35 p.m. CDT; updated 9:25 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 22, 2013

COLUMBIA — Mireya del Castillo, an established lawyer and community activist in Cuba, overcame extraordinary circumstances to flee Fidel Castro's rule and start a new life in America. 

Ms. del Castillo died Monday, June 17, 2013. She was 94.

Born in Camagüey, Cuba, on November 29, 1918, Ms. del Castillo earned a law degree from the University of Havana. She moved to the U.S. in 1964 to join her sons Camilo and José Samayoa and received a master's degree in library science from Kansas State Teachers College soon after.

In Columbia, she worked as a cataloger for Ellis Library for more than 25 years while championing animal rights.

"She is the person I admire most in my life," her son Camilo Samayoa said. "She was an achiever."

Camilo Samayoa volunteered during the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961 to help overthrow Castro's dictatorship. When it failed, he was captured by the government and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Although he only served 22 months of his sentence, he said his mother thought he was dead for a period of time. 

"It was one of the most difficult times of her life," Camilo Samayoa said. "Feeling helpless to fight such a monster as Castro was and facing all the changes that we were enduring in Cuba."

But he also said that this tumultuous time contributed to her strong character.

"My mother was always a very strong person," he said. "Her willpower was determined in everything that she accomplished in life."

José Samayoa, who was 12 years old at the time, left Cuba in 1962 to get away from Castro and avoid indoctrination into the Cuban government, he said. He lived with a host family in Miami while he waited for his mother, stepfather and grandparents to meet him.

"After all of her accomplishments in Cuba, all of the sudden she saw herself penniless in a new country with no immediate future to look for," Camilo Samayoa said. "And then not letting this affect her as a person and starting all over from scratch."

Ms. del Castillo worked as a waitress at Howard Johnson's restaurant in Miami, José Samayoa said. He said he remembers his mother coming home in a turquoise skirt and an apron full of quarters.

"My job was to count the quarters,"José Samayoa said. "We were dirt poor." 

In an autobiography by Ms. del Castillo, she wrote only briefly about some of the challenges she and her two sons faced.

"I think they had a happy childhood," she wrote. "The rest of what happened in our life, they lived through it the same as I did. It is not necessary that I write of it."

Ms. del Castillo moved to Emporia, Kan., to participate in a program offered to college-educated Cuban refugees at the Kansas State Teachers College, which is now known as Emporia State University. After earning a master's degree in library science, she worked as the head cataloger at the then Rockhurst College, which became Rockhurst University, in Kansas City.  She then relocated to Columbia in 1971 to work at Ellis Library. 

Anne Edwards, 70, worked with Ms. del Castillo at Ellis and described her as a "faithful friend."

"She was one of the dearest people I've ever known and I'll miss her very much," Edwards said. "Her whole life as a total entity was really amazing to me." 

Edwards spoke about Ms. del Castillo's life-long devotion to animal rights. 

"When you think of Mireya, you first think about animals," Edwards said. 

In April 2011, Ms. del Castillo wrote a letter to the editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune condemning the practice of animal trapping. 

"I found the recent photo of animal furs being auctioned that was on the front page of the Tribune horrible, and it must have produced the same impression on other animal lovers like myself," Ms. del Castillo wrote. 

She also wrote several letters about animal rights to the editor of the Missourian over the years.

Mary Cheavens, who knew Ms. del Castillo through the St. Thomas More Newman Center, said she was the biggest animal lover she had ever known. Ms. del Castillo frequently fed stray animals and cared for several feral cats in her back yard. 

Cheavens also described her as "generous, kind and loving." 

She told a story of Ms. del Castillo's faithfulness when Cheavens spent time in the hospital after breaking her femur. Ms. del Castillo became devoted to bringing food to Cheavens while she recovered. 

Cheavens said Ms. del Castillo "was very intelligent. She loved to discuss politics." 

Camilo Samayoa said that his mother's commitment to education kept him focused on staying in school and becoming an engineer. When all he wanted to do was play baseball, she directed him back to the importance of education. 

"I would have never achieved what I achieved in life without her," he said. 

José Samayoa referred to her as his "guiding light," always there to lead him on the right path. 

He also said that she remained positive and up-beat amidst tremendous challenges. 

"She always found positive things about everything," José Samayoa said.

Ms. del Castillo is survived by her two sons, Camilo Samayoa and his wife, Marcia Zorilla Samayoa, of Hollywood, Fla., and José Samayoa and his wife, Judy Samayoa, of Leawood, Kan.; four grandchildren; four great-grandchildren and ex-husband, Eduardo del Castillo, of Columbia. 

Her husband, Camilo Samayoa, died earlier.

Services will be held at the Newman Center in Columbia at a date to be announced later. Donations in her memory may be sent to the Central Missouri Humane Society, 616 Big Bear Blvd. Columbia, MO 65202.

Supervising editor is Katie Moritz.

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