We have some exciting news for you: we are expanding our team, welcoming a new community reporter, Ambar Castillo.
Castillo is a New Yorker through and through. She was born in “pre-gentrified” Crown Heights to Dominican immigrant parents, and grew up just off the J train tracks in Richmond Hill, Queens, spending afternoons at her father’s Brooklyn bodega and summers with extended family in the Dominican Republic. All of these experiences shaped the way she sees the world and how she operates as a journalist.
“A lot of my parents’ stories from back home really inform [who I am]. My dad was a rebel during the Joaquín Balaguer dictatorship, holding these clandestine meetings and distributing pamphlets against the dictatorship and getting jailed because of it,” Castillo says.
“Also me being a bodega kid and hanging out there with my dad and a bunch of other Dominican bodega owners on Marcus Garvey — seeing how they navigated cultural and language differences with mostly English-speaking Black residents and with health inspectors and police — was very much an early education in the way immigrants and certain folks viewed law enforcement, and the way that law enforcement viewed them.”
She went on to attend Boston University, majoring in Latin American studies and minoring in journalism before becoming a community health worker in the South Bronx. During that time, she worked with a majority Spanish-speaking, older Caribbean community to connect them to resources and help them make healthier choices, like switching from white to brown rice, sometimes “getting cursed out” in the process. “Even so, it was fun to engage a bored audience in waiting rooms or build trust in patients who would tell their stories about growing up in Quisqueya, Borikén, or the Bronx,” she says. From there she transitioned into classroom teaching, and later a mix of the two, leading theater-based health and safety trainings, writing a bilingual newsletter, and directing the occasional student music video in schools.
“I have this love for any kind of creative communication, especially when I can involve Black and brown families,” Castillo says.
She returned to school to complete the prerequisite classes needed to apply for a master’s degree in nutrition, but never ended up doing so. Instead, she got involved in the theater, philosophy and journalism communities on campus, eventually traveling to Gujarat, India, for a reporting fellowship with the Pulitzer Center.
“I started doing more of that community reporting work in India and looking at what they were doing with not just street theater, but intimate interactive theater, really engaging people in dialogue about social issues through music, theater and other forms of performance,” Castillo says.
That led to a yearlong Fulbright research fellowship in Mysore, India with community artists and health workers.
“That’s when I was like, ‘OK, I need to just commit completely to journalism,’” she says. “Because with all these roles — whether it was community health work or working in schools — the part that I was most excited about was ‘how can I create these presentations that incorporate storytelling and convey this really important information, but in ways that resonate with the audience?’”
Following her time in India she received her master’s degree from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY. She then covered Washington’s people, places and policies as a local reporter, embedding with D.C.’s excluded workers and violence interrupters. From Afghan refugees and migrants to unhoused residents, she reported on issues and solutions from a health equity angle. Castillo further delved into community health and equity reporting at STAT, a national health and medicine news outlet under Boston Globe Media, as part of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT. She plans to continue this intersectional health beat at Epicenter-NYC.
Castillo says she’s drawn to the field because it provides a platform for her to create connections with people.
“Journalism is primarily about relationships and building that trust, especially with the mistrust and misinformation that we’ve seen really ramping up in recent years,” she says. “The relationships you find between different ideas, the parallels that you’re drawing between phenomena that affect everyday people and the historical or scientific context behind it — it’s really about helping people make sense of the world. And I think so many of us need that.”
Castillo’s inbox is always open — for questions, tips, story ideas, or just to say hello. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.