Alonzo de Castro shimmied to his table in the spacious ballroom in the Eastwood Manor in Williamsbridge on Oct. 31, swinging his arms to the DJ’s music.
“He’s a great dancer. We were dancing together forever,” said Lucia, his wife of 59 years, who has been working alongside her husband to create college scholarships for Bronx teens for more than three decades.
The 82-year-old community leader was determined to greet all 250 of his guests at the annual banquet to honor 20 local teens. He knew almost everyone by name.
This event for youth had never been so urgent in all its 32 years.
The shadow of a recent shooting lingered over the festivities. Three weeks earlier, 92-year-old Sadie Mitchell, a beloved community member, died when a stray bullet broke through her living room window. Police arrested a Williamsbridge teenager in connection with her killing.
“We could have saved two lives, Sadie Mitchell and the young man with the gun,” said de Castro in his opening speech. He made a strong case for the community’s responsibility to give young people direction, and was particularly frustrated that the area still lacked a recreation center, a project he and other community leaders have been promoting for years.
In addition to addressing the community’s needs, de Castro made it clear that this afternoon was to honor teens who have done well regardless. Local residents, business owners, and community groups donated the $600 scholarships, which serve to help teens with college expenses like books and fees. “They’re helping me further my education,” said Helma Tyler, 18, a student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Tyler plans on attending law school after college, and interns for Bronx Councilman Larry Seabrook.
A retired post office employee originally from the British Virgin Islands, de Castro is the leader of Northeast Bronx Community Coalition in addition to the East of Laconia Community Association. He founded the Coalition with Shirley Fearon, president of the Williamsbridge NAACP, to expedite the fight for a recreational center and address other community needs regarding day care centers and the White Plains Road shopping area. “I have my two projects. That’s what keeps me going,” de Castro said.
“This community is very active, but Al is the most active,” said Bronx District Attorney, Robert Johnson.
Over 100 people attended a Coalition meeting to address the need for a recreational center last August. Councilman Larry Seabrook said that he would contact the Bronx Borough President and others to kick off the project, de Castro said. “All it takes is people.”
Activism has been a life-long job, but de Castro has dedicated even more time to his community since his retirement in 1985. “I like to lead, and when I see a need, I have to speak out. I can’t be quiet,” de Castro said.
During his 39 years with the United States Post Office, he worked his way up from a substitute clerk position to becoming the manager of 13 of the largest post offices in Manhattan. de Castro married at 23-years-old, and worked hard so that his wife could stay home with their three daughters, Angela, Lydia, and Deborah.
“Whatever mission he’s on, it’s always based on family, self-pride, and community,” said Angela de Castro, a teacher who lives in the Bronx.
The community leader’s roots in activism extend to his childhood in the Virgin Islands, where his family members were very involved. “We have always worked for the underdog,” said de Castro, who was one of 13 children. “We were always activists.” His mother and older sister worked for an organization similar to the Red Cross in the Virgin Islands, and his older brother introduced the Boy Scouts organization to the Islands.
When he was 19, de Castro moved to the United States for economic reasons after becoming a naturalized citizen from his U.S. army service in Puerto Rico during World War II.
Tenacity is his key to success, said Lethia Williams, the Scholarship Chairperson of the Association. “He is relentless in standing up to the politicians who have the finances to get the jobs done.”
A 43-year Northeast Bronx resident, de Castro has been a continuous presence in the lives of many community members. “I’ve known him since I was knee high to a grasshopper,” George Stewart, 42, said at the scholarship luncheon. “He’s a great guy. He’s very focused.”
After de Castro gave a closing speech at the luncheon, he cued the DJ to play another song. De Castro had been dancing earlier in a crowd of people, and now others walked onto the dance floor for the last few songs of the day.
Afterwards, when de Castro exited Eastwood Manor, he paused while someone took his picture in front of a poster displaying photos of the scholarship recipients. De Castro proudly announced “the graduates” as he smiled for the photo.
“Al has a true desire to help people,” said Father Richard Gorman, Chairman of Northeast Bronx Community District 12. “ I hope he’s involved forever.”