Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune
EAST LOS ANGELES — By the time his plane touched down in California at the end of a whirlwind week, Julián Castro had set an early political benchmark in the crowded presidential race.
It was early April, and the former mayor and housing secretary had just released a sweeping immigration policy platform, garnering national headlines and widespread praise from immigration reform advocates who went as far as calling his proposals “exactly what we need in this moment.”
Castro was still struggling to break from the pack, but he was the first in the field with a detailed plan to tackle the one issue that could come to define the 2020 presidential campaign. Yet when he sat down for an interview on comedian Bill Maher’s television show, the host instead catalogued Castro’s proposal in terms that the white men also running for president would surely never face.
“My question is why did you pick that policy?” Maher questioned. “Because it would be like if Obama when he first came out, his first issue was reparations or affirmative action when he was trying to say, ‘I’m going to be the president of everybody.’”
Castro was characteristically judicious in his reaction, even as Maher went on to point out he believed that immigration was an “obvious issue” for Castro, who already had “those people.” Castro paused slightly as he began to answer, looking away for a beat as he searched for the right words.
“Well, I think people also want to know what’s close to your heart, and that’s close to my heart,” Castro replied before explaining that leading with an extensive immigration policy was a no-brainer.
“I grew up with a grandmother who came over from Mexico when she was 7 years old because her parents had died,” he went on. “My family has lived an immigrant’s American dream story. And it also is the issue that this president is hell-bent on using as a political ploy every time he wants to score some points with his base.”
It was a measured response by someone who seemed prepared to field questions about his identity. But what Castro did not — and, really, could not — point out was the obvious: Only a Latino candidate, even one running against a president who launched his own campaign deriding Mexican immigrants, would get such a question.
Had Castro denounced the question, he might have faced accusations of playing the race card even though he had just been dealt one. Instead, what befell him was a public display of the existential crossroads that people of color often confront when seeking elected office — navigating the thin line between not being defined by their race or ethnicity while honoring what it means for someone who looks like them to be running.
Throughout his political rise, Castro has been sized up in ways Latinos have faced for generations in their decades long quest to be regarded as politically equal. But that struggle is now playing out on the national stage as he jockeys for support in a field of 23 Democratic presidential candidates.
Unlike most of the roughly dozen white men running, the only Latino in the race is facing the political hurdles of proving his “electability” and misperceptions of his objectivity on one of the presidential campaign’s most important issues. Years ago, President Donald Trump leaned heavily on his own lived experience as a businessman to court voters, but Castro instead fends off questions about whether his background sullies his stances.
Not even 24 hours after the Maher interview aired, Castro spent the better part of an hour shaking hands and posing for pictures under the California sun after making his pitch to an attentive crowd of 200 at the historic James A. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Castro was the one to volunteer that he had been asked why immigration was the first plan he put forward. He repeated part of his first answer but then expanded it to underscore how he wanted to foster a nation where “everybody can prosper” no matter “the color of your skin, how much money you have or don’t have, or how you identify.”
But soon after, a reporter questioned why Castro’s remarks had detailed his family’s story — how his grandmother came to Texas as a Mexican orphan in 1922 — and why he asserted in Spanish that the United States under his administration would return to respecting immigrants.
“You’re saying you want to represent all Americans, and you started your speech talking about your history and talking in Spanish,” the reporter said. “Don’t you think it could be an obstacle?”
“No, I don’t,” Castro responded curtly. “That’s who I am, and I’m going to be who I am.”
A few blocks east of Garfield High School, an otherwise nondescript street corner is emblazoned with a striking tribute to the Chicano Movement.
What appears to be the Aztec god Huītzilōpōchtli looms over the mural with blue skin and green feathers on his head. Protesters with their fists in the air are scattered under a large white banner that displays the ensign of the United Farm Workers labor union and its rallying cry, “Sí se puede.”
A brown man stands tall in the painting, holding a fiery torch in one hand with broken chains hanging from his wrists. And the words “viva la raza” are painted over a depiction of the historic high school where Mexican American students led walkouts in 1968 to protest the deep-rooted inequities they faced in the classroom.
That nascent fight for Latino representation depicted in the mural is not necessarily Castro’s fight, but he’s largely a product of it.
Castro rose to prominence in his hometown of San Antonio, where he was first elected to the City Council in 2001 — thanks to the work of the generation of Chicano activists, including his mother, who came before him.
As a member of the Committee for Barrio Betterment, Rosie Castro was part of a slate of Chicano candidates who unsuccessfully ran for City Council toward the end of the Chicano civil rights movement, when those hoping to serve still needed to obtain votes from across the city to nab a seat.
Their loss helped build the legal case against the at-large method of electing council members and push for representation in a city where Latinos had always dominated in numbers but continued to be shut out from dominating the halls of power. By the time Julián Castro took his seat on the council — 30 years after his mother came up short on votes — Latinos held half of the single-member seats.
So when Castro walked onto the Garfield High courtyard on a warm Saturday in April, he opened with his mother’s days as a hell-raising activist to introduce himself to the mostly Hispanic California crowd that had gathered.
“It’s very meaningful for me to be here at Garfield High School,” Castro said. “I grew up with a mom that was very involved in the old Chicano Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I’ve had tremendous respect over the years for the generations of activists — students who became activists, parents who remained active — and those who have pushed the school board, the city council and the local government.”
But the journey from places like the West Side of San Antonio to the West Wing remains an unlikely one, and introducing himself to voters requires Castro to underscore how outside the norm his story is in presidential politics.
In the area of town he grew up in, the poverty rate today ranges from 30% to 40% — more than double the overall rate in Texas. Nearly half of adults didn’t finish high school; only a tiny fraction have a bachelor’s degree or a postgraduate degree. Roughly 86% of students at the high school Castro attended are considered economically disadvantaged. And less than a fifth of them graduate ready for college in both reading and math.
Castro made it out. After high school, he went to Stanford — a product of affirmative action, which he strongly supports because he’s “seen it work” in his own life — and then Harvard Law School. With his degrees in hand, he returned to San Antonio with his sights set on City Hall. But he knows that’s far from typical.
“I’ve tried my entire life to make the most out of this first chance that I had,” Castro said in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune. “Most people who came from where I came from didn’t necessarily get a second chance.”
Castro avoided trouble and kept his head in the books so as to not derail the trajectory he saw for himself. He knew there was little room for error when you’re a Latino growing up on his side of town. But now he finds himself regularly addressing the dissonance between his disciplined, cautious persona and the tone of today’s presidential politics.
“This has come up in the conversation of people saying, ‘Oh, you know, you’re boring,’ or that I don’t drink or I haven’t gotten in trouble or whatever,” Castro said. “Well, no shit. I was trying to make sure that I could take advantage of this first chance because I didn’t think I was going to have a second chance.”
It’s the sort of claim to legitimacy that some say people of color running for office can’t afford to get wrong.
In introducing himself to voters, as in his policy proposals, Castro draws from experience. He’s focused on housing affordability and inaccessibility, visiting Las Vegas’ storm drain tunnels that provide shelter to the homeless. And he’s proposed a publicly funded universal, full-day pre-K program — a national version of the Pre-K 4 SA initiative that’s noted among his top achievements as mayor.
But he also talks about his own education — his path from public schools to an Ivy League pedigree — in a way that white candidates don’t have to, said state Rep. Diego Bernal, a longtime friend of the Castros who also grew up in San Antonio’s West Side.
“Even if [white candidates] went to great schools, which I don’t doubt some of them did, it’s just not an important part of their narrative, whereas for us … that background is really important,” Bernal said. “In the exact same space, you have to overachieve where for other people, for other candidates, it makes zero difference.”
Ultimately, Castro is operating in a system in which even the paperwork doesn’t account for people like him.
When he set out to file the necessary paperwork to launch his presidential exploratory committee, the Federal Election Commission’s online filing system didn’t allow him to insert the accent over the “A” in his first name. Castro printed out the forms and filed by mail.
He wrote the accent in.
“Everybody has their own background”
Democrats are coming up on an election that in many ways is about proving that the United States isn’t what Trump says it is. And to some, this is where Castro’s identity could be key.
“There’s one candidate who is uniquely positioned to understand the impact of the president’s attacks on Hispanics and immigrants, and that’s Secretary Julián Castro,” said U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who represents the northern end of New Mexico in Congress.
And it’s not just about immigration, Luján notes, but about presenting a “strong, positive vision for our nation’s future” amid that strife.
The punditry on the political slog ahead of choosing the person to take on Trump has recently devolved into the issue of “electability” — an ill-defined concept that the women candidates and the candidates of color, including Castro, say sets them behind and leaves out certain voters.
In fact, although he’s been polling at around 1% or 2%, Castro has posited that he is the best positioned to offer a second path to victory in November that doesn’t just wind through the Midwest but instead is paved through Nevada, Arizona, Florida and Texas, with their burgeoning Hispanic electorates.
It’s in this regard that Castro more overtly nods to his ethnicity.
“Nobody deserves to be president if they’re only going to represent one group or interest,” Castro said in an interview. “At the same time, everybody has their own background, and I’m proud of my heritage, and … it’s meaningful, especially this year, I believe, for the Latino community [and] for my candidacy.”
Nevada resident Areli Alarcón hadn’t even graduated from high school, or turned 18, for that matter, before she started volunteering for Castro’s campaign, sharing with her neighbors “why we’re supporting him, what his candidacy means for us and how historic it is for everybody that looks like him, that looks like me.”
To be sure, Castro’s positions on how to address issues like climate change and income inequality resonate with her. She’s applauded his efforts to bring policing reform and the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to the presidential conversation. But this election is also personal for her, not just because her parents are immigrants, but because it’s been validating to see someone whose background is similar to hers running for president.
“I like that he understands,” Alarcón said. “He always says, ‘I’m not a frontrunner, and most of us aren’t.’ That’s kind of how I feel as well.”
But the intersection between identity and politics is a complicated one, even for prospective voters.
Holding court at a picnic table ahead of Castro’s campaign event in East Los Angeles, a Castro supporter already sporting his campaign T-shirt — a fan since he first listened to then-Mayor Castro give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2012 — made small talk with a group of half a dozen attendees about the significance of Castro’s candidacy.
“I don’t like to pigeonhole myself,” Monterey Park resident Mario Solano interjected at one point. “I want to listen to everyone.”
The son of a Mexican immigrant, Solano was there with his daughter, who had pressed him to attend. He was mostly quiet — seemingly lost in thought — for several minutes as the conversation went on but then proposed a different take, one he appeared to still be working through.
“He’s from my community,” Solano said. “If he has a lot of support, even if he doesn’t win, they have to listen to us.”
Feeling an added responsibility
At home, Castro is part of the political springboard for Hispanics that distinguishes San Antonio from other American cities. It was home to Henry B. González, who made history when he became the first Hispanic from Texas elected to Congress in 1961. San Antonio made Henry Cisneros the first Latino mayor of a major city when it elected him to that post 20 years later.
If elected, Castro would be the first Latino president of the United States.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a public remark by Castro in which he says that quiet part out loud. But he does appreciate the gravity of his candidacy.
“No matter what happens in this race, I hope that there are a whole bunch of little Latina girls and Latino boys out there that when I’m on that debate stage or, hopefully … on that big stage in January 2021, that they can look and see that it’s not true what this president has said, that we can be anything and we can do anything and we can achieve our dreams and we’re as good as anybody else,” Castro said at a recent presidential candidate forum.
Beyond the aspirational, Castro’s campaign may end up serving as a political crash course for the country on what it looks like when a Latino — whose family has lived in the U.S. for several generations and who has brown skin and speaks Spanish with a slight accent and is culturally comfortable in the hyphen between Mexican and American — runs for president.
(It’s a nod to the inherent whiteness of presidential politics that Castro’s candidacy could even be considered to have this effect. Like Castro, Trump’s grandmother immigrated to the U.S., but he’s never been questioned about whether he speaks the German of her home country.)
Castro isn’t the first Latino or Hispanic candidate to seek the presidency; he’s not even the only one to run in the last four years, though Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both Cuban Americans, did not face similar questions about their ethnicity.
But unlike those candidates and unlike former President Barack Obama, who was often seen as working to transcend race in the political arena, Castro is more discernibly embedding it in his campaign as lived experience that informs his perspective.
In talking about visiting detention centers where Central American migrants were held, Castro has described the weight he felt when he saw that children, whom he said had the same brown skin as him, were being kept in cages.
He’s also the sort of candidate who knows to stop and bow his head in the middle of a post-rally rope line when an elderly Hispanic woman reaches to give him her bendición, a Catholic tradition with great significance in some Hispanic families that is carried out when a grandparent or a parent makes the sign of the cross over a person’s forehead to offer a blessing.
“There’s always a group that has to go out in front and blaze a trail or cut the path for subsequent generations,” said Henry Flores, a political science professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, who was part of the same group of Chicano activists as Rosie Castro.
In doing so, they expose white voters to a different type of candidate to the benefit of future candidates of color, Flores said. He was referring to the work Rosie Castro and her contemporaries did in San Antonio to open doors for people of color by getting the white community, which typically votes in a bloc, accustomed to seeing people who don’t look like them hold power.
But soon after, Flores discerned that — regardless of how far Julián Castro makes it in the race — he could end up doing for others what his mom did for him.
“For me, this was a major step forward,” Flores said. “This is great because now people will see we’ve got a national presence. People will see who we are.”
Castro stops short of speaking in terms that frame his as a trailblazer. But he has, perhaps unintentionally, addressed the possibility that his candidacy could serve to widen the road a bit more for the Latinos coming behind him in presidential politics.
Soon after the reporter in California framed his heritage as an obstacle, the Tribune asked Castro whether he thought that question, coupled with Maher’s, reflected who some people are used to seeing run for president.
Castro began his answer by repeating that immigration is a key issue in the race against Trump, but he paused momentarily before remarking on the significance of his ethnicity in this race.
“I don’t mind if people believe that one of the reasons that I’m bringing this issue up is because of my life experiences,” Castro said. “That’s right, it is. And I’m betting that this is a country that’s big enough to accept that.
“And if it’s not big enough to accept it,” Castro said with a slight smile, “then maybe I’m just ahead of my time.”