The steel mills of northwest Indiana had no harder worker than Salvador Curiel.
“He was one of these guys who never missed a day’s work,” his oldest son, Raul Curiel, told The Daily Beast this weekend.
Salvador Curiel originally arrived on his own from the small town of Moscota in Jalisco, Mexico. He joined a cousin in working in the mills, starting with the most difficult and dangerous tasks, but counting himself lucky.
“It was a very good job for any immigrant to have,” the son said.
The father went from U.S. Steel in Gary to Youngstown Sheet and Tub in East Chicago, where he settled down with a woman he had married on a return trip to his native town. Salvador and Francisca had four children, first a daughter, then three sons.
The neighborhood was a mix of seemingly every kind of ethnic group. Raul recalled, “It was blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Greek, Polish, and Irish. We all kind of enjoyed each other’s company.”
The father had only gone to the sixth grade before leaving Mexico. He now taught himself to read and write English. The children approached their school studies with the same spirit.
“Nobody ever forced us to do homework,” Raul reported. “We always wanted to do it. We kind enjoyed doing it.”
On two or three occasions, the father paused in his otherwise ceaseless working, and the family drove down to Mexico. The children enjoyed the luxury of spending time with him in the land of their parents’ birth, briefly away from the demands of the life they were all striving as a family to build in America.
“Bonding,” Raul said.
After years of grunt-level dangers on the job, the father was promoted to working the controls in the coke-making process, selecting particular coals to be mixed and pulverized and laced with oil so as to achieve an ideal density before it is fed into the ovens. He returned home from work one day in 1964, well on the way to achieving the American dream, when he suffered a massive fatal heart attack.
The mother went to work in local factories and kept the dream going along with the household. Raul noted to the Beast, “She was a very strong woman.”
Raul proceeded from high school to Purdue University but was drafted into the Army when he took a brief leave. He was sent to Vietnam in 1970 while his widowed mother and siblings worried at home. He often wrote to his mother and his youngest brother, Gonzalo, who was just entering high school.
In 1971, Raul returned safely home. The family had another reason to celebrate, as the middle brother, Antonio, received an undergraduate degree from Indiana University and proceeded on to the law school. He was just three months from receiving his law degree when his mother suffered a stroke and died in 1975.
She was just 58. She and her husband were cheated of witnessing what all their hard work had enabled the next generation to achieve.
“They never saw the end result,” Raul said.
The youngest brother, Gonzalo, received an undergraduate degree from Indiana University the following year. He was a notably talented guitarist, but he also continued on to the law school, graduating in 1979.
Gonzalo entered private practice in Dyer, Indiana, for several years before heading west. He became an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego and in Los Angeles, eventually heading the narcotics division.
The middle brother, Antonio, served as a U.S. attorney in Chicago and then embarked on a career in private practice, only to suffer the first of three strokes in 1990. He was forced to retire but continued to volunteer for a legal clinic that assisted the disabled. He suffered a third and fatal stroke in 1996. A scholarship at Indiana University was established in his memory.
Gonzalo was in the midst of becoming the first prosecutor to take down a major Mexican drug cartel, the Arellano-Felix Organization. A cartel hit man was recorded saying in 1997 that he had been authorized to murder Gonzalo, and the prosecutor moved for a time to Washington, D.C. Gonzalo continued prosecuting, making more than 300 cases, widely respected as one of the nation’s most effective and fearless cartel busters.
In 2006, then California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named Gonzalo a Superior Court judge in San Diego County. President Obama nominated him to become a federal judge in the Southern District of California in 2012. Raul was among the family members who attended the swearing-in.
“Things worked out,” Raul said.
Raul understood that Gonzalo would approach each and every case with the same guiding principle.
“The letter of the law,” Raul said. “He doesn’t show any favorites.”
As for himself, the oldest of the Curiel brothers had gone from Vietnam to the steel mill where his father worked, the company now named LTV. He was retiring after 30 years when LTV went bankrupt and he was left without a pension.
He still had bills to pay, and he went to work in construction at 59. He found himself, age 65, shoveling beside men nearly a half-century younger than himself.
“It took its toll,” Raul allowed.
Raul might have been the very kind of working-class vet in tough times who is targeted by Donald Trump.
But along with being someone who does not like to talk badly about people, Raul is of Mexican heritage. He is also the brother of the judge against whom Trump had directed bigotry such as the Curiel family never suffered in East Chicago.
And Trump’s bigotry was of the worst kind. His was not the bigotry born of ignorance such as the Curiels were liable to encounter if they ventured into southern Indiana. Trump’s bigotry was purposeful.
In this instance, Trump‘s immediate intent was to slander Gonzalo Curiel for having the temerity to follow the law and order the release of documents from the class action lawsuit against Trump University that The Donald did not want the public to see.
Trump also sought to rouse the bigotry in his followers so as to make them dismiss not only the judge but also the truth that the documents make so manifest: Trump had been operating a shameful hustle.
On Friday, with the document release due following Memorial Day, Trump complained at a rally in San Diego that he was being “railroaded.”
“I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump, a hater,” Trump said. “He’s a hater.”
Trump then sought to summon the worst in the true haters.
“The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican...” Trump went on.
Trump added in the very same breath, “...which is great. I think that’s fine”—pretending he had not engaged in purposeful bigotry when that was exactly what he had just done.
Trump lacked the courage to own up to his sliming even as he directed it at a judge who had in earlier years shown the courage to take on a cartel. Trump then actually said:
“I think Judge Curiel should be ashamed of himself. I think it’s a disgrace that he’s doing this.”
On Memorial Day, Raul Curiel was at home in East Chicago, not saying much about Trump because he figured that whatever he did say would not make much difference.
Raul is 67 now and finally retired, as is his sister, Maria Rybicki, who is 69. He has two sons of his own, one a cancer drug researcher, the other in the accounting department of a major company.
Raul had made it back from a long-ago war and was keeping himself busy on this day of remembrance by pouring a small cement pad beside the shed in his yard. He figured it would be good for a barbecue grill or some such.
“It’s only 4 foot by 4 foot,” he told The Daily Beast.
He said his surviving brother usually comes back to East Chicago in November, when this family that embodies what makes America truly great gets together for a uniquely American holiday.
“For Thanksgiving,” Raul said.