Will Julian Castro Be Our First Mexican-American President?
Running for president is all about telling a story. Castro has a compelling one that just may match the moment.
As I try to get my head around the idea that a longtime friend—and fellow Mexican-American—is expected to declare, on Saturday, that he is running for president, memory takes me back to a touching episode that unfolded over breakfast in Los Angeles nearly a decade ago.
It was the summer of 2010, and I had driven up from San Diego to meet with Julian Castro, and his twin brother Joaquin. The San Antonio superstars were in Los Angeles—the nation’s Mexican-American capital—to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Back then, at just 35, Julian was the newly minted mayor of San Antonio, and Joaquin was running for his fifth term as a Texas state representative.
Before we had finished eating, a pair of older women—who had also traveled from Texas to attend the conference—approached our table to pay their respects to these two rising stars of Democratic politics. The guys stand up, and one of the women hugs Julian while the other hugs Joaquin. Then they switch. Someone introduces me, and, before long, everyone is hugging everyone.
As the women turn to leave, one of them tells the brothers in Spanish: “Que Dios les bendiga.” May God bless you.
This is not your everyday, run-of-the-mill political meet-and-greet. This isn’t Hillary Clinton sprinting past Dreamers and other Latino activists in a rope-line in Iowa.
These women felt connected to the Castros—not just because they were all from Texas, but because of their shared ethnicity. There is no telling what these people experienced in their lives, but it’s a good bet that it included blatant racism and discrimination. They probably waited their whole lives to be able to vote for a Latino for president. And, somehow they knew, that person could be one of the two men standing in front of them.
We ought to recognize this phenomenon. We’ve seen it often enough. This is not America’s first rodeo when it comes to what many white people— conservatives and liberals alike—now derisively refer to as “identity politics.”
It’s the story of a 29-year-old Irish-American Democrat and Navy veteran from Hyannis Port benefiting from ethnic pride as he hustled votes in South Boston while running for a seat in Congress in 1946.
Call it what you like, the practice of voters supporting candidates because they can relate to them, and perhaps share a common ethnicity, is as American as pizza, tacos, egg rolls, and shepherd’s pie.
And if it’s good enough for the Kennedys, then it’s fine for the Castros.
It may also be a good time for Julian Castro to do what he is expected to do this weekend—announce that he is joining what will likely be, in the end, a very crowded field of Democrats vying for their party’s nomination in 2020. The prize: the chance to run against President Donald Trump, and constantly be insulted via Twitter.
That would explain Castro’s recent jaunts to the early voting states of Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire.
For the graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, former city councilman and mayor of the nation’s seventh largest city, keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic Convention and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development—who has most recently been on a book tour for his memoir, An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream and served as a fellow at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas—every accomplishment, achievement, and award has brought him to this moment.
Castro wasn’t born on the Fourth of July, but he did enter the world—in the wee hours, and one minute ahead of his brother—on the Mexican-American equivalent: the 16th of September, Mexican Independence Day.
As Julian grew up, politics was all around him. His mother Rosie—who, under different circumstances, might have been the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of her day—ran unsuccessfully for San Antonio City Council in the 1970s under the banner of the Raza Unida Party, which was created by activists disillusioned by both major political parties.
After the Raza Unida dissolved in 1978, many of those activists went home to the Democratic Party. They included Rosie Castro, who we can expect to be at Julian’s side as he makes the biggest announcement of his storied life, along with his wife, Erica, and their two young children, Carina and Cristian.
As many Americans get their first glimpse at the 44-year-old Mexican-American wunderkind vying for the White House, here are a couple of things they should keep in mind.
You remember how Barack Obama—who picked Castro to follow in his footsteps and deliver the convention speech and later nominated him to be HUD Secretary—was described as “post-racial”?
Think of the Castro as “post-Latino.” Like me, he doesn’t speak Spanish very well–not that this should matter much at a time when about 80 percent of U.S. Latinos either speak only English, or both English and Spanish. He is totally comfortable in the mainstream and has, throughout his career, enjoyed substantial support from white people.
Trust me. Even in 2019, that is, for most Latino politicians, no small thing.
No doubt, the immigration issue complicates that relationship. A supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and legal status for Dreamers, Castro ripped Mitt Romney’s proposal for illegal immigrants to simply “self-deport,” but he also blasted Obama for racking up record numbers of deportations. While serving as mayor, he supported a resolution condemning Arizona’s racist immigration law, which essentially mandated ethnic profiling.
That last item caused some of his white supporters in San Antonio to bristle a bit—even liberals. It’s not about politics. It’s about expectations. When a Latino overachiever like Castro rises through the ranks, a lot of white people get nervous and keep waiting for him to go native and get all radical.
That won’t happen. That’s not Julian. Never has been. He’s humble, calm, and deliberative. Often, when tempers are flaring, he’s the grown-up in the room. He’s confident, but he lacks swagger. It takes a lot to rile him up.
Like many Latinos, Trump at times riles him up. There’s your narrative right there. Castro could be cast as the Latino Avenger, striking back at a racist president who picks on and demonizes Latinos with regularity.
My friend’s big challenge in this campaign may be to let loose a bit, and speak his mind freely. Unlike the current occupant of the Oval Office, Castro chooses… every… word… carefully. This leaves folks with the impression that he’s calculating and cautious, and not capable of saying anything interesting. Politicians who are afraid of saying the wrong thing often say nothing.
Those of us who know Castro know him to be an interesting person with a compelling biography and strong leadership skills. As the Latin proverb goes, still waters run deep. There is a lot more to this guy than meets the eye. But voters will never know that unless he drops his guard, and lets them in. Millions of Americans will want to connect with him, and he needs to give them a way to do that.
Running for president is all about telling a story. Candidates have to answer: Who are you? What do you bring to this challenge? And, almost above all, what exactly is wrong with you that you would even want this crummy job?
If Castro doesn’t do that effectively, some other Democratic presidential hopeful will—perhaps another Texan, this one an Irishman and amateur Latino impersonator who does speak Spanish and goes by Beto.