It took Donald Trump to help get him there.
by Jennifer Medina
When Rosie Castro’s sons, Julián and Joaquin, were still in elementary school, she took them to countless political meetings in San Antonio, hoping they would learn to see the world as she did: a place that needed Mexican-American voices, like theirs, fighting for representation in the upper echelons of power. A place that needed them to speak with urgency about civil rights and racism.
Her sons wholly embraced the lesson about political power — they both ran for and won elected office in their 20s — but they were never quite as fierce as all the Chicano activists they had spent time with as children, rarely using the language of their mother and her political friends.
Then came President Trump.
With Mr. Trump’s pitch to voters relying on attacks on Mexicans and immigrants, Mr. Castro has abandoned any reluctance to use the vocabulary of activists, increasingly speaking in terms that have surprised even his mother.
On Monday, he traveled to Matamoros, Mexico, where hundreds of asylum seekers, in limbo under the Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” policy for migrants, have created a tent city. He crossed into Brownsville, Tex., with a dozen people who were asking for an exception to that policy — people who he said were either disabled or victims of assault because of their sexuality or gender identity. The 12 asylum seekers spoke with border officials for three hours, and then were turned away.
“It only made me more confident that this policy is born out of cruelty, to force these people to self-deport back to wherever they’ve come from,” Mr. Castro said in an interview Monday evening.
Reflecting on his maternal grandmother, who immigrated from Mexico in the 1920s as a 7-year-old orphan, he added: “I see in the children my grandmother’s face, and I know that there is potentially a life that can be saved or changed forever,” he said. “I am living that directly right now.”
The visit and his comments echo the tenor of his 2020 campaign, where he has taken stances on health care and immigration, including decriminalizing illegal border crossings, that would have been shunned by much of the Democratic Party just four years ago.
For Mr. Castro and other second- and third-generation immigrants, who came of age as Latinos seemed to be gaining political, cultural and economic influence, the Trump era has been a stunning reminder that attacks on people who look like them resonate loudly among people who don’t — and that all of those gains may be elusive. In interviews, Latino politicians across the country said that, for the first time in their lifetimes, it feels as though their Americanness is being called into question.
The mass shooting in El Paso this summer, in which the gunman said he had targeted Mexicans living in the border city, underscored that fear and anger.
Mr. Castro said, in an interview last month, that he senses a great deal of anxiety remaining after that attack. “There’s an urgency we need to respond with,” he said. “We have a president attacking Latinos and immigrants. There’s a real sense of going back, so of course I need to address that.”
But in a community as diverse as Latinos in the United States, there is not universal agreement. A small but vocal minority of Hispanics are steadfast supporters of Mr. Trump and dismiss any suggestion that he has encouraged racist attacks with his rhetoric.
Recent polls of Latino voters show, however, that the overwhelming majority believe they are facing increasing threats and view racism as a pressing issue. A Univision poll showed that 87 percent of Latinos who are registered to vote view racism as a significant issue, the highest percentage in nearly a decade, and some 66 percent of voters surveyed said they were “very worried” there would be another mass shooting “targeting people based on race or country of origin.”
Ms. Castro, now 72, once urged a reporter not to confuse her sons’ politics with hers — she was more radical. But during the September debate, she was pleased by Mr. Castro’s aggressiveness, and hopes it is a tone that he sticks with, especially in the debate next week.
She grew up at a time when Mexican-Americans were banned from living in certain neighborhoods in her native San Antonio, and restaurants hung signs that read “No dogs or Mexicans.” Drawing lessons from the civil rights movement, Chicano activists in the 1960s and ’70s staged protests and walkouts throughout the Southwest, demanding access to better housing, education and political power.
“During my own time and the time of the ’60s, for me much of what I did came out of anger — it was just a raw deal for our people,” she said in an interview. “I think that with my sons, there is no need to come out of anger. They come out of an educated place, an experienced place — not to say that they can’t get angry, but they’re coming out of an understanding how public policy is made and in a strategic way.”
She then quickly added, of the current president: “You got a man who took everything and turned it on its head. Is there more of a reason to be angry? Of course. He’s talking about us and he’s talking about our people.”
Mr. Castro is the only Latino candidate in the 2020 presidential race, and in recent weeks he has seemed to lean into this role: His campaign has posted images on social media of him in a thumping lowrider, calling for a country with taco trucks on every corner and selling Chicano tattoo-inspired merchandise.
Still, he is careful not to be pigeonholed by his ethnic identity, even if he is eager to take on the president’s rhetoric. “I’m being called on to speak to these issues, because of Trump, because of what he has said and done,” Mr. Castro said. “There is a characterization of us as other, as not belonging. This has been a turning point for Latinos because you have such high profile scapegoating so bluntly.”
When he was a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, Mr. Castro rarely spoke out on immigration and did not take a public stance against the administration’s approach. By contrast, during his presidential campaign, he has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration’s deportation policies, saying he has “learned from those mistakes.”
On the campaign trail, Mr. Castro appears confident, eager to project an image as a polite but steadfast warrior for his liberal positions. But even as he courts left-leaning primary voters, polls have consistently shown that he is struggling to build a base of support. He has not yet qualified for the November debate and has suggested he may drop out if he does not make the stage.
As a child in the 1970s, Mr. Castro spent hours with his mother and her friends, Chicano activists in a deeply divided South Texas.
Frustrated by the lack of attention from local Democrats, Ms. Castro and her friends eventually formed a third party, La Raza Unida, in an effort to get Chicanos elected to public office. Ms. Castro ran for City Council as one of the party’s candidates.
She lost, but her twin sons went on to unquestionable success, enrolling at Stanford University as undergraduates, then at Harvard Law School and eventually reaching the highest echelons in politics: Mr. Castro was appointed to Mr. Obama’s cabinet, while his brother, Joaquin Castro, serves in Congress.
During the 1990s and 2000s, while the Castros were pursuing their political ambitions, there were significant improvements for many Latinos: more attended college, more were elected to public office, more gained economic and cultural power.
During his time on the San Antonio City Council and as mayor, in a city which is now 60 percent Latino, Mr. Castro maintained a reputation as a reserved pragmatist — very different from the kind of activist politics his mother adopted for decades.
Like his peers, he built a career that was shaped not only by where he had come from but also by the opportunities he had been able to access.
“We were all part of that first generation who had access to opportunity,” said Lorena Gonzalez, a California state legislator who attended Stanford around the same time as Mr. Castro. “But we suffered from our own privilege — we can have all these degrees, we can all go to law school, but we’re still seen as a Mexican who doesn’t belong here.”
Many in the Latino community did feel a brief sense of progress and optimism after the election of Mr. Obama, who promised immigration reform during his first months in office, said Representative Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona who graduated from Harvard and served in the Marines.
“There were all these anti-immigrant laws, and there was a hesitancy among many Hispanics to say it was racist or had racist intent,” Mr. Gallego said, referring in particular to Arizona’s 2010 law, which required law enforcement officers to determine an individual’s immigration status during a stop or an arrest. “Now you’ve seen a big evolution with the Hispanic community openly attacked — a lot of us realize that it has nothing to do with immigration, but it has to do with skin color.”
Lou Correa, a Democrat who has represented Orange County, Calif., in Congress since 2017, and considers himself a moderate, said that in his two decades in politics, he has “never felt comfortable with any label other than American,” and has “always resisted being labeled the Mexican candidate and Latino.” Now, even in his district where 66 percent of residents are Hispanic, he finds himself “having to justify the presence of Mexicans and Latinos in this country.”
“We didn’t start this fight, we were called out to fight when we’re told immigrants are criminals, so all of the sudden it is something we must do,” he said.
It’s a fight that Ms. Castro is pleased to see her son taking on as a presidential hopeful. When she talks about his campaign, she can hardly hold back her inner activist and stage mom.
She has often bristled at the fact that both of her sons are expected to answer questions about immigration, but are sometimes ignored on education or health care. After each debate, she has one piece of feedback on how Mr. Castro did: “I don’t think he gets enough questions asked.”
Later this week, she will get to answer some questions herself.
Decades after she brought her young sons to political rallies and meetings, Ms. Castro now attends them on her sons’ behalf. On Wednesday, she will make her first foray outside of Texas, campaigning for Mr. Castro in three-day swing through Iowa — the perfect job for a stage mom and veteran political activist.
Jennifer Medina is a national correspondent for the NY Times based in Los Angeles. A native of Southern California, she has covered the region for years, focusing on immigration, education and poverty. @jennymedina • Facebook