When I think about Julian Castro running for president, I remember a phone call nearly 30 years ago. That was 15 years before I met my friend, who was then attending high school in San Antonio.
As for me, I had just graduated from Harvard, and I was back home in the farmland of Central California where, it sometimes seems, everything grows except opportunity for Mexican-Americans.
That’s how it is in farm towns in the Southwest. In the 1950s, when my parents were teenagers, a dream job for Mexican-Americans was to get out of the fields and work in an air-conditioned office. In the 1980s, when I graduated from high school, the dream was getting accepted into an Ivy League university. Today, the dream is keeping pace with white colleagues — getting the same jobs, promotions, accolades and paychecks. Good luck with that.
The Fresno Bee had run a full-page feature about my small-town upbringing, my time in Cambridge, and what lay ahead. An older woman named Diana Rodriguez tracked down my number and called me.
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As a Mexican-American baby boomer with children my age, Rodriguez wanted to tell me personally how proud she was of my accomplishments. I was embarrassed by the call, and I tried to get it over with. Then she blurted out a few sentences I’ll never forget.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “You don’t know what this means. Because you don’t know … ”
It was then I heard the sniffles through her tears.
“ … how they treated us back then.”
I heard the horror stories but didn’t live them
She was right. I didn’t know. I had heard stories from my parents, aunts and uncles — about segregated schools, movie houses and public pools. As recently as the 1960s, there were signs in restaurants in California, Arizona or Texas that read: “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” My parents — who graduated from the same high school I did, almost three decades earlier — got the short end of the stick in public schools. Just like other Mexican-Americans of their generation, they were “tracked” away from college prep classes, dogged by low expectations, and discouraged from pursuing higher education.
A cynic might say the agricultural industry that serves as the life blood of Central California needed a dependable workforce whose minds were uncluttered by foolish thoughts of college.
Sure, I had heard about that horror show, but I hadn’t lived it. For me, attending high school in the 1980s was like living in a different world, one with few boundaries or limitations.
Hollywood had discovered us. On television, Edward James Olmos played Lt. Martin Castillo on “Miami Vice,” and Jimmy Smits portrayed high-powered attorney Victor Sifuentes on “LA Law.” And in San Antonio, a Harvard-educated young city councilman named Henry Cisneros — who was bilingual and as polished as they come — had just been elected the first Mexican-American mayor of a major U.S. city.
As I packed for college, I thought Mexican-Americans could do anything that white people did, and go anywhere that white people went. We had arrived.
Time passes. Life teaches you otherwise.
Latinos aren’t sure whether America wants them
Thirty years later, Mexican-Americans, and other Latinos in the United States — Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Colombians — are going through what I call “the Dickensian period.” It’s the best of times, and the worst of times. Most days, 60 million Latinos in this country wake up not sure how America feels about them. She loves us? She loves us not?
On the one hand, our buying power — approaching $2 trillion annually — is coveted by Fortune 500 companies, and we’re told that we’re the swing voters who decide presidential elections. On the other, we’re scapegoated, underrepresented in media, underserved by both parties. Our Mexican parents and grandparents are labeled rapists and murderers by the current occupant of the White House.
Making matters worse, as much as President Donald Trump talks about immigration, he doesn’t understand the topic. In his State of the Union address, he claimed that a “powerful barrier” had magically transformed El Paso, Texas, from one of America’s most dangerous cities to one of the safest.
Not true. The city was not particularly dangerous before the barrier, the El Paso Times reported, and violent crime rose slightly in 2010, the year after it was finished.
Now, into this cultural chaos steps Julian Castro, a 44-year-old son of San Antonio who has worked hard, done a lot with his life, and checked a lot of the boxes. A graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, a former San Antonio mayor and U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he delivered the keynote speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, made Hillary Clinton’s short list of potential running mates in 2016, and wrote a memoir released by a major publisher.
All this, from humble beginnings on the hardscrabble west side of San Antonio — an upbringing that still pays dividends for Castro because it has prevented him from developing a swagger.
Julian Castro validates Latino ambitions
For U.S. Latinos, and Mexican-Americans in particular, his candidacy is a validation of what they’ve been telling their children for the past two or three generations — aim high; success comes from hard work; education paves the way; playing the victim is a waste of time; keep pressing ahead even as others try to hold you back; look out for the less fortunate.
America struck a bargain with Castro — and, for that matter, with his twin brother, Joaquin, a U.S. congressman who has a different political résumé but the same educational background — and with other Mexican-American overachievers.
The terms were never spelled out, and no document was notarized. In fact, the agreement wasn’t even put down on paper. But it went like this: If Mexican-Americans stayed out of trouble, studied hard, served in the military, took the worst jobs, put up with discrimination, started businesses, employed workers, paid taxes, served on juries, and raised good kids who became productive and law-abiding members of society, then someday — if they lived long enough — they might see one of their own run for president.
Mind you, that candidate wouldn’t get a free pass, be immune to criticism or stroll into the office. He’d have to fight his way through the wilderness like everyone else. But he would be treated fairly and not be held to a different standard than a white candidate.
A deal is a deal. Julian Castro carries the marker. And Mexican-Americans expect this country — our country — to honor it.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.” Follow him on Twitter: @RubenNavarrette