The matriarch of the Castro family reflects on fighting for Latino political representation and the rise of her twin sons.
Texas Observer: You were born in 1947. What was it like growing up in 1940s and 1950s San Antonio?
Rosie Castro: In my neighborhood, it was predominantly African-American families with a handful of Latino families. My mother made a living as a maid. For me, as I looked around and saw the inequities, they were very clear — between the houses my mother cleaned and the areas that we lived in. There was a great deal of inequity, in the housing, the roads, the drainage problems, in the health facilities. The other thing was, for Latinos, it was very difficult to get an education. I was very fortunate that I was at a Catholic school, but by the time I graduated in 1965, there was about an 80 percent dropout rate for Latinos and a 4 percent college-going rate.
In the ’60s, when I’m transitioning to college, it’s the days of the civil rights movement, and people were really looking at how you can make changes in quality of life, voting rights, representation. One of the things that I got involved in was the Young Democrats [at Our Lady of the Lake University]. For me, that was the beginning of really understanding how important it is to vote, to field candidates, to organize, to have a seat at the public policy table.
TO: How did your childhood and upbringing influence your activism?
RC: The teachings of the Catholic Church, parts of it include social justice. We were a mixture of Latinos and African Americans, and you see the disproportionate lack of representation, disproportionate lack of city services, and every other kind of service, and you wonder: Why is that? We’re not stupid people, we’re just different people. We speak a different language, we are a different color. It didn’t seem to me that because of that, we should be second-class citizens. I’m coming up at a time where there are such dismal statistics about education. Our kids are not graduating, our kids are not stupid people. You have to ask yourself: Why? And the answer is institutional racism.
TO: You helped found La Raza Unida [a Latino political party] in San Antonio. What were you hoping to achieve? Some viewed the organization as radical.
RC: People said it was radical, but for me, it wasn’t radical, in that the United States is a democracy based on electoral politics, a representation. That’s where we were coming from. We had no representation across the state on city councils, on the state Legislature, on county commissioners courts, school boards. We understood that as long as that was the case, you would not get the public policy that helped your community.
The Democratic Party did not have Latinos or African Americans on their national Democratic committee — same with the state executive committee. You couldn’t make those changes within the party, so you had to look to an alternative mechanism. We created [La Raza Unida]. We were the only Latino party around. We knew we weren’t going to win governor, if we ran a governor, but we knew that the alternative was to do nothing. And if you did nothing, nothing would change.
We knew you couldn’t change institutions unless you were at the table. It was a wonderful, inventive time of alternative institutions and agencies. For example, the legal system wasn’t serving us well, so MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) was created. The creation of alternative institutions was very important to the survival of Latinos, to the ability to get ahead and to be able, then, to take your rightful place at the policy table.
TO: It’s widely known that your sons, U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, accompanied you to political events when they were young. Why was it important to you to have them there?
RC: I really felt from the very beginning that they needed to see [me] go in and vote. They helped pass out leaflets for some of the [La Raza Unida] mayoral candidates. I felt that was important at an early age, one, because of volunteerism. And two, to see that you’re not powerless. I never wanted them to feel that they were victims, or that there’s no way out.
TO: How do you compare the San Antonio and Texas that you hoped to represent when you ran for City Council in 1971 to the San Antonio and Texas that your sons represented decades later?
RC: There have been many changes, some good, some not so good. … The changes in terms of institutional racism, some of the hard stuff, some of that moved between the time that I was coming up and the time that they are also in government. There are much more educational opportunities, financing for that, much more assurance that Latinos and other people of color would have an opportunity to go to college.
Now, are we where we want to be? No. On the national level, [Joaquin and Julian] have worked hard on immigration, but as you know, the new [Speaker of the House Paul Ryan] is saying he’s not going to work with the president. [Republicans] have made sure there is no comprehensive immigration reform for many years, and it looks like that’s going to continue unless the American people can get the Republican Party to stop negating everything the Democrats and the president say.
TO: You emphasized that for Latinos to have a voice, you needed alternative, third-party institutions like La Raza Unida. Now your sons are part of the two-party system. Can you discuss that transition?
RC: They were born in 1974, and [La Raza Unida] was only active for a couple more years. After La Raza Unida, I took a break. I was a single mother trying to make sure that I could pay for their living. When I came back and did some stuff with the Democratic Party, they got to see that. I transitioned, and of course, when they came back from Harvard, and Julian decided to run [for San Antonio City Council], that’s when a lot of my networks became useful.
When you have a little old lady tell you that she’s praying for your sons, or when you hear that someone’s whole family supports your sons, it’s incredible. Years ago, when I ran for office, there were people, Latinos too, who thought we were crazy. All these different things, for [Julian and Joaquin], I feel like came to fruition. Thirty years before Julian and Joaquin won, I had lost. And in those 30 years, there’ve been many changes and many learnings, but more than that, I think there’s a category of young people that are going to be the leaders. And for me, I love seeing that, because that means the future is brighter. The future’s not going to be left to the Trumps of the world — it’s not.
TO: Today, how should political parties reach out to Latino voters?
Part of what you see is that people don’t have trust. Like the general public, Latinos are worn out with the infighting and all that. The other thing that’s happening, there’s one party, and for me, that’s the Republican Party, that is actually targeting people of color and women for voter suppression. They gerrymander, and make rules like the [Texas voter ID] law.
I think it’s going to take, one, doing away with those laws and preserving redistricting that helps us get folks elected. And two, making sure that the Democratic Party gets better about offering opportunities to young people. When I was coming up, in the Young Democrats, that’s what the party was doing. I don’t see the party doing that a whole lot. There is more to be done to develop young folks, to build a pipeline. I think the Republicans are better at that. They support that young candidate.
We need to find ways to let people really know what their government is like. Until we do that, I don’t think things are going to change.
[Featured image: Jen Reel]