How the Struggles of Mexican Americans Shaped Julian Castro's Presidential Campaign
Julián Castro announced his run for president in Guadalupe Plaza on the west side of San Antonio. He then hosted a presidential campaign rally at James Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. These were places where thriving Latino communities emerged despite widespread discrimination and sites of important community protests that demanded institutions change to address their needs. The locations were carefully chosen for their profound historical significance, tying Castro’s campaign to the century-long struggle of Mexican Americans to assert their equality and civil rights. In fact, his candidacy depends on this history.
Castro’s platform — education, employment, housing and immigration — is connected to both his personal experiences and the longer history of policies used to discriminate against the ethnic Mexican community. As the grandson of a Mexican immigrant, the son of a Chicana activist, the mayor of San Antonio and the secretary of housing and urban development, he understands the shortcomings of liberal politics, as well as how important they are for the future.
The Castro family’s story is textbook Chicano history. From the Mexican Revolution and the Great Depression to the civil rights movement and the Great Recession, his family’s experience taught him hard-learned political lessons.
When the matriarch of the family, Victoriana Castro, came to San Antonio in the 1920s, it was a city in the midst of transformation. That decade, the ethnic Mexican population of the city exploded, as people like Mamo (Castro’s nickname for his grandmother) fled the violence and economic disruptions of the Mexican Revolution. Between 1910 and 1930, the ethnic Mexican population in the U.S. nearly quadrupled. By 1920, San Antonio had one of the largest ethnic Mexican populations in the U.S. Most found work in factories and agriculture, which paid low wages that meant scarce food and poor housing. The average income for ethnic Mexicans was less than half the income of white Americans, earning between $200 and $500 a year. In the late 1930s, in areas like the west side of San Antonio where Mamo lived, ethnic Mexican children under age 2 were more than eight times more likely to die of diarrhea than in other parts of the state. Why? Because cities rarely provided sewage lines or running water to Mexican neighborhoods.
The Great Depression only made things worse. Many Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans were fired in order to hire white workers, and a decade of repatriation led to the deportation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans alike, regardless of citizenship. Even New Deal efforts aimed at aiding the ethnic Mexican population fell short. After a successful strike against powerful factory owners in the pecan-shelling industry in San Antonio, only 702 unemployed pecan workers were certified by the Works Project Administration to work in the available 1,800 positions the organization had created for them.
After World War II, Mexican Americans were left out of postwar prosperity and expanded educational opportunities. The consequences were profound. By 1960, nearly 80 percent of Mexican Americans between the ages of 20 and 49, including Mamo Castro, had never completed the 12th grade. The median family income for Mexican Americans in the 1960s, when adjusted for inflation, had not increased since the Great Depression. In San Antonio, only about 40 percent of Mexican Americans lived in housing that the government considered “sound.”
This was the west side that Castro's mother, Rosie, was born and raised in...