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In the spirit of a young Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father comes a candid and compelling memoir about race and poverty in America. In many ways, there was no reason Julian Castro would have been expected to be a success. Born to unmarried parents in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of a struggling city, his prospects of escaping his circumstance seemed bleak.
But he and his twin brother Joaquin had something going for them: their mother. A former political activist, she provided the launch pad for what would become an astonishing ascent. Julian and Joaquin would go on to attend Stanford and Harvard before entering politics at the ripe age of 26. Soon after, Joaquin become a state representative and Julian was elected mayor of San Antonio, a city he helped revitalize and transform into one of the country’s leading economies.
His success in Texas propelled him onto the national stage, where he was the keynote speaker at the 2012 DNC — the same spot President Obama held three conventions prior — and then to Washington D.C. where he served as the Obama Administration’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
After being shortlisted as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton, he became a 2020 Presidential candidate. Julian Castro’s story not only affirms the American dream, but also resonates with millions, who in an age of political cynicism and hardening hearts are searching for a new hero. No matter one’s politics, this book is the transcendent story of a resilient family and the unlikely journey of an emerging national icon.
It wasn’t yet noon on Father’s Day 2018, but the heat had already climbed into the eighties. Alongside US Route 281 in South Texas, there are patches of scrubland that stretch far into the distance, and with the window down and the sun at the right angle, you’ll swear they go on forever. I clicked the air conditioning off and let the hot air wash over me as I headed south into the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, which borders Mexico. I was halfway through the nearly four-hour drive, and I passed the time imagining how different my life would have been if circumstances for immigrants almost a century ago had been more like they are now.
I was on my way to meet a group of concerned activists at the Ursula processing and detention center, about a mile from the border. They were making the trip to protest the Trump administration’s policy of removing children from parents who were apprehended at the border. One of the activists was bringing boxes of stuffed animals and letters of support written by American children, but there was no illusion that these items would do more than provide temporary respite. Still, given the traumatic experiences those kids were going through, it was the very least we could do.
Because I was leaving so early that morning, my wife, son, and daughter had taken me out to dinner the night before to celebrate Father’s Day. Carina was nine and Cristián three, and both had been happy to spend time with Daddy. As loved as I had felt being with them, it had been almost impossible not to think of the thousands of kids their age, only a few hundred miles away, who had been ripped from their parents. Babies and toddlers were reportedly being relocated to “tender age” shelters, and children were missing medicine and going weeks without a bath.
As I neared Ursula, my thoughts kept returning to my grandmother, Mamo. Psychologists warn of the trauma suffered by kids who are separated from their families, and I had grown up witnessing an example of the long-term damage. Even at age seventy, Mamo had still wept uncontrollably as she remembered being pulled from her dying mother and told that she was going to live with another family in the United States. By the time Mamo crossed the border in 1922, she had left behind two dead parents and a life of unrest sparked by the decade-long Mexican Revolution. The circumstances of that border crossing, though certainly different from the experiences of the children whom I hoped to visit, had left a lasting impact on her life.
Her unlikely journey had been the centerpiece of my keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where I described the American dream as a relay in which one person’s sacrifices—in my case, Mamo’s—were vital to the success of later generations. Because of the difficult journey Mamo made, it was possible for my mother, and then my brother, Joaquin, and me, to have opportunities that she never had.
President Donald Trump’s administration’s immigration policy seemed designed to inflict cruelty on innocent children, leaving a very different impression of the land of opportunity. Regardless of political affiliation, there was a widespread feeling that an American ideal had been desecrated. This was a wake-up call for the nation.
As citizens came to the aid of noncitizens, I saw few examples of political grandstanding. The country may be deeply divided along partisan lines, but the seemingly instinctive response that I witnessed on my visit was that we, as Americans, are more alike than different. If the highest office holder in the land was going to implement a policy so flagrantly un-American, then Americans were going to push back.
Many began calling the policy state-sponsored child abuse, and this characterization, I soon realized, was not hyperbole. Outrage spread like wildfire as news anchors broke down in tears and airlines openly refused to shuttle children away from their parents.
When I arrived at Ursula, I was already sweating in the ninety-seven-degree heat. I walked from my car to the group that had assembled outside the one-story building where families were being physically separated. Protestors held signs, chanted, and gave interviews to the media, exercising the rights that generations of Americans have fought and died for, and they did it in a noble way. It was working too. People posted photos of transported children on social media; protests were held all over the country; and the administration started backing away from its zero-tolerance policy.
I met twelve-year-old Leah from Miami, who has an undocumented father. She came to the demonstration with her older sister, and the two spoke eloquently about the fear that their father would be rounded up and taken away from them. Leah and I walked to Ursula carrying a box of stuffed animals and handwritten cards for the children. The glass doors were blacked out and locked, so I pressed the buzzer on the intercom. A Border Patrol official answered. I introduced myself and said, “I want to leave some letters for the children who are here, along with some stuffed animals.”
“Okay, yeah, we’ll send somebody out there,” came the reply.
The door remained locked, and the box of toys and letters was still sitting outside the facility when I left more than an hour later.
The drive home was a conflicted one. As a Mexican American, I had a common history with many of the families seeking asylum. The issue of immigration is a complicated and ever-evolving one, but so many folks forget that their own lineage can be traced to another land, another nation, to a moment when their family’s survival depended on the empathy and acceptance of strangers. It’s no secret that most of us came here because America represented a land of expanding opportunities, a place where one could reach previously unimaginable heights of success through hard work. Times and circumstances change, I realize. But while it’s easy to talk about the American dream, every once in a while we need to wake up and ensure that it is not becoming, as it did at Ursula, obsolete.
And people have woken up. Their thunderous and unified activism brought attention to an injustice against our nation’s basic sense of self. We took a stand and a powerful step toward reaffirming the nation’s belief in the American dream. Three days later, President Trump signed an executive order ostensibly to end the policy of family separation.
The volume of the protests was instrumental in spreading word of the lives that were being destroyed by our federal government. Listening to those stories, witnessing those heartbreaks, and seeing the faces of those children humanized the immigration experience in a way that summoned the collective compassion we as Americans have not only for ourselves, but also for our fellow humans—regardless of nationality.
My own family’s history reaches back to a similar border crossing. I hope that telling that story can help show how inextricably woven the immigrant experience is with the American experience and serve as a reminder that immigrants are one of our country’s greatest assets as we work toward continued American prosperity in the twenty-first century.
It’s vague where family stories begin, but my twin brother, Joaquin, and I have always considered August 1922 to be the start of ours.
A seven-year-old girl, black hair falling down to her shoulders, held her younger sister’s hand as she followed the man and woman they’d just met. The dust that hung in the hot air covered the girl’s worn black leather shoes and the socks that no longer stayed up. The group walked along a line of lush green bushes bordering the Rio Grande, an oasis in the desert and scrubland that stretched thousands of miles in all directions.
They paused at the foot of a bridge, and the man wiped his brow with a handkerchief. The day was not hotter than usual, but it was almost a hundred degrees and there had been little shade on the walk.
He whispered to the two orphans, telling them that they were almost there. He pointed across the bridge at a building, which had a wooden roof and a sign that read U.S. Customs and Immigration hanging on the side. The man explained how they would pass through and sign some papers before going forth into the new country. For some reason, the little girl would later remember the words “Eagle Pass” from his explanation of the international border crossing.
Four tall men in grubby, sweat-stained Campaign hats stood beneath the bridge. They all held rifles but put them down as they waved the four people onward. The seven-year-old stared at the leather ammunition pouches hanging on the men’s belts. One man wore a knife that reached down to his knees, the sheath scratched and oiled from years of use.
Nervous, she stared at the border guards’ knee-high boots, pants tucked inside and covered with dust. One guard wore his rifle casually over his shoulder and smiled at the girl. He tried speaking some Spanish to her, but she just nodded shyly, still in a state of shock over learning of her mother’s death from tuberculosis a few days earlier. She wasn’t sure she’d even stopped crying before the man and woman had explained that they were taking her with them to America, where they lived.
She squeezed her sister’s hand and smiled at the man in the hat again. He seemed sympathetic but looked like a soldier, and she had seen too many soldiers in her own country already. The Mexican Revolution had begun in 1910, forcing thousands of families to flee the violence and political instability. A president had been assassinated, officials had had their eyes gauged out and lips cut off, and the president’s brother had been tortured with a red-hot poker. The uprising against the dictator Porfirio Díaz would leave millions dead, including revolutionary leaders like Emiliano Zapata. The continued chaos left the country in ruins, and soldiers had been a constant sight in the little girl’s life. She had heard about many of them being killed and buried in the coffins her father made. One day he too died in the confusion of war and was buried in one of his own caskets.
The guards in the wide hats spoke with the man and arranged some paperwork that was signed and stamped. They shook hands, and the friendly guard bent down and said something to the little girl and smiled. She liked the acorn band around his hat; it seemed to resemble something, maybe an accent, on a dress she used to wear when her parents were still alive.
The man who walked her into the new country said something in a language she didn’t understand, then folded up the papers and put them in his jacket pocket. He reached down to grab her hand and pull her forward as he tipped his hat to the guards.
That was how my grandmother always told the story of coming to America. My twin brother and I called her Mamo, and she was a constant in our lives, always making us delicious meals and telling us Mexican fairy tales about misbehaving kids being eaten. She also drank forty-ounce beers, escorted my brother and me to see Friday the 13th when we were ten, had a child out of wedlock with a man almost half her age, suffered from depression and diabetes, made the best fideo I ever ate in my life, was pulled from school in the third grade and still taught herself to read in two languages, and once tried to kill herself. She was one of the most amazing people in my life, and the reason I know one of the most fundamental truths about myself: where I came from.
Born Victoriana Castro in 1914, in the middle of the Mexican Revolution, Mamo grew up in San Pedro, a town located in the state of Coahuila. Landlocked and roughly six hundred miles from the US border, the region is known for its cotton and steel production.
She’d tell us about her parents, and we always wanted to hear about how our great-grandfather made coffins. But talk of her parents often led to tears and hysterical sobbing. “They wouldn’t let me say good-bye!” Mamo would wail, in the same pitch and with the same pain every time, no matter how many years had passed.
Mamo was never clear on how Mr. and Mrs. García of San Antonio, Texas, came to take care of her and her sister, or even on how old she was when she arrived. The paperwork stated that the Garcías were the closest living relatives of the orphaned girls, but they were distant at best. The question was always on my mind, but Mamo was unable to provide a detailed timeline of her early life in Mexico.
After Mamo crossed the border, she lived with one part of the García family, headed by Gabriel García, the man who had walked her across the border. Her sister, Trinidad, was sent to live with two García sisters a few blocks away. Gabriel’s wife, Tomasa, cared for Mamo as she settled into her new American life, but that life was far from easy.
My grandmother arrived in Texas at a time when persons of Mexican descent were discriminated against in ways that often paralleled the experiences of African Americans in the Jim Crow South. Throughout much of Texas, Mexican kids were forced to attend segregated schools. Restaurants and shops posted signs that read No Dogs, Negroes, or Mexicans Allowed, and segregation was common in movie theaters, parks, swimming pools, and even cemeteries.
Mamo’s new family lived on San Antonio’s West Side, an area filled with Mexican immigrants and refugees. Swaths of previously undeveloped land were studded with small, one-story wood-frame houses, each of which came with a dirt driveway and a tiny patch of grass for a front lawn. The new immigrants opened restaurants, bakeries, shops, and bookstores, and they started publishing newspapers and playing concerts. Together with working-class families like the Garcías, the immigrants formed a tight-knit barrio saturated in Mexican culture, faith, food, and music.
In addition to Gabriel and Tomasa, Mamo lived with their two daughters, María and Herlinda. A local musician, Gabriel played classical music at weddings and quinceañeras (fifteenth-birthday parties for girls) and sometimes performed on the local radio show Gephardt’s Mexican Hour. The pay was low, but at large events, if it was late enough, Gabriel was allowed to take home the leftover food.
They lived on West Laurel Street, a mixed neighborhood of African Americans and Mexican immigrant families. Church attendance was mandatory, and elders were to be respected and never questioned. When Mamo or one of the Garcías’ daughters broke a rule, punishment was harsh.
“You boys have it easy today,” Mamo would tell us. “My guardian would take a long rod and hit me with it.”
“Like a stick?” we’d ask in horror.
Mamo would laugh, then tell us that she got off lightly. “Some of the kids at the other houses had their heads held under water until they thought they were going to drown.”
Stories like that would put Joaquin and me on our best behavior for a solid twenty minutes.
Discipline or not, life didn’t get any easier for Mamo. She was taken out of school in the third grade to help around the house, and just as she was becoming a teenager, Tomasa, who had become like a second mother to her, passed away. Then the Garcías’ daughter Herlinda died in childbirth, leaving Mamo to help care for the new baby, who was also named Herlinda and who would become Mamo’s enduring best friend. By age fourteen, Mamo had begun a lifelong cycle of cooking, babysitting, and cleaning homes for others to make a living.
When Mamo talked about her childhood, it seemed like she was walking through a minefield of anger and sorrow. She could be laughing or talking about her sister one minute, then grow deeply sad the next as she thought about the loss of her parents or the social restrictions she experienced as she grew up in Texas.
I’ve always felt conflicted about how my grandmother’s life played out. On one hand, the García family took her in, providing her a new life in America. On the other hand, Mamo was never allowed to thrive and explore opportunities to live her own life.
Mamo was forbidden from socializing with or dating boys when she was growing up, and it wasn’t until the age of thirty-two that she had her first boyfriend. His name was Eddie Perez, a young man from the neighborhood. Details are fuzzy, but it was clear that Eddie was eighteen and Mamo was pregnant. If their age difference wasn’t shocking enough, the out-of-wedlock birth made their relationship toxic for both families.
The Garcías did not sugarcoat. “¡Vas a matar a Gabriel!” (You’re going to kill Gabriel!) Meanwhile, before Mamo even started showing, Eddie left San Antonio.
In May 1947, Mamo gave birth to my mother, María del Rosario, named in honor of the Virgin Mary. Seeing how much Mamo loved her new daughter, the Garcías threatened to keep the child if Mamo, now thirty-three, strayed from the house or became pregnant again. Eddie’s family never acknowledged his daughter, and years later, when he reappeared in the neighborhood—some say after serving in a branch of the military—he showed no interest in getting to know her.
The baby girl who became my mother doesn’t have any memories of Gabriel, who died leaving his daughter María the small, one-story house with the peeling paint on West Laurel Street and the mortgage payments. María became the first Mamo, since her niece Herlinda had begun to have children. Mamo García, as Joaquin and I would later come to know her, was only ten years older than our Mamo, but she’d helped raise her and Herlinda both.
María, who also lived in the West Laurel house, assumed her father’s iron-fisted discipline. Her authority was so clear that Mamo, already a mother in her thirties, referred to María as her guardian. My mom, on the other hand, was not great at deferring. She could handle the raw spankings and ear pulling, but as a kid it really burned her that after punishment was dished out she had to kiss María and tell her that she was sorry.
Before she even reached ten years of age, Mom’s determined personality was almost fully formed. “One day the whole family was out walking, and this pesky dog starts barking at us,” Mamo said. “We went to church every Sunday, and your mom kicks at the dog and yells, ‘Dammit to hell!’” A family member reached down, pulled on my mom’s ear, and swatted her hard on the backside. Mamo could not help but laugh now, but her daughter resented how she never stood up to the Garcías’ overzealous discipline.
This rebellion was not without cause. My mom was creating distance, letting everybody know that she would not conform out of simple obedience. She saw that while the house was full of love and caring, it was very controlling. She was also aware of the different levels of racism in society and felt the subtle social pressure of the times holding her back. It was difficult for Mexican Americans to succeed, and Mom felt an obligation to push back and not kowtow to anybody, family or not.
In a town where Mexican American residents faced constant discrimination, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower was a cultural refuge. Opened in 1931, the church had been founded by friars from Mexico and stood as a point of pride for immigrants, its impressive facade marked by wide white archways and stained-glass windows. A welcoming and beautiful place of peace and worship, it was also a source of employment for the Garcías when cash was tight. Mamo García answered phones in the rectory during the day while Mamo cleaned the office.
Mamo always had a lot of pride in working at the basilica, but she also hoped that the job provided more than just a paycheck. One time, Mamo and I were making a cake when I was a child, and we ran out of milk. Mom joked about praying for some milk, and they both laughed. “When I was your age and we had no food in our house,” Mom said, “Mamo García, Herlinda, Mamo, and I would light candles and start kneeling to beg God that the money they’d made serving his ministries would help.”
“And we always made it through,” Mamo said, making the sign of the cross.
“Somehow, we did.” Mom nodded in agreement.
Mamo may have deferred to her guardian in some matters, but she held her own when it came to her daughter’s education. She somehow managed to save ten dollars every month to cover tuition for her daughter at Little Flower Catholic School.
The strictness of her home life prepared my mom well for the Irish nuns who taught at her school. The Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate wielded wooden rulers like world-class fencers. Classes were small, and it was hard for Mom to avoid attention, so she learned to toughen up when the rulers came out.
Even as a child, I had to wonder about the point of Mom’s story as she told Joaquin and me about the sting of the rulers.
“Oh, I cried at first,” she said. “Then I learned how to grit my teeth when they smacked me. By my fourth month I wasn’t even crying when they hit me.”
“They hit you with rulers?” I asked, incredulous.
Mom spread her hands out wide. “Long ones!”
But in many ways, my mom’s situation lacked the constraints experienced by other Mexican American children attending public school at the time. They were often punished for simply speaking Spanish at school. Many immigrant parents, who were treated dismissively, made sure their children learned to speak English first, if not English only. Kids like my mom were, and often still are, forced to develop unique ways of straddling two cultures.
At school my mom excelled academically and soon began to develop a sense of herself in the world. There was a stark contrast between what she saw as a future full of opportunity and the confines of Mamo García’s strict household. Mamo was working on the other side of town by then, cleaning homes in middle-class neighborhoods. Herlinda had moved away, so Mom was left under the loose watch of a neighbor while the adults made whatever money they could.
Life in the barrio forced everybody to toughen up, even grandmothers. Mamo once recounted cleaning a house and then waiting at a bus stop in the dark. A man approached her and raised a piece of pipe, demanding her purse.
“This one robber tried to tug my purse away,” she told me as I lay in bed. “I was at the bus stop, and he came up with a metal bar in his hand. He started waving it at me and told me to give him my purse, and I prayed very loudly and then hugged it close to me. He swung it down and hit me hard on top of the head. Then he just looked at me. I think he was waiting for me to fall down. I told him to go away and he kept looking at me and then turned and ran.” She tapped her head where the pipe had hit her. “He didn’t know what a hardhead I was!”
Mamo’s work schedule varied depending on the families who hired her, and she occasionally took Mom to her cleaning jobs rather than leave her home alone. On those days Mom began to see startling differences in the lifestyle she led versus those in other parts of the city. Mamo and Mom cleaned houses for five dollars a day, and there was one disgusting job my mom had to do that she never forgot. A family’s cocker spaniel was infested with ticks, and my mom was instructed to take it to the backyard and pick off as many ticks as possible. Later, taking a break on an elevated area of the property, she saw some rocks and began throwing them down at the parked cars in anger.
I still remember Mom nodding at the dinner table as she told that story, inhaling from her cigarette. Throwing rocks “was wrong,” she said, “but I was just frustrated and barely older than you guys. That family was a bunch of jerks.
“They even made Mamo work Christmas once,” she added. “They weren’t aware of her as a mom with a family, even when I was there with her.”
As a young girl, Mom’s frustration at the differences between her world and the one inhabited by the employers was understandable. The rock throwing, though, was something different. The people who owned the house Mamo was cleaning, and those who owned the cars, likely were not bad people, but to my mom, as a little girl, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. I hope she had really bad aim that day, but something tells me she was pretty focused.
That contrast was also vital in appreciating Mom, who was already trying to broaden her horizons in as many ways as possible. She did recognize that she had to channel her anger away from damaging cars and into a more constructive path.
Mom’s consciousness was awakening at school too, thanks largely to the civil rights movement. One time, she raised her hand and said, “This school is in a mostly black neighborhood, so how come there are almost no black students in our school?”
Another time, the class took a trip to the Alamo, a monument to the Texas Revolution that is arguably the sacred institution of San Antonio. Her hand shot up again to pose a question, and I have a feeling that the nuns were nervous when the tour guide called on her.
“Why does the story make it appear so one sided?” she asked. “There were also Mexicans fighting alongside Davy Crockett and Sam Houston.”
Indeed, she was learning to throw hard, uncomfortable questions instead of rocks.
- On Sale
- Oct 16, 2018
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Little, Brown and Company