Meet Julián Castro: Is he the Obama of the 2020 race?

Former HUD secretary tells "Salon Talks" about his coming of age, the border crisis and why he's running

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published January 13, 2019 10:00AM (EST)

Photography by Jill Greenberg, Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at (Photography by Jill Greenberg)
Photography by Jill Greenberg, Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at (Photography by Jill Greenberg)

Democrat Julián Castro, the former HUD secretary under Barack Obama and former mayor announced his candidacy for president on Saturday at a rally in San Antonio, Texas, the city where he was once mayor. In an energetic speech calling for America to recommit to the Paris Agreement, expand education opportunities, and make housing more affordable, the 44-year-old candidate vowed to bring new energy and new direction to the table.

But with several Democratic candidates already in the race, and more to come, what is Castro's edge? As I see it, what sets his candidacy apart is his remarkable personal story, which Castro and I talked about at length this fall when he stopped by “Salon Talks” with his new memoir “An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream.”

Castro became the youngest member of the San Antonio City Council at age 26. He was the first Latino to ever deliver a keynote address at the DNC in 2012, and was vetted as a vice presidential candidate by Hillary Clinton in 2016. He’s the first Latino in the 2020 race, and if he wins the nomination, which is admittedly a long shot, he would become the first Latino presidential candidate to represent a major political party.

Watch and read our conversation below to learn more about why Castro might be 2020's most Obama-like, hope-filled candidate. We dive into Castro's childhood, what role his twin brother, Congressman Joaquin Castro, will play in the campaign, and what he observed during his recent visits to the US-Mexico border.

What made you write this book now?

I actually started working on the book in early 2013. I feel like a walking cliché because, as some folks may know, I'm seriously considering running for president in 2020. The thing that people do, right, is that there's a book out before you run, but I actually started working on it more than five years ago. I wanted to tell my family story of our time here in the United States starting with my grandmother that I begin the book with, because I hope that it's inspiring to a lot of other families. I especially hope that it resonates with young people who sometimes wonder whether they can still achieve the American dream.

Running for president or not, we need more voices like yours in the world. The publishing industry, I published my first book four years ago, and it's still extremely lopsided. It's a very white industry. Your story is different. From what I've read, you don't really seem like as a kid you grow up wanting to be a politician.


What was the big shift for you?

For me, because I grew up in an active household, my mother had been involved in the old Chicano movement, she was a Chicana activist and she would drag my brother Joaquin and me to rallies and speeches. She didn't hold office, but she was around it. She was trying to make change. We grew up around it, but when I was a teenager I used to think, for what? I didn't see the point of it because my mom and her colleagues were coming from an outsider's perspective. I didn't see the changes being made and the people being helped by political involvement that I thought should happen.

You were thinking more strategy?

Yeah, back then I thought that I was going to go into marketing or advertising or something. I remember that my grandmother that I write about, that I grew up with, wanted me to be a chef when I grew up.

Can you cook?

Not really. [Laughs.] I think I failed her in that regard, but I did not ... To answer your question, the shift for me happened when I went away from my home community in San Antonio. I had grown up with my brother on the west side of San Antonio in the public schools there. We got scholarships and financial aid to go to Stanford and when we got to Stanford, we had never been there before. We had been on a plane one time.

Was it a culture shock?

Yeah, it was very different. Now, I was lucky because my twin brother Joaquin was there with me, but it was the first time that I could see my community where I had grown up with an outsider's eyes. What I saw was that compared to the Bay Area in California, you had in San Antonio much lower income levels, lower education levels. It seemed like a community that was less ready for the future. I also saw some things that I liked. In San Antonio, there's still a sense of community. The way I like to say it is, if two people pass each other on the street downtown, they still look each other in the eye. There's still a sense of connection. But the shift was, how can we create more opportunity for folks where I came from? I got a chip on my shoulder about San Antonio and making sure that more people could succeed.

You are part of that last generation of people who feel like they can dedicate their lives to public service and see change. I say that because so many millennials don't want to run for office. They sit at home on Election Day. They feel like their systems have failed them. What do you say to them or how do you get them to see the world that way you see it?

Well, I can empathize and understand some of that because I write in the book that my mother was part of a third party that at the time was saying neither of the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party is doing nearly enough for the Hispanic community down there in Texas. So, they formed their own party and ran candidates and so forth. I can understand the idea that people get frustrated with our partisan system and all of the back and forth. I would just say that the common denominator, no matter what your political beliefs are, is participation. In our system, the only way that you're going to make a real difference is if you make your voice heard and you make your voice heard through your vote.

Our current president said he was going to make America great again and I just don't see it.

No, I agree.

You write in the book about visiting protests on the U.S.-Mexico border. Take us back to that image. Did it remind you of some of the rallies that your mom took you to as a kid?

I went on Father's Day to McAllen, Texas, which is on the border. There was a group of activists that were protesting, holding a rally outside of what's known as the Ursula Processing Center, which is basically where families go that have been apprehended at the border and they are physically separated. then they're sent off from there, so that's why they call it processing. For me, it reminded me of when I was younger and some of what my mom used to do, but more than anything else, it's just drove home the point. There we were on Father's Day, when you're celebrating family and the importance of parents, and here we were with the American government forcibly taking away children from their parents. [It showed] not only how un-American, but how inhumane what Donald Trump did there through his policy was. It heartened me that there were a lot of folks of different backgrounds who had come in from different places to rally to oppose the policy and to bring attention to it. We need a lot more of that and we need people to show up at the ballot box to change the leaders that we have an office.

The subtitle of your book is “Waking Up from My American Dream.” What does the American Dream mean to you?

To me, it means the ability to be successful as you define that. Classically, as you know the American dream a lot of times meant something material like getting the house, getting the car. But for my grandmother, for instance, I write in the book, she got pulled out of elementary school and so she never finished elementary school. She worked as a maid, a cook and a babysitter. She never owned a car. She never owned a house. She didn't even have a bank account. But at the end of her life, I believe she felt like she was successful because she saw the only child that she had, my mom, graduate from high school and then go on to college. One of the last things that I told her was that I had gotten into Harvard Law School. We were there at Stanford and we're getting ready to go to law school. She knew that she had worked hard and successfully made sure that her daughter could have more opportunity in the country and that we could. I believe that she lived her own American dream.

So many young people in America feel like the dreams are not obtainable. How do we keep their investment in the future alive?

We’re going through a time right now where we have to do a gut check on who we are, whether it's with this family separation issue, or wanting to ban Muslims from traveling into this country, or a whole bunch of other draconian policies. We need to summon a common sense of national identity and a sense of purpose. The other way that we do it is that we make sure that we elect people who believe in opportunity for everybody because that's been the story of our country. Our country has had some terrible setbacks. We think about slavery, we think about the Jim Crow era. We think about the fact that women didn't even have the right to vote or to own property. The story of the country has been a determined group of people who were fighting to expand rights and opportunities. The moment that we're at right now is whether that expansion, that forward progress will continue or will it give way to this darker vision that our leadership in Washington has of scaling that back.

It's like you fight, and you fight, and you fight and then someone comes along and they try to erase it. Even you mentioned how affirmative action may have helped you with Stanford and how Harvard has a lawsuit and they're trying to stop that.

There's no question that in our country there have been policies and investments that have been made along the way and rights that have been gained because of hard-fought struggles. My message to this new generation is that you have a role to play in continuing that forward progress. We think about those children that are sitting there in those detention centers or we think about all of the young people who are going to our public schools who are not getting anywhere near the education that they should get because we had failed them in a lot of the public schools. I went to the public schools, but I saw a lot of students that were not able to avail themselves of the same opportunity that my brother and I were able to. There's still a tremendous amount of work to be done. My message for young people is don't throw up your hands, but get into the fight, participate.

There's multiple ways to participate. You don't just have to get into politics, but you can do other things too, right?

Most folks won't get into politics, but the way that I think about it is in order to make progress, you need people working for that everywhere. My mother and her generation and of course, still today, throughout the generations, you have people that are marching, that are protesting on the streets. You have elected officials now more from different backgrounds that are working in city halls or state legislatures or in the halls of Congress fighting to improve things. You have people in corporate board rooms that are trying to get companies to do the right thing and be more responsible.

It takes everybody.

Yeah. Whatever your profession is, or whether it's through a church or a neighborhood association or the PTA, work to make sure that you help others progress.

You were to first Latino to deliver a keynote address at the DNC back in 2012. What did being a first mean for your community?

First of all, it was nerve wracking.

I remember it. You were cool though. It looked like you had done it a thousand times.

President Obama and I had a chance, maybe for like three or four minutes, to talk about my experience speaking and his experience speaking. I told the president, 30 seconds into the speech, I thought I was going to pass out.



You looked so cool.

Sometimes you just gotta go with it, but I was just glad there was something to lean on to. In terms of being the first, I think my brother Joaquin and I are very aware that we're fortunate to have gotten to the places that we've gotten to, and that also that not a lot of people who look like us have had those kinds of opportunities. We do feel a responsibility, of course, to represent everybody because if you're in an office, you have to represent everybody, but also there’s a special meaning for especially the Latino community because they haven't had that many folks be able to go to those places. We've try to spend time going back into schools, talking to folks, encouraging young people to pursue their dreams.

As secretary of HUD, what did you feel your biggest accomplishments were?

Two of the biggest accomplishments that I'm proudest of, number one, we made the biggest progress on fair housing that had been made probably since the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 said that the secretary of HUD had the obligation to affirmatively further fair housing, but that had never been put into a rule. It hadn't been defined. What we did in 2015 was that we said to communities that are receiving HUD money, taxpayer money, that you need to get more serious about equal housing opportunity in your jurisdiction. We saw it as a way to increase opportunity, especially for people of color and to decrease segregation in our nation.

Did you leave some notes from Ben Carson?

Yeah, I think we left some binders. I don't know how much they've been followed, man.

You're considering running for president.

I am.

What are you going to run on?

I went into politics because I felt very blessed with opportunity in my life and I wanted to make sure that other people could have that same kind of opportunity. No matter the office that I was in, I worked like crazy to use the levers of that office to spark greater opportunity for people. If I run for president, it's because I have a very strong vision for the country. That vision begins with a blueprint for 21st century opportunity because we know that what worked yesterday is not what's going to work tomorrow. People need more education and skills than ever before to compete in the job marketplace. We also need to invest and things like universal health care, universal pre-K, making sure that somebody can get a good college education or at least certain certification so that they can get gainful employment. The 21st century just requires more than it used to. If I run, I'll sketch out my vision for the future.

Jack made Bobby attorney general. What role would your brother play in that administration?

He'd be my water boy, holding the water. I'm kidding. I write in the book about competitive Joaquin and I were when we were kids. He took the Dallas Cowboys, the Texas team early and so I had to take another team and I took the [Philadelphia] Eagles. Randall Cunningham was my favorite quarterback.

Randall was amazing, man.

He was a great. There’s never been anybody quite like him. On Sundays when the Eagles and the Cowboys would play, you didn't want to be in our house. But today, one of the neat things about growing up has been that just your relationship with your parents evolves, our relationship [as brothers] has gone from one that was very competitive to one that's very collaborative. If I decide to run, I expect that my brother will be my number one advisor and right-hand guy.

In preparation for this, I just want to throw some terms out and I want you to just give, say the first thing that comes to mind. Economy?

Could do better.

Student loan debt?

We need to erase it.

MAGA hats?

Interesting, but I wish there were less of them.

Police reform?

We need to do it.

Race relations?

Always a work in progress.

If you do run, and for whatever reason you don't get the nomination, how do you contribute to making this whole thing better? We’re in a really weird place right now, and I hate to keep going back to people who aren't inspired, but we need voices like yours. We need voices like Obama. What is the biggest contribution that you can make?

Well, part of what I've been doing for the last year and a half is I was a visiting fellow. I was lecturing at the LBJ School at UT (The University of Texas at Austin), trying to impart whatever wisdom I might have on the younger generation. I've gotten involved supporting candidates through an effort called Opportunity First, supporting young progressive Democrats that are running so that we elect a good bench of people at every level that care about their communities that are working for progressive policies. I also am doing things like being on the board of Voto Latino to try and make sure that more of the Latino community is registered to vote and turns out to vote. Then, just using my voice on issues like immigration and this activism and going down to the border. I also went to that Tornillo tent city near El Paso. I'll continue to do that. What's weird is that I haven't felt that after I've left public office, I haven't missed it as much as I thought that I would.

Hopefully you'll get back in soon.

Thanks a lot.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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