The American Castro brothers and politics indoors

San Antonio mayor Julian Castro gave a barn-burner of a speech at the Democratic convention last night, following a stirring introduction by his identical twin brother, Joaquin, who is running for a seat in the House of Representatives.  Someone planning the Democratic convention has an eye for political talent.  The American Castro brothers were barely on my radar before the convention (but see the joint portrait by Zev Chafets in the New York Times Magazine in 2010); the speech gave both brothers more of a national profile.

Mayor Castro presented his life story as emblematic of the American dream, presented as a generational relay: his grandmother cleaned houses to support his mother’s college education and, ultimately, the twins’ academic successes at Stanford University, Harvard Law School, and their subsequent–and unfolding–political careers.  This is the basic outline of the American dream, with parents investing their time and money in their children’s success, even if the Castro trajectory is far steeper than most.  (Barack Obama and Mitt Romney trace the same kind of generational mobility, all starting in very different places; it’s hard to earn and accomplish more than the CEO of a major automobile company and governor of a state!)

Of course, as soon as Mayor Castro was announced as the convention’s keynote speaker (a slot a younger Barack Obama filled not long ago), some conservatives commenced a preemptive attack.  Over at Breitbart, the Castro brothers have been portrayed as racists and radicals.  To the extent that there is any substance underneath these charges, it comes not from their conduct in office (Joaquin serves in the Texas legislature) or even their rhetoric, but from odd quotes from people associated with one of organizations their mother, Rosie, founded, La Raza Unida, some forty years ago.

Rosie sat with Julian’s wife and young daughter during the keynote, beaming, but it was hardly her first dip into politics.  She was a leader in the Chicano movement in San Antonio, an organizer and activist, and a failed candidate for City Council in 1971.  She took her kids to political meetings and demonstrations, and reports that she had little to do with the twins’ drive, academic achievements, and political aspirations.  Don’t believe it; the Castro brothers don’t, citing her as inspiration.

When Mayor Castro took office, he hung a La Raza poster from his mother’s council campaign in his office.  This is the one piece of conduct in office Breitbart’s Charles Johnson takes issue with.  Johnson’s take-down, however, is based on interviews Jose Angel Guittierrez, past president of La Raza and current law professor, gave to a Toronto paper, in which he confessed an aspiration to take back Aztlan.  Guilt by parental association is a shabby way to do journalistic business.

For Politics Outdoors, the really interesting story is about the generational institutionalization of dissent.  Rosie Castro claims a Chicano identity, although neither of her boys does.  She practiced a politics of community organizing, outside activism, and protest.  The Castro sons, who have cultivated images of pragmatism and moderation, practice their politics indoors, emphasizing management and broad political coalitions.  Partly, Rosie Castro didn’t have a law degree or the resources she provided for her sons.  Partly, the world has changed, at least somewhat in response to the efforts of activists like Rosie Castro, so that her sons can win access and influence in mainstream political institutions.

That’s an American dream story too.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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