Over breakfast recently, San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, only 35 years old, struggled to place himself and his generation in the long, storied history of Mexican American politics in Texas. “I’m kidded a lot about being young, but youth has its advantages,” said Castro, leaning across the table as if into a stiff wind. “I didn’t experience discrimination growing up. I’ve been able to get a good education and my dream job. A lot of things define me: the fact that I’m married and have a young daughter, that I’m a lawyer. I’m Latino, but that’s not the only factor that shapes my thinking. It’s only part of my identity.”
We were at Jim’s coffee shop on Broadway, just north of downtown. Every few minutes, customers would come over to greet the mayor. And each time, Castro would lift his lean, five-foot-eight-inch frame from his seat and offer his thanks with the air of an enthusiastic priest. At one point, a gray-haired Hispanic woman approached, stared into Castro’s face, and pressed a Catholic prayer card into his hand. “I am so proud of you,” she said. “I want you to remember that I pray for you every day.”
In thirty years of writing about San Antonio, I’ve witnessed this small scene play out many times before with previous generations of Hispanic hero politicians, who, like Castro, grew up on the predominantly Hispanic West Side. In the late seventies, when Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez would go to breakfast, he’d bring his own fresh peppers, dice them with a knife at the table, and mix them into his scrambled eggs. He’d give customers the Henry B. treatment, handing out ballpoint pens with his name on them and calendars with his photo. They wound up in Hispanic homes and offices all over town, totems of reverence. After Henry Cisneros was elected mayor, in 1981, he too had breakfast with reporters on Broadway. Cisneros would walk table to table, his suit jacket slung over his shoulder JFK-style, shaking hands, always in motion and oozing charisma.
Both men transcended longtime ethnic politics in ways that provide useful lessons for Castro. The son of immigrants, Henry B. did not speak English when he started school, but he would later become known for his ability to make inspiring speeches. He saw himself as a Hispanic politician, one who represented San Antonio but also national interests in Congress. At home, however, no one disputed that he was el jefe, a figure feared as much as admired. When Henry C. became mayor, winning 61 percent of the vote, he was so cautious about offending Henry B. that he promised never to run against him. During his four terms, he presided over an economic boom and was as popular with Anglos as he was with Hispanics. Privately, however, he agonized over the pressures of ethnic tensions. While others saw him as a future governor or U.S. senator, Henry C. cheated his own destiny with his paralyzing indecisiveness about his future and, later, with a messy public admission of an extramarital affair.
These days Cisneros, who is the executive chairman of CityView, an institutional investment firm that focuses on housing for working families and urban infrastructure, plays the offstage role of adviser. Castro and his