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 twin brother, Joaquin, a state representative, sometimes meet with Cisneros on Saturday mornings at spots like El Mirador and El Sol Bakery for tutorials. Cisneros went to kindergarten with Rosie Castro, the twins’ mother, and has known them since they were children. “I want to help Julián and Joaquin and the next generation all I can,” said Cisneros during an interview in his downtown office. “In particular, I want for Julián what I want for my own son—to go as far as he can.”
Castro is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, and he believes that his ideas, not his ethnicity, will define his political future. Both Henrys thought the power of their ideas would elevate them as well. The difference is that Castro has demographics on his side. Within fifteen years, Hispanics, already the largest ethnic group in Texas, will become a majority. Yet the political shift from Anglos to Hispanics will not be quick or easy. Voter turnout among Hispanics has been historically low and has risen by inches, not feet. During the 2008 presidential election, about 10.2 million Hispanics voted, up from 9.6 million in 2004. Sixty-seven percent voted for Barack Obama, helping push him over the top.
In the future, some smart, engaging Hispanic Democrat like Castro could be elected governor of Texas. The Los Angeles Times and the Economist have written stories that have prominently mentioned Castro as a future leader of the coming Hispanic majority. He’s appeared on Fox, MSNBC, and ABC, where on Good Morning America Diane Sawyer mispronounced his name, calling him “ Joo-lee-un” instead of “Hoo-lee- ahn.” In December Castro traveled to the White House for a jobs summit with business leaders and Cabinet officials. An hour or so into the meeting, President Obama entered the room.
“I thought you were on staff, maybe an intern,” said Obama, ribbing Castro. “Are you really a mayor?”
“San Antonio, Texas,” Castro shot back, taking no guff.
“Just kidding,” said Obama, who knows a thing or two about what it’s like to be representative of demographic change. “I know exactly who you are.”
In late January, eight months after he was elected mayor, Castro stood at the lectern in a ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel packed with nine hundred business and community leaders, a chamber of commerce crowd of mostly Anglos and many Republicans. “I believe that 2010 marks the beginning of the decade of San Antonio,” said Castro. “This is the decade that we will emerge as an economic powerhouse across the nation and across the world.”
Over the clatter of cutlery, Castro laid out his audacious vision for his administration: to create 20,000 new jobs in 2010, go to war against