Mr. Castro Goes to Washington

A behind-the-scenes account of the big votes, dashed hopes, tough choices, and real accomplishments of a freshman lawmaker’s first year in Congress.
A "DREAMers Welcome" sign greets visitors to Castro's D.C. office, in the Cannon House Office Building.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

One year ago I was sworn in as a United States congressman. Representing Texas’s Twentieth District, I was the successor to a South Texas legacy and part of the most diverse freshman class in American history. We came to Washington to change things, certain that we could do better than the do-nothing Congress that preceded us. We would take on big issues and finally find agreement on things like immigration reform, which had been stuck in partisan gridlock for a generation. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. By the end of the year, the 113th Congress was one of the most unpopular in history. But through the frenzy of tough votes, committee hearings, media hoopla, policy stalemates, and lots and lots of talking, I learned a great deal about our legislative branch. I learned that Congress is a place with more heart than courage; there are more good souls in Washington than brave ones. I learned that the whole is not always the sum of its parts, that what you put in doesn’t always match what you get out. All 535 of us can be individually busy—we routinely work twelve-hour days—yet together we often wind up producing very little. That’s because gridlock isn’t just a result of a bunch of people who can’t agree on anything, it’s a result of the customs and traditions that enable those people to cause dysfunction. And yet despite all that, I learned that when it comes to finding meaning in that kind of mix, hope and faith lean on each other, and there’s a reason to keep going. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let me start at the beginning, which actually comes before the beginning. 

I. The Campaign
Around five p.m. on the day after Thanksgiving in 2011, my cellphone rang. Stirred from a nap, I saw that it was Charlie Gonzalez, the congressman representing San Antonio’s main congressional district, the Twentieth, and the son of Henry B. Gonzalez, an icon in South Texas politics who had held the same seat for nineteen terms. For a second I thought about not answering, going back to sleep and returning Charlie’s call later. If I had, I’m not sure I’d be in Congress today. 

Five months earlier, I had decided to run for one of the state’s four new congressional seats. The Thirty-fifth District was an hourglass-shaped district spanning six counties between San Antonio and Austin along Interstate 35. It would draw nearly half its constituency from San Antonio, including a large part of the West Side, where I grew up. It was the only new minority district created by the redistricting map drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011, even though minorities had accounted for 89 percent of the population growth in Texas between 2000 and 2010. This was part of why the map had been instantly challenged in court by several civil rights groups. Not only did it neglect minority growth, but it was also aimed squarely at Lloyd Doggett, one of Texas’s two remaining white congressional Democrats. 

Back in 2003, a mid-decade redistricting scheme masterminded by “Washington Tom” DeLay and executed by “Texas Tom” Craddick had already laid to rest most of the other white congressional Democrats. Lloyd, who had been in Congress for sixteen years, would now have to run in District 35 and face a set of mostly new voters. His previous district, the Twenty-fifth, had been a true Southern anomaly: centered around Travis County, it was both majority white and also majority Democrat. Houston’s Gene Green, at that time the only other white Texas congressional Democrat, is from an overwhelmingly Hispanic area. The Voting Rights Act arguably allowed Republicans to mess with Lloyd but not Gene. Meanwhile, Travis County was at risk of losing any Democratic representation in Congress, as District 25 morphed into an overly Republican jurisdiction stretching from Austin up to Fort Worth. 

I’d been in the state legislature for a decade at that point. I believed I had something to contribute at the national level, particularly in the areas of education and health care, but I had never seriously considered running for Congress before since my home district was District 20, which had been represented by the Gonzalez family for more than fifty years. Henry B. Gonzalez first came to office in a special election during the Camelot years of President Kennedy. He was known as a man of principle; everyone could tell you the story about that time he punched a man out at Earl Abel’s restaurant for calling him a communist. He stood up for himself and for the little guy, no small thing for someone who came of age when signs reading “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed” still hung outside some Texas establishments. Henry B. represented San Antonio for almost 38 years, before his failing health forced him into retirement. Charlie, the third of Henry’s eight children, succeeded his father in 1999. By 2011, Charlie had made his own mark, leading the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in its battles over immigration, redistricting, and voting rights. 

I could never run against that legacy, but the creation of a new district encompassing parts of San Antonio meant I could still represent my hometown in Congress. 

Not that the race against Lloyd was going to be an easy one. Primaries are the family feuds of politics. Small differences get blown up into big deals. The contrast between our profiles fueled the race: Hispanic versus white, new blood versus experience, San Antonio versus Austin. By November 2011, Lloyd was accusing me of being a Republican stooge complicit in cheating Austin out of its congressional seat, and I was painting him as an ineffective lawmaker who felt entitled to be in Congress. It was going to be a long race.

Fortunately, on the day before Thanksgiving in 2011, the U.S. District Court ruled that the Legislature’s maps violated the Voting Rights Act and restored Lloyd’s district while retaining the new Thirty-fifth. We’d each have a district to campaign in. For the first time since June, I was able to relax. I would get to run for the new seat without having to challenge a longtime congressman. So after the holiday, I did some Black Friday shopping at the outlet malls in San Marcos, then came back home and sank into a much-needed nap. A little while later the phone rang.

“Hey, Joaquin. This is Charlie.”

“Hey, Charlie. How are things?”

“Good. Listen, I called to let you know that I’m not going to run for reelection …”

Had I not answered the phone, there’s no telling whom Charlie’s next call would have been to. But I did, and by the end of the night, I had withdrawn from District 35 to run in District 20. And it’s a good thing too: three months later, a federal district court redrew congressional district boundaries, putting Lloyd back into the Thirty-fifth (which he now represents). Charlie’s call ended up sparing me a difficult primary fight.

Election Day 2012 marked a start and a finish: I could start representing the people of San Antonio in Washington and end the juggled lifestyles of a state legislator and lawyer. Either one could easily be a full-time job, but for ten years, I had tried to do both. Making a living as a lawyer and doing my job as a legislator sometimes proved difficult. Most clients don’t like it when you tell them you need to take five months off to go to Austin. One year I taught a class at St. Mary’s University law school at eight in the morning every weekday and then rushed up to Austin for the ten o’clock start of session. 

As a state legislator, I had worked with Republicans and Democrats to pass a number of bills, including some related to higher education and juvenile justice; I’d created what would become San Antonio’s largest book drive and literacy campaign. But the tea party wave of 2010 had changed things at the state capitol. The new Republican supermajority swiftly cut education funding by $5 billion and passed voter ID and sonogram laws. Meanwhile, the daily grind of litigation, a routine of early-morning hearings before district court judges disgruntled by the responsibility of resolving the “he said, she said” of divorce disputes, was no longer enjoyable. The feeling that I should probably do something else overtook me one day as I waited to begin a court hearing in Medina County. Outside the courtroom sat a man and a woman with their attorneys, trying to reach a divorce agreement. In sniping voices the couple agreed on who should walk away with what until someone brought up the George Foreman grill. “No, girl, don’t give him the grill!” advised the woman’s friend. 

“Man, what am I doing here?” I thought. After ten years I was ready for a change. It was time to focus on one thing.

II. Arrival in Washington
As January 2013 approached, I prepared for my new life shuttling between Texas and Washington, D.C. First of all, I needed a place to live. The cost of housing in Washington is notoriously high. Unable to find a good deal right away, I rented a six-by-eight room in a basement apartment from Solomon Ortiz Jr., a friend and former state representative I’d served with in the Legislature. After a few months I found a 515-square-foot apartment in a five-story building converted from a convent to condominiums eight years earlier. It had one bedroom and one bath and cost almost $100,000 more than my 2,500-square-foot home in San Antonio. At least it was only two blocks from work. 

Across from the Capitol sit three buildings named after former speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives—Cannon, Longworth, and Rayburn. These are the offices of members of the lower chamber. I ended up in Cannon. At the House office lottery I’d drawn 24 out of 70, saving me from the building’s dreaded fifth floor, known for its steel storage cages and small spaces. Getting into any building in the Capitol complex requires clearing security. On the first day of session I was handed a packet of information that included a quarter-size lapel pin. The pin would get me into each building without having to go through security every time and onto the House floor to cast my votes.

It would also serve as a subtle marker—for better or worse—to anyone who bothered to notice. Washington is an industry town with a full cast of supporting characters. Few big American cities revolve around a single industry the way that Washington does—with the possible exception of Las Vegas—and it has its own idiosyncracies. For instance, the city’s pace is extremely brisk. I walk fast. Throughout school I can remember only one person—Pat Shields, a tall, long-haired libertarian who went to the same college and law school that I did—who naturally walked faster. Washington was the first place where it was common for me to be passed by someone walking at an even quicker pace.

I was grateful to see some familiar freshman faces that had also made the trek. Of the eight new Texas members of Congress, four of us had served together in the Legislature, including Marc Veasey, Pete Gallego, and Randy Weber. Among the senior Democrats, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Gene Green, Henry Cuellar, and Lloyd Doggett had made the same jump from the Legislature to the U.S. House of Representatives. They advised us to pace ourselves—don’t accept every invitation, join every caucus, jump into every policy debate—lest we risk spreading ourselves too thin. 

Adjusting to any new lifestyle takes time. For many lawmakers, this is exacerbated by the fact that they’re separated from their families when Congress is in session. When I was elected, my girlfriend, Anna Flores, and I had been together for more than two years. During the campaign we had talked seriously about getting engaged, but we’d shared a nagging worry about what effect my new schedule would have on our relationship. When you marry a member of Congress, you are accepting a domestic situation that will often leave you alone and lonely. I’d be home every chance I could, but I also knew that even when Congress was in recess, the obligations of politics—out-of-town speeches, media interviews, and fund-raising—could keep me away. We considered having Anna move to Washington with me, except that Congress was only scheduled to be in session 135 days in 2013. Ultimately we decided it would be better for her to stay in San Antonio. These are the kinds of calculations almost every member of Congress must make.  

The U.S. House of Representatives is designed for fighting. That had become clear the day I arrived for orientation at a hotel a few blocks from the Capitol. Two separate tables by the entryway were laid out with packets of information for incoming legislators. The materials were the same, but one table was for Democrats, the other for Republicans. Even a task as basic as checking someone in to a hotel room and providing simple introductory advice was a task beyond sharing.

The jockeying for committees had started even before the elections were over. Each party devises its own rules for deciding which members can sit on which committees. The standing rule among Democrats is that no freshman can serve on three of the four “exclusive” committees (exclusive committees generally take up the weightiest, more time-consuming matters, and members are typically not allowed to serve on other committees): Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, and Ways and Means. Even some nonexclusive ones, such as Education and the Workforce, were filled up by more-senior members when it came time to give freshmen their assignments. When it was my turn, I was called in for a meeting with Nancy Pelosi to go over my wish list. My first request was for Armed Services, because of the big role the military plays in San Antonio. My second request was for either Foreign Affairs or Budget. I got Armed Services and Foreign Affairs. 

Serving in the minority party in the lower chamber is a familiar role for me. In 2003 I’d arrived at the Texas House of Representatives at age 28 after a historic triumph—for Republicans. That session marked the first time since the 1870’s in which Republicans would control both chambers of the Texas Legislature and was the start of an ongoing Republican dominance in Texas. And yet even during the years of Speaker Tom Craddick’s iron-fisted rule, the state House operated with a tradition of bipartisanship—built on the right amount of appeasement—intended to keep the legislative wheels well greased. 

The rules and customs of the Texas House of Representatives help the majority party stay in power through an array of carrots and sticks that discourage strong dissent by the minority party. To start with, the speaker of the Texas House makes all committee assignments, and to get buy-in from the minority party for his legislative agenda, he generally chooses a dozen or so members from its caucus to chair committees. This provides a stable of loyal lieutenants, some of whom serve as the speaker’s eyes and ears within the opposing caucus and provide the extra numbers needed to win close policy votes. These chairmen are also more likely to pass local bills and other legislation. The ability to pass one’s local bills is used as a carrot to encourage members of the minority party to go along with the agenda of the majority. There’s also a stick. Chairs from the minority party who work too hard to change the majority and overthrow the speaker may get “busted”—i.e., relieved of their duties for disloyalty. 

This system is described as bipartisan because it is. Democrats do get to chair committees and pass bills. (Though the significance of the committee assignments awarded to the minority party is, of course, debatable; last fall, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who follows a similar practice in the state Senate, remarked to a tea party audience that no important committees are chaired by Democrats.) The system has helped spare Texas from extremes like Prop 187 or SB 1070, the anti-immigrant legislation that galvanized Hispanics in California and Arizona against Republicans. On the other hand, it discourages Democratic legislators from rocking the boat, calling out Republicans by name when they do go too far, and this partly explains why Democrats have not won a statewide office in Texas in twenty years. 

The rules and customs of the U.S. House of Representatives do not prop up the majority so gracefully. Blunt force is required. Members of the minority party chair nothing. Votes are often down party lines. In the Senate, a filibuster, blue slip, or hold can prevent a bill or presidential nominee from being voted upon. (In November the rule was relaxed, but that has not completely resolved the obstruction.) The culprit of obstruction in the House is the Hastert Rule, an informal practice first used by Speaker Newt Gingrich during the Contract With America years. The Hastert Rule dictates that no bill shall come to the floor of the House for a vote of the body unless it already has the support of a majority of the majority. In the current Republican-led House of Representatives, adhering to the Hastert Rule means that Speaker John Boehner essentially permits 25 percent of the body to control 100 percent of the agenda.  

Unlike the Legislature, where lawmakers spend hours together in the chamber listening to floor debate and hanging out in the members’ lounge, Republicans and Democrats in Congress spend very little time together. We don’t sit next to one another in the chamber or in committee; we have separate lounges off the House floor. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was in a very different body than the one I’d left behind back in Austin. 

III. The 113th Congress
I had expected three issues to take up most of our attention in the 113th Congress: gun control, fiscal matters, and immigration reform. But by the time I arrived in Washington, things had stalled. Even a move as popular as requiring universal background checks to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from acquiring weapons was going nowhere, while fights over the debt ceiling and the budget showed little hope for bipartisan agreement. Immigration reform presented the best chance to do something big for the country. 

It had been 27 years since the last major reform of the nation’s immigration system, and nearly everyone—Republican and Democrat alike—agreed that the system was broken. Still reeling after losing 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 presidential election, the GOP was eager to adjust its image with a new, more-diverse generation of voters. For some Republicans it became a matter of atonement with Hispanics after all the talk during the GOP primary of self-deportation, electrified fences, and alligator-moat border security. President Obama and the Democrats were also eager to finally make good on promises to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The president had used his executive authority during the campaign to allow deferred action for DREAMers, undocumented young people brought to the United States by their parents at an early age. But real reform would take an act of Congress. 

Even though I was a freshman, I knew I wanted to play a role in this debate. The issue of immigration is very personal for me. The only grandparent I knew, my maternal grandmother, Victoria Castro, came to America from Coahuila, Mexico, in 1922 around age six with her younger sister, Trinidad. They were orphans. My grandmother used to tell us the story of how her father had died during the Mexican Revolution and her mother had died not long after from tuberculosis. Throughout her life, she stayed mad at some family member, an aunt perhaps, who had taken her away from her mother’s hospital bed before she could say goodbye. When her mom died, the closest relatives who could take her in were in Texas; she crossed the border at Eagle Pass and traveled north to San Antonio. She grew up in a large household and never got past the fourth grade, dropping out to work in order to support the family. She scrubbed floors and washed clothes for the Armstrongs in Alamo Heights and other well-to-do families throughout the North Side. She waited tables and cooked at Doña Maria, a restaurant off Culebra Road on the West Side.

When I think about the struggles of undocumented immigrants in this country—people who are considered dim because their English isn’t so good, men standing on street corners hoping to be picked up for work—I still see my grandmother. When I hear about the evil of immigrants who just want to freeload off America, I think about how hard she worked to send her daughter to college and how hard her daughter worked to send her two sons to college and how hard my brother and I work every day to live up to her legacy.  

My grandmother’s story isn’t unique. I have heard similar stories told by descendants of the German, Irish, Chinese, and many other immigrants who came to America seeking a better life. Over decades, as stories like my grandmother’s became more and more common, attitudes toward immigration shifted. As 2013 began, the push for reform was garnering support from people across the political spectrum. Traditional immigrant allies on the left, such as social advocacy groups and the Catholic Church, were joined by evangelical Christians and business groups on the right. As summer approached it looked as if things were coming together. In June President Obama held a press conference at the White House, where the heads of the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce stood near one another advocating for comprehensive immigration reform.  

Yet getting legislation through Congress would be tough. The Senate passed a comprehensive bill, but the House was a different story. The Judiciary Committee, where the bill would be heard, included some of the Republicans most opposed to immigration reform. More than 25 Republicans had declared support for comprehensive reform, but if Speaker Boehner stuck to the Hastert Rule, the whole thing would go nowhere. Earlier in the year he had ignored the rule, allowing a bipartisan group (made up mostly of Democrats) to pass a relief bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy, reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and extend the debt ceiling temporarily. Would he drop the Hastert Rule again to allow a vote on immigration reform? As spring passed into summer and summer headed toward fall, there was no answer.  

In August I was invited to speak at the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. Fifty years earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. had stood on the same steps and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, which defined a generation’s quest for equality under the law in America. It was very meaningful to me. Inspired by Dr. King, my parents (especially my mother) had spent much of the sixties and seventies working for Mexican American civil rights in Texas. 

Making my way up to the Lincoln Memorial, I passed the staging area where Presidents Clinton and Carter would wait before ascending by elevator to the platform for their speeches. As I looked out between the pillars of the memorial, I noticed a huge teleprompter running the script, and the weight of the moment struck me. A few days before, I had found out I’d be the only Texas lawmaker and the youngest elected official to address the gathering. I hoped to express the gratitude of a post–civil rights generation of Americans. Baby boomers often wonder what kind of country they’ll leave behind once they and the Greatest Generation are gone. I wanted to convey that everything would be okay—that our generation would uphold the values that have made America the country that it is.

IV. The Shutdown
During the summer and early fall, issues around national security and war united Republicans and Democrats in a new way. One of the few bills guaranteed to pass Congress each year is the National Defense Authorization Act. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I was able to work language into the bill related to military base closures, sexual assault, and medical and nonprofit research with the Department of Defense. But the vote on whether to authorize a military strike on Syria was going to be the year’s most difficult. Previously, President Obama had drawn a red line, suggesting that the United States would take military action if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad deployed chemical weapons against Syrian rebels. Reports, though still controversial, concluded that he had. 

Legislators from both parties were all over the board going into the week of the vote. Two-hundred-something members were undecided—or claimed to be—a few days before the vote, a high number for an issue where the subject matter is so well known. The traditional lines of division between Republicans and Democrats were completely blurred—both tea party Republicans and Congressional Black Caucus members offered similar rationales for staying out of Syria. 

The ball was in Congress’s court: we could stand by and watch people get gassed or take a nation tired of fighting into another war. Facing a vote like that triggers a kind of dread. On my way back to Washington that week, I sat in the San Antonio airport with the feeling you might get from being called into the doctor’s office for a follow-up visit to find out whether you have a grave illness.  

The public was angry at the prospect of going to war again so soon. Some still resented being sold bad information to justify going into Iraq, and many feared the same could be happening this time. Several hundred emails, letters, and phone calls came in to my office alone from people of every political stripe and walk of life warning against war. A few military spouses wrote me on Facebook pleading against it. Things got very serious when an active-duty soldier called my office in San Antonio and made a thinly veiled threat against the president’s life. Just as the situation was about to overheat, Russia offered a deal to secure Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile. 

As the public outcry over Syria began to subside, the nation became gripped by the Great Disaster of 2013, the government shutdown. It started in Texas. In August Ted Cruz went on a “Defund Obamacare” tour to rally support for a hard-line position against any new budget that included funding for the Affordable Care Act. Eighty out of 232 Republicans in the House of Representatives, the tea party faction, signed a letter urging Speaker Boehner to nix any budget deal that contained funding for the program. But the speaker had already come to an agreement with Senate majority leader Harry Reid to permit it. Then he changed his mind. 

As the September 30 deadline to reach a budget deal passed, the nation’s blood pressure began to rise. In San Antonio some 20,000 civilian military employees faced furlough. Many had already been furloughed because of sequestration. Angry constituents called my office, fearful that the shutdown would force them to start missing mortgage payments. 

In person, at least, most people without a particular ax to grind are deferential to an elected official, perhaps out of respect for the office, if not the person who occupies it. Not during the shutdown. Wherever I went, people were ready to express their frustration. One rainy afternoon I’d forgotten my umbrella and ran the few blocks from work to my place. As I pulled open the front door, I could see a man holding the elevator.

“Going up?” he asked politely.

“Yes, thank you,” I said. “How are you?”

“Fine,” he said, squinting at my wet overcoat. “What’s that?” he finally asked.

I knew exactly what he meant, but I dreaded revealing the meaning of the red-and-gold lapel pin. “It’s a congressional pin,” I said.

His expression changed instantly. “Oh, I’m not happy with you,” he said angrily. “In fact, I’m the unhappiest I’ve ever been.”

“Yeah, me too.”

The bell chimed and the doors opened.

“Have a good day, sir,” I called.

He fixed me with a look. “I will,” he said, “no thanks to you!”

According to the polls, that man may as well have been speaking for the whole country. It’s estimated that the shutdown cost the American economy $24 billion and led to the lowest congressional approval rating ever recorded. As Congress came to a standstill, I started to envy my brother, Julián, who as the mayor of San Antonio could actually enact policy and do good things for our hometown. For a brief while, Washington no longer seemed like the place to do big things. It seemed like the place to do nothing. 

V. Bringing It All Back Home
Throughout the year a popular explanation for Republicans’ unwillingness to move on immigration was the lack of diversity in their gerrymandered congressional districts. Simply put, most don’t have enough Hispanics for the issue to really matter to their reelections. A few of the less tactful Republicans seemed to even go out of their way to express disdain for immigrants. In July Steve King, a tea party Republican from Iowa, compared DREAMers to drug mules with “calves the size of cantaloupes.” King’s comments sparked blowback, prompting Speaker Boehner to address the issue at a press conference. The speaker deemed King’s comments “deeply offensive and wrong” and reassured the public that the comments did not “reflect the values of the American people, or the Republican Party.”

The Democratic caricature of the speaker is that he’s an overly tan, overly emotional cat-herder who has lost control of his flock, but in person, he comes across as approachable and down-to-earth, and you can see how he earned the trust of his colleagues and became their leader. On a day not too long after Boehner’s political body check of Steve King for his immigration comments, the speaker was milling around the aisle walkway in the middle section of the House floor where the Democratic and Republican territories meet. Another Texas Democrat and I were standing a few feet away, and as the speaker passed us we thanked him for denouncing King’s offensive comments. He slowed his stride and then paused to turn toward us. “What an asshole,” he said. My thoughts exactly, Mr. Speaker. 

King himself does not represent many Hispanics; his district is nearly 96 percent white. I know that there are many places in America like that, places where the number of people with brown skin makes them easy to miss, where the gardeners disappear between rush hours to the “bad” part of town and the construction workers toil invisibly in the burning sun, hoping the boss will actually pay what he said he would. There are places like that. But there aren’t many in Texas. In Texas the faces of immigration are inescapable. 

During the second week of the government shutdown, I went to get a haircut. I was back home for 36 hours, so I drove out on Huebner Road to Rios Golden Cut, a family-owned chain of barbershops I’d been going to since I was a kid (a couple of years ago, the price for a basic cut finally went up from the $4.95 I’d paid for years to $10.95). But it was Sunday, and Rios was closed. So I drove a few blocks toward a strip mall looking for some other place that was open. Set between a Dollar Tree and an alteration shop was a storefront with a plastic sign that read “J Cuts” in black letters. The sign was the kind you might put up for a grand opening or to advertise a limited-time offer—something temporary. But it had clearly been up for a while. The scrawny drawstrings that tethered it to the building were sagged and uneven, giving it a crooked, unprofessional appearance.

The proprietor of the place was Elisabeth Gonzales, originally from Honduras. As she cut my hair, she told me how she’d come to the United States as a 19-year-old almost 25 years ago, crossing the Rio Grande on a raft of inner tubes. She cleaned houses and businesses when she first arrived. Broken promises by employers racked up; one job that promised $100 per week turned into $100 per month. She learned to speak English while training to cut hair and worked for 11 years at Supercuts before taking the leap to open her own salon. I imagined her perfecting the language by struggling to understand the requests from West Side teenagers for fade haircuts with a zero or one clip or from the girls who would come in for perms the Friday before a Saturday quinceañera.

As it turned out, that plastic sign was not supposed to be there anymore. Ms. Gonzales had paid a vendor $2,000 for a company sign. He took the money and never put up the sign. Shortly after that a woman selling advertising presented her with a contract for two months of free advertising that eventually led to collection calls and bills totaling $779 per month.

I wondered how she kept the faith, whether those low moments ever led her to question her decision to come here in the first place. I asked whether she’d become a citizen. “Yes, I came here to work, for the American dream.”

After the Great Disaster of 2013 ended, I went back to J Cuts for another trim. As I arrived, Ms. Gonzales was finishing up with someone, so she waved at me to come sit down. I glanced across the room and noticed a young blond woman working on the hair of another young blond woman. They spoke in English while I tried to keep up with Ms. Gonzales in Spanish. I asked her if her family had plans to dress up for Halloween, but she said they were Christian and did not celebrate it.  

As the small talk moved to more-serious topics, my Spanish skills were exhausted and I switched to English. She had just about finished with my hair when she asked me about the prospects for immigration reform. The question had come up many times over the past year—at the grocery store, Valero, the airport. Just as I had in so many media interviews, I had always projected optimism. “I believe we’ll pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013,” I’d say. And I believed that. But after the shutdown and the we’ll-get-to-it-later approach of the Republican majority, I had grown tired of living on the sunny side in the face of obstruction. I was ready to speak my mind.

Before I could unload, this Christian small-business owner spoke her mind. “If they don’t pass it,” she said, “they won’t get our vote.” 

As the year drew to a close, I became resigned to the fact that all the big things I had hoped we’d do in Washington would have to wait until 2014. Still, the year wasn’t a total bust. My office helped recover more than $1.1 million in veterans’ and Social Security benefits for constituents, including many who had been waiting years to receive them. I began work on higher education and patent legislation. And at the end of the year, Congress finally passed a bipartisan budget. But the biggest things happened back home. During the year, Anna and I married, and by December, we were eagerly awaiting the birth of our daughter. As I prepared to become a dad, I stayed busy assembling a bassinet, shopping for a Diaper Genie, and scheduling a whooping cough vaccination. Finally, on December 15, we welcomed Andrea Elena Castro into our lives.  

I did not go to Washington just to stare people down. But there we were, 535 people mostly just staring at one another, with the media providing a sound track of commentary and speculation to fill the dead air. In the end, 2013 would be remembered as the least-productive year in the history of the American Congress. On the bad days, I wonder what good it does to be there. Indifference to politics comes easily to many, so I imagine what it would be like to be one of those people. What would it be like if I didn’t care, if I hadn’t grown up going to marches and campaign rallies since the age of three, if I hadn’t lain awake at night and listened to my parents talking about the injustice of the schools in our part of town getting less money. I was not programmed to go into politics. I was taught to care. I still believe that government matters in people’s lives, not when it’s big or small but when it’s purposeful. It can help build what I think of as the infrastructure of opportunity that enables people to pursue their American dreams. And so, as a new year began, I boarded a plane to Washington to get back to work.

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