HE CAN’T, TO SAVE HIS life, remember the words to the poem.
“God, I used to know this. Obviously, ‘I am Joaquin,’” begins Joaquin, his untidy right eyebrow perpetually arched; dark, elongated eyes scanning nothingness for a clue. It is a sunny San Antonio day, a good day, I decide, for reciting poetry over breakfast and a linoleum table at Jim’s Restaurant in the northwest part of town. But Joaquin is stuck, utterly so. “I used to know the first four lines!” Pause. “ ‘Lost in a world of confusion,’ something, something …”
“God!” he laments finally, flashing his Joaquin Castro smile now—a wide, infectious one that starts at the corners of his mouth and bursts into fullness without warning. “Now you’re gonna write that I don’t know ‘I Am Joaquin.’”
The 1967 Chicano movement poem by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, a standard Chicano Studies 101 reading assignment—which, I’ll grant, I can recite only after looking it up on the Internet, but it has been seven years since I took the class—begins like this:
I am Joaquin,
lost in a world of confusion,
caught up in a whirl of a
confused by the rules,
scorned by attitudes,
suppressed by manipulation,
and destroyed by modern society.
have lost the economic battle
the struggle of cultural survival.
I must choose
the paradox of
victory of the spirit,
despite physical hunger,
to exist in the grasp
of American social neurosis,
sterilization of the soul
and a full stomach.
It seems ironic—at least melodramatic—to have Joaquin Castro recite this poem today, which is really the reason I pressure him into doing it. Truth is, I want to witness the incongruity of this prim, fashionable, smooth-talking, middle-class Mexican American fretting over cultural assimilation and grieving his alienation from gringo society. The guy graduated from Stanford and Harvard. He’s vying for a seat in the Texas Legislature. He had, until the sobering tediousness of corporate legal work hit him like a brick, an extremely lucrative job, one that he’s replaced by opening up his own legal practice with a high school friend and his brother, Julián—a rising politician himself, who sits on the San Antonio City Council. At the surface, the intersection of Joaquin trying to recite the story of his tormented namesake seems out of place, the perfect anachronism. And so I watch delightedly.
But as odd as it appears, it also makes perfect sense, and this too I know: Joaquin’s mother, Rosie Castro, was the chair of the Bexar County Raza Unida party and helping out with a Diez y Seis de Septiembre menudo cookoff in 1974 when the labor pains struck and she ended up at the hospital delivering two teeny, premature, identical baby boys. The first twin got named by his father, the cookoff conspirator and a fellow Chicano activist: Julián it would be. And the one who popped out one minute later Rosie christened Joaquin, after the epic poem.
Those were the days, days Rosie Castro remembers well, when San Antonio’s Mexican Americans—which is to say the city’s ethnic majority—had little if any access to power because the place was run by an Anglo business establishment that handpicked the city’s leaders, mayor included. They were taxed, yes, but the services their money paid for always seemed to end up on the fast-growing north side of town, not the west or the south, where the Mexican Americans lived, not the east, where blacks have traditionally made their homes. Inspired by the ideology of the national civil rights and anti-war movements of the sixties, as well as by the work of La Raza Unida, a flourishing but ultimately short-lived third-party movement, Rosie and her kind wanted neighborhoods to have a direct voice in matters that affected them. “Barrio representation” they called it.
And so they mobilized, organized rallies, registered voters, and ran for office—sometimes in droves, just to make a statement. A firebrand who could step up to the podium and incite a crowd “in real hell-raiser fashion,” as one contemporary described her, 23-year-old Rosie herself ran for the city council in 1971 on a slate called the Committee for Barrio Betterment. She finished second among four candidates in the primary for Place 3. None of the slate’s candidates won, yet their election results helped lawyers with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund ( MALDEF) convince the U.S. Justice Department that, if San Antonio council members were elected from individual districts instead of citywide, Mexican Americans in San Antonio would have chosen some of their own.
Two life-altering things happened because of Rosie Castro’s engagements in those heady days. First, she had the twins, on Mexican Independence Day. Then, facing federal pressure in 1977, San Antonio voted to shift from electing council members at-large to a single-member system, forever changing the racial makeup of municipal leadership and making it possible for a future generation to achieve what she had not.
Rosie had uttered some prophetic words when she lost the election in 1971: “We’ll be back,” she told the San Antonio Light. And exactly thirty years later, she was. In 2001, just one year out of law school (on Cinco de Mayo, mind you), 26-year-old Julián Castro became the youngest city councilman in San Antonio history, soundly defeating five challengers with 59 percent of the vote. Friends and family had watched Julián’s political ambitions blossom in college and felt certain that he would run, especially after he began raising seed money among law school friends at Harvard. It was destined to be, one could almost say, considering that Rosie had raised her two boys in the world of politics and activism and had showed them, over and over, the importance of serving their community. “When Julián was installed, it was just such an incredible thing to be there because for years we had been struggling to be there,” Rosie says. “There was so much hurt associated with being on the outside. And I don’t mean personal hurt, but a whole group