Julián Castro’s American Story – The New York Times


AN UNLIKELY JOURNEY
Waking Up From My American Dream
By Julián Castro
225 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $30.

Julián Castro’s story, as he tells it, began in 1922, when his grandmother Victoriana, known to him as Mamo, crossed over the Mexico-United States border as a little girl and planted herself in this country. Mamo and her sister, María, were orphaned during the Mexican Revolution and distant relatives in San Antonio took them in. Mamo had one child, Castro’s mother, Rosie, who was the first in her family to go to college and became a civil rights activist. Later, Castro and his twin brother, Joaquín, would tread almost identical paths: from public schools in San Antonio to Stanford University, then from Harvard Law School into politics. Julián eventually served as Barack Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development. (Joaquín represents Texas’ 20th District in Congress.)

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Castro’s memoir, “An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up From My American Dream,” traces this arc, a part of which he first shared in a 2012 Democratic National Convention speech that put him on the public’s radar. Last week, he announced that he was exploring a bid for the presidency in 2020. So far, he is the only potential Latino contender.

There is much more to Mamo’s story than Castro could reasonably share in speeches. Her guardians pulled her out of school in the third grade so she could help out at home, and she entered the work force soon after. She suffered from diabetes and depression, and even attempted suicide once. Mamo “was a constant” in Castro’s life, his caregiver while his mother worked. He describes the emergence of his mother’s political activism, as well. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, she was “aware of the different levels of racism in society and felt the subtle social pressure of the times holding her back.” In college, she formed a Young Democrats club and continued doing social advocacy work after she graduated.

Castro’s own life was more privileged, though certainly not gilded. His mother made sure he and his brother got a quality education. They played tennis and excelled at academics, graduating a year early from high school. Castro shares stories of the childhood competitiveness and physical fights that marked his relationship with his brother. His own political awakening came later, in college, when he began to see the inequity in students’ paths to Stanford and started going by Julián instead of Julian. The second half of the book takes the reader through his postgraduation journey, studying at Harvard Law, running for City Council and mayor of San Antonio and, finally, being appointed to Obama’s cabinet in 2014.

There are many interesting threads in Castro’s book, but little in the way of introspection. In the first half, especially, which covers his childhood, many anecdotes seem presented for dramatic effect, and their purpose in the larger story never becomes clear. For instance, a single paragraph is dedicated to describing a relationship with a favorite teacher who was later accused of indecency with a child. Other traumas are stepped over just as quickly and without much insight. His mother seemed to struggle with alcohol, but is “somehow able to give that up for her kids.” When his parents separate, Castro writes that he, his brother and his mom were “about to become Dad’s second ‘other’ family,” but never reckons with the effect of this dynamic.

Castro is a third-generation Mexican-American, and it’s significant that the story he tells here does not begin in Mexico, where Mamo was born, but at the moment of her crossing. He emphasizes that it is “because of that long, dusty walk into the United States in 1922” that he and his brother attended Stanford. He calls his college acceptance “a collective victory, a family achievement,” but one gets the sense that Castro is deliberately telling a very American story, placing himself squarely within this country’s history and, specifically, its struggles with inequality.

His campaign’s central promise is equal education for all — his own access to quality schooling transformed his life. Yet as he writes in the latter part of his book: “I used to think that if everyone worked hard things would work out O.K. for them. But that wasn’t true anymore.” How he resolves his vision of education as an equalizer with barriers like structural racism remains unclear. He acknowledges some of his own advantages, among them a supportive mother who graduated from college, but as in the rest of the book, he stops short of confronting root issues. As such, Castro’s memoir raises more questions than answers. Does he embrace a minority and immigrant identity, or hope to “transcend” it in favor of something more vaguely universal? Does a presidential story need to start in America to be valid? And most important, has he truly woken up from the American dream of meritocracy?



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