The circumstances very much drove me. Because of the conditions that I saw, because of the poor salary that my mother [Victoria] made as a maid. I could see that our folks were working hard, many times outside in the heat. No matter how hard they worked and no matter how many jobs they might have, they never got anywhere. There were policies that were keeping Latinos from being able to reach our potential. Those policies came from the City Council.
Were these the issues in your 1971 race for City Council?
Yes, we felt progress within the city was always on the backs of the Latino and African American communities.
After you lost that race, you told a reporter, “We’ll be back.” What was it like to see Julián win a seat on that very council 30 years later?
It was just an incredible feeling, almost a feeling of you can’t believe it, because in my generation we had fought against those who were in power, and now here my son is ready to take the seat of power.
You used to take your sons to political meetings and organizing events. What lessons or model were you trying to set for them?
I was trying to do a few things. One, I wanted to make sure that they would always be voters, so they would come to the voting box with me. I was trying to demystify the idea of voting and also trying to make sure that they understood that a good citizen votes. But also I felt that it was important for them to start to understand issues of equity and equality. I wanted to make sure that they understood community, that we belong to a community, and then as citizens we have to be ready to provide good things for that community. We have to be able to look at problems and propose solutions.
So much has changed for Latinos in terms of respect and opportunities in this country. Julián and Joaquin attended the best schools, and they have risen to political prominence. Yet when you look at ongoing disparities in wealth, and when you listen to the rhetoric surrounding immigration and the border, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. How do you assess where Latinos and America are today?
We’ve made a lot of strides. And then three years ago I started to feel that there was a real reversal in how Latinos were viewed in this country. That started with the current president. The minute he came down that staircase and talked about rapists and murderers, it set a tone, and I knew that we were going to have hell to pay for the next few years — and we have. It reminds me a great deal of the ’60s and ’70s. Something that was underground has risen up with this president, and he has, I think, created a backwards movement. The kind of thing that we saw in the massacre in El Paso is very frightening, and I attribute [that to] the fact that we have a leader of the United States who has used words in a way that has inspired people who are sick or people who are racist to really be allowed to hate not just Latinos but Muslims and Native Americans and Jewish people and African Americans. That reminds me a great deal of my early struggles.
Why do you think Julián would be a good president?
One of the things that I’ve been most proud of is that he is respectful of other people. He takes into consideration the needs of others, and he looks at problems and finds numerous ways to solve them. He’s a problem-solver. And I would say that he’s the kind of person that can bring people together because he has respect, and maybe, you know, as a minority, because you have respect for everyone else, because you have been able to understand the pain that other groups go through, you’re able to relate and to bring folks together in a way that can overcome the kind of hatred that we’re seeing right now.
Why do you think he isn’t doing better in the polls?
One of the things that he has not had is the kind of money that some of the other candidates brought with them. The senators, they were able to bring millions of dollars, and others had a chest full of money, if you will, that they could carry over. And Julián did not have that. I think that there’s also the role that we see the media play, where minorities kind of are looked at in a different standard. When he first started, for example, I’ll just give you some tiny examples, and I don’t think I’m nitpicking, but for example, when he first started, some of the media would refer to him as “Julián Castro.” Never [former Housing and Urban Development] “Secretary Castro,” never [the former San Antonio] “mayor.” There was no respect, if you will. It’s just the way that he’s talked about sometimes makes you feel like they just don’t get it, you know, that they have not been around minorities enough to be able to have a sense for — we can also create, we can also lead.
Is there anything he should do differently?
I think he needs to stay the course because when people meet him, they really relate to him. When they meet him one-on-one — but that doesn’t come across in the media. I mean, you know, he can go to five places in Iowa, and nobody says anything. And Pete [Buttigieg] goes to five places in Iowa, and they had followed him at every five. But I think if [Julián] stays the course, we’ll see. Especially within the next two debates. [This interview was conducted before the September Democratic debate.] I think that Americans will have a better chance to see what he brings to the table.
I’ve heard it said that you have or you had a more fiery political style, you were more of an activist.
The times were different, and we had to speak up in ways that, you know — we were doing marches, we were doing different kinds of things. So I think that’s why people say, “Oh, you know, she was a hell-raiser.” Yeah, I spoke out. I see them speaking out, but in a different way. It’s not necessarily the ’60s way.
I think of your mother, Victoria — she immigrates at 7 as an orphan — then you have your career in education and activism. And now one of Victoria’s grandsons is in Congress, and another has served in the Cabinet and is running for president. It’s an amazing trajectory.
You know, I hope that my [late] mother is able to see all that my sons have accomplished because she was the person who took care of them and gave them a lot of their values, too. It’s hard to think that she wasn’t here to see them graduate and things. It’s amazing. It’s the story of America.
This interview has been edited and condensed. David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dmontyjr.