Barack Obama

Julian Castro, the 'Latino Barack Obama'

Julian Castro was the first Hispanic keynote speaker at a Democratic convention - now many tip him to follow in the president's footsteps

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 3:57am


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When a little-known state senator in Illinois went to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July 2004 proclaiming "the audacity of hope", it propelled one Barack Obama into the national consciousness and, four short years later, into the White House.

Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, took the stage at this year's convention as one of the youngest politicians to be granted the honour of keynote speaker - at 37 he is five years younger than Obama was in 2004.

More significantly, he was the first Latino to address the Democratic convention in this way, breaking one more glass ceiling for this rapidly rising demographic force in US politics.

The telegenic mayor, billed as a "Latino Barack Obama in the making", told his family's personal rags-to-riches story, the embodiment of the American dream.

Ahead of the speech - the most important of his political life - he said there were a few butterflies. "Of course, I'm a bit nervous but I know that when I walk up there I'll be ready for it," Castro said.

In the end, his performance brought adulation from the party faithful and complimentary comparisons to Obama.

But Castro played down the similarities between himself and Obama, whose 2004 keynote speech to the Democratic convention was seen as an important springboard for his presidential ambitions.

"I would not put myself in the same league as President Obama," he said. "He has somewhat unique talents and abilities.

"I'm a mayor of a city. I'll try to be myself tonight and do a good job."

Castro, a second-generation Mexican-American, whose mother was born, like him, in San Antonio, said it was flattering to be talked about as potentially the first Hispanic president.

"I'm confident that that will happen in time, but it's not going to be me," he said. "That's not what I'm aiming for. But I do think the United States is ready.

"I'll be in San Antonio for the next several years, if the voters will have me, and if I do a good job I'll look around and see what else there is available for me," he said.

Despite protesting to the contrary, Castro has several similarities with Obama.

Both were raised by single mothers and studied law at Harvard and both have huge electoral potential as flag-bearers of large ethnic constituencies.

Castro credited the hard work of his grandmother, who went to the US from Mexico as an orphan at the age of six, and his mother, the first in her family to graduate from college, with giving him and his twin brother Joaquin the chance to attend Stanford and Harvard Law School. Joaquin, a Texas state legislator now representing San Antonio, is poised to win election to Congress in November.

Some would say the mayor has had a swift and charmed ascent. But his mother - whose own political activism on behalf of Hispanics when her boys were young drew hate mail and, she says, the attention of the Justice Department - knows that her sons' rise is evidence of Hispanics' growing and long-overdue political power.

"They called us militant, but our way of doing things was through political ends," Rosie Castro said of her struggle for Mexican-American rights in the 1970s. "Not through guns, not through overthrowing the government, but through the political process."

A civil rights activist and single parent from the time the twins were eight, she dragged the boys to rallies and often argued politics with them.

Julian Castro says he knows his mother's generation faced different burdens than the Hispanics he's trying to connect with today, and he credits her civil rights work with laying the ground work for his political success.

"It was very warranted at that time," the mayor said. "You had a huge dropout rate. You had signs that said, 'No Mexicans or dogs allowed.' It was a movement born out of both aspiration and frustration.

"It was very understandable. And ultimately, I believe, helped move this country forward."

The White House drew parallels between Obama's story and that of the young Democratic mayor from the South, who ticks several of the right boxes to be considered a very interesting prospect as a presidential candidate.

His story "reflects the president's story and the American story - if you work hard, play by the rules, this is the land of opportunity. You can get a fair shot and a fair shake," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Castro, who married wife Erica in 2007 and has a three-year-old daughter, Carina, speaks only a little Spanish but he dabbled a bit on Tuesday, using one phrase, "que dios los bendiga" (God bless you), as a staging post throughout the speech. First elected mayor of San Antonio in 2009 and re-elected last year with almost 83 per cent of the vote, Castro said the Latino community was "enthusiastically supportive" of Obama.

In a historic development in July, the president suspended the deportations of young illegal immigrants under 30 who went to the US before the age of 16.

"Latinos recognise that Obama has invested in education so that more Latinos can access grants and afford college," Castro said. "The Affordable Care Act has made it possible for nine million Latinos to get health care coverage. That's a huge deal."

There are 11.5 million illegal immigrants living in the US, mostly of Hispanic origin, and efforts to deal with their status have foundered over sharp political divisions.

Now Castro is at the forefront of his party's effort to attract Hispanic voters, just as his mother had laboured to register them to vote nearly 40 years ago.

"As my family story shows, Latinos have been a blessing for USA for many generations," Castro said. "The future of America depends in part on the success of the Latino community, and this opportunity is just one more signifier of that."

Though Castro, like his brother, is grounded in the Hispanic community, to define him exclusively as a Latino politician would be to make a big mistake.

For a start, he doesn't even speak fluent Spanish - he was brought up speaking English at home, studied Latin and Japanese in school and in the past few years has quietly been taking Spanish lessons.

His world view is focused around policies and public service, not ideology, and though his Spanish is ropey he is fluent in the language of business.

As mayor of San Antonio, the seventh most populous city in the US, he has seen it prosper to become the only major American city with a triple A rating from all three ratings agencies.

But he sees himself as one of a new strain of minority politicians who have "a can-do attitude and are comfortable with the business community, but are also at home in the neighbourhoods that we grew up in.

"I don't think I'm unique - I'm part of a new generation of public servant whose goal is to represent everyone. I'm very proud of my heritage, but all of us are Americans first."

Agence France-Presse, Reuters, The Guardian