By Jack August Jr., Guest Rogue
In 2007, then-91 year-old Raul Castro addressed a packed auditorium at the Arizona Historical Foundation’s annual Goldwater Lecture Series at Arizona State University. At the time, I served as Executive Director of the foundation, which, among other things, maintained the personal and political papers of Sen. Barry Goldwater.
Two hundred mostly conservative and arguably skeptical supporters of the legendary Arizona senator were curious to see what the former Democratic governor, judge, and ambassador had to say.
After introducing him, I sat down and watched Castro stride to the podium; he had no notes. He launched into a one-hour presentation that seemed like ten minutes, telling his life story, touching upon the role that education played in his life, his years as a “hobo” riding the rails, his undefeated professional boxing career, and his countless experiences of prejudice and adversity.
But the overarching theme in his talk was the promise that America held for all its citizens. When he finished the audience exploded in applause and stood on their feet clapping for several minutes. It was a stunning performance.
The distinguished professional career of Castro, who died last week, stood in stark contrast to the adversity inherent in his humble beginnings, which only hardened his resolve and strengthened his determination.
As Gov. Castro and I noted in our book Adversity is My Angel: The Life and Career of Raul H. Castro (Ft. Worth: TCU Press, 2009), he was born into grinding poverty and minority status on the U.S.-Mexico border but overcame those obstacles to become, among other titles, Arizona’s first, and only, Hispanic governor.
His story suggests much about the human spirit and the hope of the American Dream.
Some of his earliest memories were of his poor immigrant mother sending him into the southern Arizona desert to collect cactus fruit to feed the family. During his childhood he heard repeatedly that he would spend his life in the copper mines of southern Arizona. His childhood stood as a metaphor for Mexican and American attitudes of mutual suspicion and distrust along the border.
In the few days since his passing, I have recounted several times my favorite anecdote from the time I was able to spend with Gov. Castro. In 1926 Arizona Gov. George W. P. Hunt traveled to Douglas, where the then-ten-year-old Raul Castro lived. It was the Fourth of July and Hunt delivered a speech at the park on Tenth Street.
The children of Douglas, hearing that there would be free hamburgers, hot dogs, and soda, flocked to the park. Castro arrived with two of his friends. They stood beneath the bandstand where Hunt, the seven-time governor and legendary figure in Arizona history and politics, spoke. He was short, stocky — pushing three hundred pounds at the time — and dressed in a white suit, pith helmet, and sported his signature walrus mustache. Castro recalled that Hunt talked about the opportunity that America offered.
"Anyone can become governor of Arizona, like me," he thundered, then paused, looked down and pointed directly at Castro. "Why even one of those little bare-foot Mexican kids sitting over there could one day be governor."
Castro laughed at the memory and commented, "I didn't know what a governor was and I couldn't have cared less...I was there for the hamburgers." In 2002, the City of Douglas renamed that park on 10th Street. Today, it is known as Raul H. Castro Park.
Yet despite such a disadvantaged beginning, Castro found a way to secure a college education at Arizona State Teachers College in Flagstaff. Later he attended law school at the University of Arizona, where he graduated in the late 1940s. He then embarked on his career as a lawyer, Pima County Attorney, Superior Court Judge of Pima County, the Governor of Arizona, and American Ambassador to El Salvador, Bolivia, and Argentina.
Though Castro suffered innumerable instances of social and racial discrimination, he overcame institutional and personal prejudice to attain the livelihood he desired. His life and career serve as dual role-models, not only to Mexican-Americans but to all Americans.
As he stated in the conclusion of Adversity is My Angel, “I love this country in spite of its imperfections, blemishes, and shortcomings. Together we should constantly strive to make it better and appreciate what we have in this remarkable, hopeful, and productive land of opportunity.
"In the United States a poor immigrant Mexican child can rise as far as his mental acuity and industriousness will take him. But it takes work — not excuses — hard work. My years in public service were humbling, rewarding, and unforgettable and for that I am thankful. Thank you, America, and all of those kind people who have helped me along the way.”
Jack August Jr. is Scholar-in-Residence at the Southwest Center for History and Public Policy. Among his books are Vision in the Desert: Carl Hayden and the Hydropolitics of the Southwest, Dividing Western Waters: Mark Wilmer and Arizona v. California, and The Norton Trilogy.