When he arrived at a forum at the White House, Barack Obama mistook Julián Castro – the mayor of San Antonio, Texas and the keynote speaker at this week’s Democratic National Convention (DNC) – for a member of his staff.
“I thought he was an intern,” the president said. Obama was, of course, joking. “I know who you are,” he reassured the 37-year-old.
Given the parallels between the lives of Castro and Obama, it would seem impossible for Obama not to have noticed the two-term mayor. Like the president, Castro earned a degree from Harvard Law School. Like Obama, Castro is the son of a single mother. And like Obama, some of Castro’s relationships can be seen as a challenge to mainstream political thought.
Obama’s personal connection with Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, and his more tangential connection with William Ayers, a 1960s radical with whom Obama served on two foundation boards, have drawn vehement criticism from some conservatives.
For Castro, however, it is his mother – a leading figure of Texas’ La Raza Unida party, a nationalist Mexican-American movement that seeks equal rights for Latinos, who could become a lightning rod.
For Julian and Joaquin, both sons of Texas, statements like the ones their mother made in an interview with the New York Times Magazine, attacking one of the greatest sources of San Antonio pride – the Alamo and the battle for Texan independence – could prove problematic in their ability to sell themselves as Mexican-Americans.
Rosie Castro said “the ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were a bunch of drunks and crooks and slaveholding imperialists who conquered land that didn’t belong to them”, potentially a major contributing factor to conservative criticisms of her two sons.
On September 4, the similarities between the two politicians will be kicked into overdrive as Castro becomes the first Latino to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention thrust the little-known Illinois senator into the national spotlight. Now, eight years later, some Democrats are hoping this speech will have a similar impact on Castro’s career.
Castro was born in San Antonio in 1974, and both Julián and his idential twin brother Joaquín graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Law School. Julián unashamedly cites controversial affirmative action policies, which take race into consideration during the admissions process, for his acceptance into Stanford.”
I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action because I’ve seen it work in my own life”, he told the New York Times Magazine in 2010. In 2001, Castro won a seat on the San Antonio City Council, and in 2009 was elected mayor of the heavily Latino city, the seventh most populous city in the country. He was re-elected in 2011 with 82 per cent of the vote.
Samuel Filler, who worked on Castro’s unsucessful 2005 mayoral bid said that from the onset “it was clear that [Julian] was committed to making the city better by being inclusive of all groups that grouped lived in [San Antonio], especially lower class Latinos”.
Filler says Castro’s strength, and part of what led him to later victory, was his ability to draw support from the diverse population of the city – the heavily Latino neighbourhoods in the south and west, the black population in the east, alongside the financial backing of the middle class in the northwest.
The relatability of Castro’s story for the nation’s nearly 50 million Latinos may be the key to his popularity.
With an unprecedented number of deportations under his administration’s watch – 396,000 in 2010, almost seven per cent higher than the previous peak under George W Bush – Obama is hoping Castro can provide a much-needed boost to his image among Latinos.
Speaking to The Texas Tribune, Castro said: “The president has taken the initiative to ensure that the immigration system deals with folks humanely and on a case-by-case basis… from that perspective, he certainly gets it and he understands the importance of keeping families together.”
But Denise Lopez, who served as a regional field director for Nevada Senator Harry Reid’s 2010 re-election campaign and the child of Mexican immigrants herself, saw something else entirely in the administration’s record-setting number of deportations.
For the majority of Latinos in the US, what Obama actually did “was separate more families than any other president before him”, Lopez told Al Jazeera.
Democrats will be looking to Castro, whom Stephen Colbert referred to as “a young spry thing”, to counter that narrative. Already, Castro has pointed to an executive order signed by Obama in June entitled “Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” as an important step illustrating that the president understands the personal effects of immigration laws.