California Latinos Remain Disempowered, and Julián Castro Could Change That (OPINION)

Aug 22, 2019
11:24 AM

Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Full disclosure: I was a CHCI fellow in Rep. Joaquín Castro’s congressional office from January to May, an opportunity I sought out for the same reason I write this opinion piece: I believe in the Castro brothers.

Once, California was a red state. From Orange County to Sacramento, this was Nixon and Reagan country. But today California stands as the bluest of the blue states. At every level of elected office in California, Democrats hold unprecedented power. Any expert will tell you that Latinos are a big reason why. But a decade later, it’s fair to ask: do California Latinos have much to show for it?

Over 20 years after Prop 187, California Latinos aren’t doing well in political representation. We’re California’s single largest ethnic group, representing almost 40% of the population, yet represent only 27 out of 120 seats in the State Legislature. At the statewide level, there hasn’t ever been a Latino elected to the top jobs of Senator or Governor, unless of course you count when California was Mexico.

This lack of political empowerment trickles down to Latino Californians’ everyday lives. From underperforming in our schools, to being exploited in our fields, to struggling to afford a home, California Latinos disproportionately face adversity. By nearly every measure, Latino Californians have it worse than our white counterparts. Yet there rarely is sufficient political will to prioritize these concerns. It’s a vicious circle. Nobody cares about Latinos because we don’t vote, and Latinos don’t vote because nobody cares.

But this cycle the old assumptions of low engagement and low turnout Latinos in California could be broken. There’s one of our own running for President. I speak of course of Secretary Julián Castro—the only Latino in the crowded primary field. For Latino children around the country who’ve gotten used to seeing kids who look like them in cages, Julián Castro offers a chance to see a face like theirs running for the highest office in the land.

That’s why it’s frankly disappointing to not see more enthusiasm from California’s Latino leaders for his candidacy. Sure, he’s Texan. But I’d be willing to bet he has more in common with Latino boys who grew up in Delano or Boyle Heights than native Californians who grew up in Marin County or Beverly Hills. He’s the grandson of an Mexican immigrant who cleaned houses, a kid from the barrio, who nevertheless went on to Stanford and Harvard, but then came back, and set out to make his community better. Isn’t that exactly what we want for kids from our communities?

The significance of a candidate of color running unapologetically as a champion for his community can’t be overstated. Castro, like a growing number of American Latinos, may not speak fluent Spanish, but you can tell he never forgets who he is. Latino political power is a story that began in the fields and barrios. Julián Castro is writing the next chapter of that story, and constantly expresses his reverence for the struggle he has inherited. He’s living the mantra my dad always told me: No te olvides de donde vienes.

This is reflected in a policy lens too: Castro has been the policy leader on just about every issue that is most important to Latinos. Look at the plans he’s put forth: education, police brutality, housing, and immigration. In the wake of the El Paso massacre, Castro has been the clearest voice, connecting the anti-Latino terrorist attack with the President’s racist rhetoric.

Californians should also note he was the first candidate to visit to the Central Valley and that he was the first to mention the killing of Stephon Clarke in Sacramento. Beyond symbolic representation, every Latino is gaining for having a Latino in the race, as every other campaign and candidate is forced to take our concerns seriously. Castro’s immigration plan, which was the first and boldest in the field, has forced every Democratic candidate to address the moral crisis unfolding at our border.

Of course, it’s going to be an uphill battle for Castro. It’s no secret that fundraising has been a challenge, an occupational hazard if your political base is working-class Mexican-Americans in the same kind of neighborhood you grew up in. There’s been little media coverage; I personally blame a national press corps that’s even less diverse than our politics. In light of these realities the safe thing for California’s Latino leaders would be to wait, and then endorse someone with lots of money, doting media coverage, and universal name recognition.

But the Latino community didn’t get as far as we have by playing it safe. Everything we have was taken through bold action in the face of outright discrimination or callous indifference. How many of us can relate to being written off or discounted in some way? I bet Julián Castro is used to that, and I know how it feels too. But I also know that if the Latino community in California got behind him, we could set him on the path to the White House.

But why should I vote for the guy just because he’s Latino, I can already here some readers asking. If I haven’t sold you on the candidate or his policies, consider the trickle down effect. What Barack Obama did for the African-American vote in 2008, Julián Castro could do for the Latino vote in 2020. Imagine what California politics would look like if Latinos mobilized to our full extent. Right now, national Democrats mostly treat California like an ATM. But what if every candidate running in California had to win over working-class Latino families in the Central Valley, and not just the big donors of San Francisco and the Hollywood Hills? It’s a possibility worth taking a risk for.

This is the bottom line: if Julián Castro goes out and runs unapologetically as a Latino while proposing the specific policy solutions that so many in our community have fought for —but fails miserably— then what? Will the Democratic Party that won California on the strength of our votes ever take our voices seriously? Julián Castro represents the possibility that one day the powers that be in California will have no choice but to really listen to our community. It would be a vergüenza for California Latinos if we didn’t help Castro, and ourselves.


Antonio De Loera-Brust is a Mexican-American writer and filmmaker from Davis, California. He has a degree in film production and Chicana/o studies from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He was a Joseph A. O’Hare S.J. fellow at America Magazine, based in New York City. He is a U.S. politics and international soccer junkie. He loves tacos, history, and the outdoors, and writes about diversity, farmworkers, and politics. You can follow him @AntonioDeLoeraB.