A Univision poll found that millennial (ages 18-33) Latinx voters believed that Julián Castro did the best among all presidential candidates in the first Democratic primary debate. This demographic is important because nearly half of all Latinx voters in the U.S. are millennials. Castro is connecting with this emerging generation because of his shared experiences and shared convictions.
Early in the race, Castro went on Real Time with Bill Maher. In a condescending style, Maher made it apparent that he thought Castro was not a legitimate candidate and was dismissive of his policy proposals. In a later interview, Castro explained how he was able to maintain his composure in that moment.
“My honest answer to that is that part of politics is being able to eat s**t at the right moments so you can achieve a greater victory in the end” he said.
In a more recent interview with Kasie Hunt, he was asked why, as a Latino, he wasn’t fluent in Spanish. Hunt’s question was indicative of a myopia regarding Latinxs in the U.S. The question assumed all Latinxs spoke Spanish because they were recent arrivals, and disregarded the history of linguistic discrimination in the U.S.
Castro replied with aplomb, describing his family’s experience and community’s history of being punished for speaking Spanish:
“In my grandparents’ time, in my mom’s time, Spanish was looked down upon. You were punished in school if you spoke Spanish. You were not allowed to speak it. People, I think, internalized this oppression about it, and basically wanted their kids to first be able to speak English. And I think that in my family, like a lot of other families, that the residue of that, the impact of that is that there are many folks whose Spanish is not that great.”
Many Latinxs have had similar experiences with dismissive work colleagues who thought they were “unqualified diversity hires,” or have been badgered for speaking Spanish or having an accent. These experiences resonate among Latinx voters — and many others — but those experiences are translating into policy proposals. Castro has released a series of “people first” policies aimed at reforming immigration, policing, education, and housing.
As the grandson of an immigrant who was orphaned at a young age because of the chaos of the Mexican Revolution and who crossed the border in the 1920s, Castro can relate to current day Central American refugees. He has proposed to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings, establish a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized migrants and DREAMers, change the visa system, better fund immigration courts, end the 287(g) program, and end the three and 10 year exclusionary bans on reentry for unauthorized crossing.
As a child who grew up in the impoverished West Side of San Antonio — where unpaved roads and no running water was common through the 1960s — Castro understands that housing is a leverage point that affects politics, economics, health, and integration.
Castro told Texas public school teachers at a Nation Education Association 2020 presidential forum that “I know from firsthand experience the impact of growing up in segregated school districts.”
He also remembers when his financial aid package didn’t cover all his costs to Stanford University and his mom and grandmother sold tamales for weeks. In his education proposals, he wants to offer universal pre-k across the nation, close the achievement and access gaps, eliminate tuition at public and community colleges, and reform the student loan payment system.
Castro’s surge in national polls is indicative of a surging Latinx politics that has been growing in 21st century. The DREAMer movement created a broad effort that taught young people important skills in organizing and messaging. The 2016 election cycle, although it ended with Trump winning election, saw the training and placement of important Latina political operatives who now have senior positions in most Democratic presidential campaigns. The success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shown the viability of young, educated, Latinx candidates who are willing to shake up the status quo. While Castro and Ocasio-Cortez are not political facsimiles, they are offering policies informed by the experiences of their communities. All of these efforts show a community that is confident about their position and belonging in the nation, even and maybe because of, the fact that they’re being targeted.
This is an important change in Latinx politics. Historically, some Latino political groups blamed the community itself for not trying hard enough to be part of the nation. The reason for discrimination, they reasoned, was because the community was not sufficiently American. This was common until the late 1960s, when younger activists rejected the ideas of previous activists and some even rejected the idea that there was anything salvageable about the nation. It seemed for a time that Latinxs needed to subscribe to either American exceptionalism or American aversion. That might be changing.
After a rough start, the only Latino presidential candidate in the race is showing how the visibility of Latinxs in politics and society provides more than optics but indicates a growing of the imaginative dimensions of the nation. Their narratives and policies no longer place the Latinx community at the social margins. Instead they are placing themselves in the moral center.