Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'The unlikely journey that brought me here': Weighing the Julian Castro effect

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivers his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 4, 2012
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivers his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 4, 2012
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images News

It's been a week of immigrant stories tied to the 2012 election, starting with the many related by GOP politicos (along with candidate Mitt Romney's son) at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week. But the one related last night by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina has so far topped them all, in part because of where he placed it in his convention keynote address.

Castro dedicated a large chunk of the beginning of his keynote to the story of his grandmother, who arrived in the U.S. as an illiterate orphan in the early 1920s and made her way in her adopted country. A highlight:

The unlikely journey that brought me here tonight began many miles from this podium. My brother Joaquin and I grew up with my mother Rosie and my grandmother Victoria. My grandmother was an orphan. As a young girl, she had to leave her home in Mexico and move to San Antonio, where some relatives had agreed to take her in.

She never made it past the fourth grade. She had to drop out and start working to help her family. My grandmother spent her whole life working as a maid, a cook and a babysitter, barely scraping by, but still working hard to give my mother, her only child, a chance in life, so that my mother could give my brother and me an even better one.

...By the time my brother and I came along, this incredible woman had taught herself to read and write in both Spanish and English. I can still see her in the room that Joaquin and I shared with her, reading her Agatha Christie novels late into the night.

Castro's family story itself isn't unusual, but the prominence it received is telling, especially as the Obama administration works to hold onto its edge with Latino voters while defending a tough record on immigration enforcement that has led to record deportations.

What effect might Castro have? Here are a few takes so far.

On the CNN website, contributor and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette wrote warmly of Castro's speech, especially nuggets like, "My grandmother never owned a house. She cleaned other people's houses so she could afford to rent her own. But she saw her daughter become the first in her family to graduate from college." Does it help Obama's cause with Latinos and immigrant communities in general? Yes, he writes, but there's still skepticism over Obama's enforcement record, which several young immigrants were protesting outside the convention yesterday when they were arrested (authorities have said they won't be deported):

The good news for the Obama campaign is that Latinos will not soon forget the emotional words Castro delivered Tuesday night. The bad news is they won't forget the president's dreadful immigration record, which made the speech so necessary.

And that's the bittersweet part. Inside the arena, Latinos heard a beautiful story that reminded us how far we've come. Outside the arena, we witnessed an ugly reality that tells us how far we still have to go.

The Associated Press had a good analysis comparing the differences between Latino voters via Castro, a descendant of Mexican immigrants, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the son of Cuban immigrants. The piece points out subtleties too often missed when discussing the far-from-monolithic "Latino vote." For decades, Cubans and Mexicans have been subject to different immigration policies, with Cubans able to benefit from policies rooted in the Cold War, even if they arrive illegally. The fact that Castro is Mexican American, a group that represents the bulk of Latino voters, is important to his appeal. From the piece:
Although they often are lumped together as Hispanics, Rubio and Castro are emblematic of acute political distinctions between Mexican-Americans, who are the largest Latino group in the U.S., and Cuban-Americans, who are the most politically active. Despite their shared language, these two constituencies have different histories in the United States and are subjected to distinctions in immigration policy that go easier on Cuban immigrants.

...Immigration is the greatest source of division between the groups, with Cubans having an easier and faster route to legal residency and citizenship. Early migrations of Cubans included upper- and middle-class families, but people who came to the U.S. during the 1980s Mariel boatlift were not as well-off.

Cuban-Americans began embracing the GOP in the early 1960s after the Bay of Pigs invasion, which failed to topple Fidel Castro.

Meanwhile, Julian Castro's moment in the spotlight (in ways reminiscent of then-Sen. Barack Obama's 2004 DNC keynote moment) is drawing speculation about where he goes next. Aaron Blake writes in the Washington Post that the 37-year-old Castro's path to the national stage as a Latino political leader from Texas, as well as that of his state representative twin brother, Joaquin Castro, might not be so easy as it would seem:
Texas hasn’t elected a Democratic governor or senator in more than two decades (the last was Gov. Ann Richards in 1990), and the last Democrats elected lieutenant governor and attorney general came in 1994. The latter two positions are considered the top springboards to either governor or senator.

But things are changing quickly in Texas, with the Latino population accounting for two-thirds of the state’s huge growth over the past decade. The state no longer features a white majority, and if the Latino population continues to grow as quickly as it is growing now (and continues to lean heavily Democratic), the state could morph from red to purple.

In any case, if you missed the speech, the transcript is worth reading. Among other things, Castro slams GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney on the basis of class ("He just has no idea how good he's had it"). It's a fairly common theme in elections, but its resonance is different when Castro's background weighs in. Boston's WBUR has posted a transcript here.