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District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo still remembers how different San Antonio looked to her childhood self, as she went from one side of the railroad tracks in her West Side neighborhood to the other side, where her elementary school was located.
“Crossing those train tracks, between Collins Garden Elementary School and all the way up to Guadalupe [Street], … whether it be heavier police presence [or] architecture, there was a drastic contrast in class or economic investment,” she said.
Castillo, 29, has since refined her childhood observations with a master’s degree in history and three years as a community organizer with the Texas Organizing Project, or TOP, in and around the Westside neighborhoods where she grew up. That included advocating for residents of the Alazán-Apache Courts, the historic public housing project that was to be replaced with a mixed-income development that housing advocates said would have contained too few units within reach of the court’s poorest residents.
Residents and activists claimed a victory earlier this year after the San Antonio Housing Authority abandoned its plans in the face of the sustained opposition.
Castillo’s experience empowering residents and her research into the people then running for District 5’s open seat pushed her to run. With the support of TOP and an exhaustive door-knocking campaign, she led a field of 10 candidates before defeating Rudy Lopez in a June runoff.
Supporters say Castillo’s familiarity with her home district, her understanding of urban history, and her community organizing experience will make her a powerful advocate for the most vulnerable members of the community. Her organizing background orients her to govern from the bottom up rather than the top down, fellow activists said.
Castillo’s brother Joey said he was a little surprised when his sister decided to run for City Council because of her reserved personality, but said the role of an elected official fit perfectly with her problem-solving attitude.
“She had been waiting around to see who would run,” he said. “I guess she wasn’t satisfied with the people who she heard were going to run and she decided to stick around.”
The third of four siblings, Castillo served as the family mediator, her brother said, overseeing arguments and finding solutions to her brother and sisters’ problems
The family was working class; mother Teresa “Terry” Castillo worked as a substitute teacher while their father, Joe Castillo, was an electrician. The couple also owned an ice cream truck, a small business the children helped with.
Her brother remembered Teri as a youngster, negotiating with her parents over items in the family budget. If they explained they couldn’t afford a certain item, Castillo would accept it at first but ponder the situation, he said.
“She’d come back like a few hours later or the following day and be like, ‘OK, so I thought about it and if we stopped spending money here, maybe we can have money for this toy,'” Joey Castillo said.
Teri Castillo finished high school and earned her associate’s degree at San Antonio College, courtesy of an early-college program backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at the University of Texas at San Antonio, completing the latter in 2019. She focused on urban history, examining how social, political, economic, and cultural forces affect cities and their residents.
Castillo has stayed near her roots. She lives with husband Thomas Dean near the edge of the Avenida Guadalupe neighborhood but considers herself a resident of the Historic West Side neighborhood, and is a member of that neighborhood association.
Eyeing tax credits for housing projects
Castillo campaigned on the promise to make sure “our public money works for us.” For her, that means prioritizing the district’s poorest residents by seeking more affordable housing for people who make 30% or less of the area median income, or $22,230 for a family of four. She has vowed to scrutinize any projects that receive public funding or tax abatements.
And so while she was pleased that SAHA ultimately listened to residents’ concerns over the proposed mixed-income replacement for the Alazán-Apache Courts, she also believes a similar mixed-income project being built on a vacant lot across the street that will benefit from tax credits does not meet the community’s interests.
“[That] didn’t honor the Guadalupe Community Plan, which community stakeholders worked several years on to create,” Castillo said.
Castillo declined to offer an example of what she would consider a worthy development project in District 5, saying she’d like to do further research. She withheld assessment of the high-profile Lone Star Brewery redevelopment project, citing the need to sit down with community stakeholders.
Castillo has pledged to scrutinize the public money doled out to developers throughout the city, not just in her district. Her commitment to the city’s poorest residents tracks with how friends and colleagues describe her leadership style. Her background as an organizer has made community input a cornerstone of her governing philosophy.
‘She’s got a mandate’
Castillo became a TOP volunteer in 2018. During her time there, she worked with the health justice and housing justice team, work that included rallying residents to protest the proposed demolition and redevelopment of Alazán-Apache.
“I think she was compelled by the stories she heard — hardworking, Westside residents who had a neglectful housing authority and were overrun with bugs, constant threat of evictions, all kinds of plumbing issues,” said friend Alex Birnel, who has worked with Castillo as an organizer. They met in a history course at UTSA.
“She’s got a mandate from people who she knows are being done wrong and deserve better.”
The Castillo family always paid attention to national politics, Joey Castillo said, but it wasn’t until his sister’s college studies began that she began pointing her family’s attention to local-level issues, as well as the historical context of the Westside neighborhood they lived in.
Kirsten Gardner, an associate professor of history at UTSA, taught Teri Castillo during her undergraduate years. She remembers a student passionate about her community and dedicated to understanding women’s role in history, especially women of color and Latinas. Though Castillo considered pursuing a doctoral degree in history, serving as a city councilwoman is a great use of her education, Gardner said.
“I think she always saw history as a tool for understanding the present,” Gardner said. “But I also think she became increasingly convinced that her role as an activist, as a politician, as a community organizer would be more impactful than staying in academia.”
Jerry Gonzalez, an associate professor of history who taught Castillo both as an undergraduate and a master’s candidate at UTSA, said it was a “privilege” to work with her and watch her grow. He said the now-councilwoman started her academic career with the curiosity and drive that pushed her to ask the right questions when studying history.
“She had great ideas but she didn’t have the tools to support her arguments [in the beginning],” Gonzalez said. “She didn’t have the historical vision that she developed eventually.”
That historical vision should give her a solid foundation to lead District 5, Gonzalez added. “When she has a question and when it’s important to her, she’s going to put her mind and her effort to it. She’ll get it done.”
Castillo did hone her skills as a historian while studying at UTSA, Gonzalez said. But beyond her dedication to finding the evidence to back up her arguments, she also is “a lovely person.”
TOP organizer Joleen Garcia agreed. She met Castillo a few years ago when the two were door-knocking on the South Side to speak with residents about health care issues. She was struck by how earnest Castillo was and how much research she did. Castillo also always kept other people’s stories at the forefront of her organizing work, Garcia said; instead of positioning herself as a voice for the voiceless, Castillo amplified others.
“That’s a unique level of emotional intelligence,” Garcia said. “That’s the kind of person she is and to this day, I feel she’s been consistently that same person.”