An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream by Julián Castro.
Julián Castro's book An Unlikely Journey will be available Oct. 16 Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The newly published autobiography of Julián Castro, San Antonio native son and American politician, is by definition a work in progress. After all, the former three-term San Antonio mayor and U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration just celebrated his 44th birthday with twin brother Joaquín, a congressman representing Texas’ 20th Congressional district that includes half the city of San Antonio.

This book about Julián – and Joaquín – shows their life trajectories are, literally, twinned. As Julián noted at last week’s TribFest in Austin in a conversation with Texas Tribune Editor Emily Ramshaw, he emerged into the world one minute before Joaquín. Watching the Castros over the passage of time – I’ve known them since their days at Jefferson High School – not even a minute of time seems to have separated them and their aspirations and ambitions.

Readers of An Unlikely Journey, which will be available Oct. 16, should recognize from the first page of this thin volume that the book really is Volume I of a story that cannot yet be completely told, with the promise of long careers and lives as public servants surely in store for both Castros.

The story Julián tells with authenticity is that he and his brother are proof the American Dream is neither dead nor a cliché. It’s a story that bears retelling at a time when the country remains so deeply divided after decades of partisan rancor over comprehensive immigration reform.

There are other important family members in the Castro story. One is Mamo, the twins’ maternal grandmother, born Victoriana Castro in 1914 in northern Mexico, separated from her own family in the throes of the Mexican revolution and deposited as a toddler with a new family on San Antonio’s West Side. Julián writes with great affection of the woman who was like a second mother to the twins, an immigrant who, to the day she died, still felt the pain of her forced uprooting.

Mother Rosie is the other central figure in the Castro story of a childhood spent on the West Side and both brothers being accepted as undergraduates at Stanford and then at Harvard Law School. Today, Rosie is widely recognized as a civil rights pioneer in San Antonio, a single mother who persevered to gain her own higher education and become politically active. Her accomplishments as a younger woman went largely unrecognized in the 1960s and ’70s when Mexican-American women attracted little attention and even less credit as community leaders.

Rosie Castro stands for a photograph at Barrio Barrista.
Rosie Castro Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

I learned a lot about Rosie while reading An Unlikely Journey, so in that respect, Julián uses his own story to share the stories of other family members who never had their own moment in the limelight.

I also learned more about Jesse Guzmán, whom Julián introduced in the narrative as “a married man with five children. He became my father.” Jesse was the son of an alcoholic father, a one-time migrant farm worker from Lytle outside San Antonio, and also a first-generation Mexican-American descended from immigrants who fled the Mexican revolution.

Jesse married early, attended San Antonio College, and was building his first family by the time he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. He returned to San Antonio to teach in public schools and became politically active in the community.

Rosie and Jesse became acquainted through their activism. Their relationship soon became more, and in September 1974 Rosie gave birth to premature identical twins. Prize money Mamo had won in a community cooking contest was used to pay the maternity bill.

Jesse was still married, so the twins took their mother’s name, Castro. Within a decade, he would leave Rosie. At that age, the Castro twins hardly comprehended they were the second of two families. Yet from that point on, Rosie and Mamo, mother and grandmother, would rear them.

Money was always tight; that was an understatement. Castro said he did not undergo a physical examination by a doctor from the time he was a child until 2016, when he was being vetted as a potential vice presidential running mate with Hillary Clinton.

One personal memory underscores for me how much the Castro twins depended on scholarships, grants, and financial aid to attend college. I was the deputy managing editor of the now-defunct San Antonio Light in 1992 when a collect call came into the newsroom from the Castro twins in their Stanford dorm. I took the call.

The newspaper had recently launched a subscription service website, one of the Hearst’s first efforts in Texas to begin making the transition from print to the web. This was still the age of dial-up internet access when most people had a fax number rather than an email address on their business cards.

“My brother Joaquín and I need to keep up with everything going on in San Antonio, especially politics, and we can’t do it if we have to pay the subscription fee,” Julián told me.

“It’s only $11 a month,” I remember saying, although I can’t vouch for the exact cost.

“We don’t have $11,” Julián replied.

“We don’t have any money,” I heard Joaquín add in the background.

From left: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) comment on the 2016 Texas Democratic State Convention. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (left) and U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) comment on the 2016 Texas Democratic State Convention. Credit: Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

I still remember the guilt I felt after that conversation. Our nascent business model was preventing these two promising young men from staying in touch with their hometown. I also remember thinking, not for the last time, that operating a news site behind a paywall, a term not yet in usage, was a failing proposition.

A quick conversation with the publisher, George Irish, led to a waiver for the Castro twins, and I was able to call them back with good news. They were able to access the Light website from then on at no charge. It was an early lesson for me in their persuasiveness and prescient maturity.

The epilogue to An Unlikely Journey is one of the best inside accounts of the vice presidential candidate vetting process I’ve read. The process is more than of passing interest because Julián presents such an unblemished record in his professional and personal life. That matters more than ever now, or should, as he tests the national interest in the coming presidential primaries and caucuses.

Is he running? He hedged his bets at TribFest, and readers won’t find a definitive answer in the book, either. But, of course, he will run if voters will have him.

Critics already mark him as too young and inexperienced to emerge as a serious candidate, but the same pundits mark former Vice President Joseph Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), as members of the old guard, unlikely to re-energize the Democratic Party, still punch-drunk by Hillary Clinton’s upset loss to Donald Trump.

I was one journalist who wanted Castro to serve out his four full terms as mayor. He was one of the youngest mayors ever elected in San Antonio, yet he transformed the city with SA2020, the Decade of Downtown, and Pre-K 4 SA. Without Castro there probably would be no Rivard Report. There’s no reason to count him out now, in my view, even on a much bigger stage.

Outgoing Mayor Julián Castro stands with his wife Erica while daughter Carina tests out the mayoral chair. Photo by Scott Ball.
Outgoing Mayor Julián Castro stands with his wife Erica while daughter Carina tests out the mayoral chair in July 2014. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

I’ll give Julián and his book one other plug: He wrote it. Many political autobiographies are ghost-written by journalists-for-hire, with “author” quotes sprinkled here and there. This book is written entirely in Julian’s voice. Reading it feels like an extended conversation with him at a lunch table at Rosario’s.

Whatever your politics, Julián and his brother Joaquín are two of San Antonio’s real success stories. Not taking anything away from Mamo or Rosie, of course.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.