Outside his Tucson home in the 1960s, a Mexican-American was doing yard work when law enforcement officers yelled at him in Spanish: “Do you have a card?” When he said no, they hollered: “Who do you work for?”
“The senorita inside,” the man shouted back, pointing toward the house — and referring to his wife. He tried to explain who he was, but they weren’t listening. Finally, he pointed them to a sign that said “Judge Castro.”
This was no illegal immigrant, no day laborer, no drug smuggler who snuck across the border. It was Raul Castro, a judge of Pima County Superior Court and former Pima County Attorney who would go on to serve as a U.S. Ambassador to three countries — El Salvador, Bolivia and Argentina — and make state history by becoming Arizona’s only Mexican-American governor.
Decades before Gov. Jan Brewer would sign Senate Bill 1070, setting off a national firestorm of criticism, boycotts and lawsuits, Castro experienced the racism and discrimination that many believe Arizona’s sweeping new immigration law will cause for Hispanic citizens today.
“I love Arizona dearly, but as a young man 50 to 70 years ago, things were difficult for me,” Castro, now 93 and living in Nogales 50 yards from the border, told the Tribune Friday during a visit to Phoenix. “I couldn’t get a teaching job or a government job. My first job was in the mining business for $2.50 an hour. If you were blond and blue-eyed, you got $5.50. These are things I’ve fought my entire life.”
Over time, Mexican-Americans in Arizona overcame many such obstacles, he said. Now, he fears that progress will be set back by the new law that makes it a state crime to be here illegally — and puts pressure on law enforcement officers to check the citizenship status of people they suspect are illegal immigrants. The law’s critics contend this will lead to racial profiling of innocent people.
“Arizona had become a wonderful state,” Castro said. “But now, all of sudden, we’ve passed this terrible law. People I know in other states, family and friends, are calling me and asking, ‘What’s wrong with Arizona?’ They think it’s a racist state.”
Castro said he met with Brewer a week before the law was passed. She told him she’s concerned about Arizona.
“I’m concerned too. This affects me,” Castro said. “It’s not like I look Irish or Norwegian or Swede.”
Late Thursday, amid growing threats of lawsuits, state legislators tweaked the law to make it clear that police, when deciding whose citizenship to question, may not use race, ethnicity or national origin as a factor.
Those changes don’t go far enough to ease Castro’s concerns. He said there is an appropriate role in immigration for state government — such as calling for more National Guard to patrol the border, or the governors of Arizona and Sonora meeting and working together as a team to resolve problems.
But enacting actual immigration law, he maintains, is the federal government’s role.
“Arizona is trying to be like an independent country,” he said. “Arizona is not a sovereign nation. It’s part of the United States of America.”
And the federal government, he said, needs to take responsibility for securing the border.
“I think everyone recognizes that it’s not right for people to jump the fence and come in illegally. The federal government has done nothing about that,” Castro said.
He added, “We have abandoned Latin America. We spend all our time in the Middle East. We need more diplomacy. The presidents of Mexico and the United States should meet more often. Mexico should improve its wage scale and working conditions so people will want to live there. Our country should make an effort to help Mexico with this.”
On Friday, Castro met with students at University Public School in Phoenix, a school he estimated to be about 85 to 90 percent Hispanic. He often gives motivational speeches at schools about overcoming adversity, and recently wrote a book, “Adversity is My Angel: The Life and Career of Raul H. Castro.”
“I told the students, ‘You can succeed. You can learn English if you get motivated,’” he said. “If you’re just a follower, you do nothing. Be a leader.”
Sometimes, Hispanic students will tell the former governor that they can’t go to college because they are poor or “just an immigrant.” His response: “You can do lots of things — mow lawns and other jobs — if you want an education bad enough.”
Born in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico, Castro and his family moved to Arizona when he was child, and he became a naturalized citizen in 1939, according to the National Governors Association website. He received an education degree from Northern Arizona University and a law degree from the University of Arizona.
Today he tries to impress upon students that they have more opportunities available to them than Mexican-Americans did when he was a young man.
“Fifty to 60 years ago, things were different. Every Hispanic I knew was digging ditches … Nobody worked in an office,” Castro said. “Education was the answer.”
But the new immigration law is giving some students doubts about their future in Arizona. “They say, ‘It’s embarrassing to walk around Phoenix and have police questioning my citizenship and my loyalty,’” he said.
Castro understands too well how they feel.
Sometime after serving as governor, he was returning to Arizona from San Diego when he was stopped by authorities and questioned for 30 minutes about his citizenship before they let him move on.
“It’s annoying to be in this country all your life, to be county attorney and judge and governor — and then be questioned by police,” Castro said.
But he tells the students that giving up and doing nothing is not the answer. Instead, he urges them to “be active, participate, be a leader, run for political office.”
Despite his own experience with discrimination and his belief that the new immigration law is unjust, Castro, who immigrated here nearly 84 years ago, still believes in his state and his country.
“The American public is a just public,” he said, “once you show them you are sincere and honest.”