Chicano Activist Sees Dream Live On In Her Sons

Rosie Castro was a Mexican-American civil rights activist during the 1970s. She passed down her passion for change to her children: Texas State Representative Joaquin Castro and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. For Hispanic Heritage Month, Rosie Castro speaks with host Michel Martin about the Chicano movement and raising her twin sons.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a program called Deferred Action could help hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants avoid deportation, but that means they actually have to get documentation of their years living under the radar, and it's just as complicated as it sounds. We'll talk more about that in a few minutes.

But first though, we've been celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month and we are wrapping up the celebration by speaking to a woman who's been influential in expanding civil rights for Mexican-Americans. Rosie Castro was an activist during the 1970s, but now she might be even more widely known as the mother of two rising political stars.

Joaquin Castro is a Texas state representative hoping to win a congressional seat this November, and Julian Castro is the mayor of San Antonio. He was the keynote speaker at this year's Democratic National Convention, the first Latino to serve in that role. Here's a little bit of his speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVENTION SPEECH)

JULIAN CASTRO: 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. And my mother fought hard for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone.

MARTIN: And Julian's mother Rosie is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ROSIE CASTRO: Thank you, Michel, for the invitation.

MARTIN: I know a lot of people saw you when you were introduced during the convention and, you know, it had to have been an incredible moment, but can you just describe what it was like to see your son introduce your other son to give the keynote address at that convention? Can you just even describe what was going through your mind?

CASTRO: I have been to state conventions, but never to the national convention, so first of all, just the sheer amount of people that were there, the warmness of everyone, the diversity, and to hear Julian and Joaquin and to listen to Julian's words - I had not been able to hear the final speech, but it was really thrilling for us and I was very grateful to God to have the chance to be there, to be alive to see it and very thrilled that I thought he did an excellent job portraying what the aspirations are among our community and what our hopes are for this nation.

MARTIN: Now, your son talked a little bit in his speech about your family story. He, you know, talked about, you know, your mom coming to this country as a young girl herself in the '20s. Could you fill in a little bit for us? I mean whatever you would care to share. I mean you grew up in a pretty segregated neighborhood, as I understand it, in San Antonio. I'm just sort of wondering when things occurred to you that made you say, you know, that isn't right.

CASTRO: My mother was a maid and she worked in a very wealthy part of the city of San Antonio. The contrast was stark between the housing, the transportation, the infrastructure, streets and drainage, especially, between that side of town and where we lived.

It wasn't hard to figure out that there was a difference and then you had to figure out - why was there a difference? Of course as I grew older I could understand that especially Latinos were not represented at the public policy table. So your concerns, your issues are often not in the mix, if you will, and so I quickly learned and believed that in America if you wanted to change things, the political process was the way that you did that.

MARTIN: How did you get involved in organizing and activism? Do you remember?

CASTRO: I think part of it came from the fact that I'm a single child. One of the first things I had to do - I was not allowed to go to neighbors' houses, so - and I often spent time alone growing up because both my mother and her cousin worked during the day. So I would have to entice the neighborhood children to come over and play. That was kind of the start of organizing, if you will, but in high school we didn't have a lot of social events, things that you could join, clubs and all that.

What we did have was a youth club that was a Catholic youth club that was citywide, and so in order to join that you had to have a club in your school and I was able to get folks together and help organize that youth club and became the president of that youth club.

Then Our Lady of the Lake University was a real opportunity because I was fortunate enough to have a great mentor, Dr. Margaret Kramer, who was a psychology teacher, and she introduced me to the Democratic Party, to many of the local elected officials.

At Our Lady of the Lake, if you wanted to have a Young Democrats, there had to be a Young Republican, so we helped the Young Republicans organize and then we organized a lot larger Young Democrats club and I became the president of that.

MARTIN: Well, that was very fair-minded of you. Did you ever think of running for office yourself?

CASTRO: Actually, I did run for office, in 1971. I ran with the ticket, the Barrio Betterment, and there were two females, myself and Gloria Cabrera, who was an attorney, and then two males, Mario Compean and Bill Benavides. We ran as a ticket at a time when there were no single member districts in San Antonio and really very few Latinos were ever elected, so we kind of challenged the establishment because we felt that bond money, the infrastructure in our communities, all of that were not meeting the needs of our folks.

MARTIN: What did you learn from that experience?

CASTRO: You can't just sit and be a victim, that if you want things to change, you have to take action into your own hands and go forward and organize people and knock on the doors and do the hard work that it takes to win.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Rosie Castro. She is a longtime activist. She is also the mother of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Texas State Representative Joaquin Castro.

You know, people have said that San Antonio is to Latinos what Atlanta, Selma and Birmingham are to African-Americans, kind of a place where the thinkers got together and also kind of a location for organizing. What was it that you thought you were going after at the time and is it different from what you actually helped to bring into being?

CASTRO: We did not have people at the public policy, both in the elected officials. We didn't have people on TV and radio. We didn't have people anywhere. We were just basically trying to get the kind of human rights and civil rights that should be afforded in this country to all people. There's need for more change, particularly if you look today at the way immigrants are viewed, the fear of immigrants and the fear - also another statistic that the Pew came out with that still, today, people look at Latinos and think that we are all immigrants, as opposed to the fact that many of us have been born here.

MARTIN: What would you want people to draw from your story?

CASTRO: I would hope that people realize that our story is very similar to many, many Latinos and others who have come to this - whose families have come to this country, and the first generation may not have done as well financially, but they set the road of opportunity, not only for their own families but for their neighbors as well.

We also look to the future. I have a granddaughter. Only one, unfortunately, but I have a granddaughter and I would like to see her grow up in a time when people don't fear each other, where people look at each other as persons who will help each other to reach their highest aspirations.

MARTIN: Rosie Castro is a former activist. She's currently interim dean of student affairs at Palo Alto College in Texas and she is the mother of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Texas State Representative Joaquin Castro and she was kind enough to join us from San Antonio.

Rosie Castro, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for taking the time.

CASTRO: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

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